May 182013

Wes Anderson’s short film “Hotel Chevalier” is a lean, bruised and naked tale in a Paris hotel room. Anderson shot the short with his own funds (and the actors, Natalie Portman and Jason Schwartzman, donated their time) two years prior to his feature The Darjeeling Limited but it was often screened at the same time and is referred to by many as a prologue to that feature film that followed it (as mentioned in this previous NC at the Movies entry). The two are aesthetically consistent, but that’s not surprising as most of Anderson’s films belong to the same visual palate and characters seem descended from the same family tree.


Though they were conceived separately, Anderson brought the short and feature together through their common character of Jack Whitmore.  Whitmore is precious, careful and, in his manicured construction of his hotel room a bit compulsive. In contrast, his beloved shows up with her fierce toothpick-in-mouth machismo, her velociraptor-attack dialogue (“What the fuck is going on?”), and her sudden bruised nakedness.


It is an uncomfortable film on several levels: visually there are the awkward, stagey wide shots of the room, the contrasting dolly shots and camera pans, the manicured way Jack has designed the room for his beloved’s arrival (complete with soundtrack queue on the ipod and a freshly painted painting): has he created the perfect setting for their reunion or a well designed bunker to defend himself against her impending assault? And does it matter since either would be in vain?

Then there is greater discomfort as Portman’s character arrives, asks almost mockingly “What’s this music?” and then touches all the carefully laid details of the room with further ridicule, even touching the wet painting, all as if to throw aside any attempts he had to set decorate or defend himself.


Does he love her or hate her? At this late stage they’re post woodchipper and it seems futile to sort through the bits of each. We’re given next to no back story except that she says to him “I never hurt you on purpose” and that he escaped her and seems clear when he says to her, “I will never be your friend. Ever.”


We don’t need to know more. This is the story of a man who fled, waits, then with gentle bath robe in hand shows her his view of Paris and offers her back her toothpick.  She’s only there for the night after all. It’s a perfect condensation of past and present with no future.

— R. W. Gray

May 172013


Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, here’s a practical look at the utility and felicities of  research from a former journalist and Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer, Russell Working. I met Russell years ago when he was staying the Yaddo, the art residency in Saratoga Springs. I wasn’t at Yaddo, but I live about six minutes away and am always going over there to visit (or rescue) friends. Russell won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his first book The Resurrectionists and then spent six years as a freelance reporter in the Russian Far East and the Middle East. His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope and Narrative. Of his 2006 collection The Irish Martyr (the title story won a Pushcart Prize) I wrote: The Irish Martyr is a powerful, brave and dangerous book that takes us to the borderlands where religion and geopolitics rip apart the lives of ordinary people. These are stories about torture, decapitation, rape, kidnapping and trafficking in women and babies. They are about men and women caught in the meat-grinder of history, caught between trying to survive as human beings and the vicious tools of dogma, ideology and greed. Russell Working knows the dark corners of the world, he knows the personal underside of the news stories we have become all too accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. He writes straight from the heart, with a moral indignation that is palpable.


Many years ago, I was working on a novel that involves a husband who is searching for his missing wife. In it my protagonist, Paul, goes into a morgue with a cop and a coroner to identify a body that might be hers. The question was, how to describe the morgue? No problem! I knew all about that. I had never been in a morgue, but I had seen them on TV and the movies. Good enough.

Plus, I am a fiction writer. That means I can just use my imagination, right? And unlike in journalism, nobody gets to demand a correction. So I wrote it just like on TV, the walls were lined with stainless steel drawers. The coroner pulls one open. And there’s the body, covered by a sheet.

But wait a minute. Dead bodies: it must smell bad. So I had my coroner light up a cigar to cover the odor. He offers cigars to the detective and poor Paul, who thinks he is about to see the corpse of his murdered wife.

“Smoke, gentlemen?” the coroner says.

“He smokes the good stuff,” the detective says. “Cuban seed.”


Needless to say, I never sold that novel. And as for that scene, it bogged down in the writing. It was lifeless. I was stuck. I fought my way through it, but the description never stopped smelling dead. The trouble was, I needed to report my story, in the way that a journalist might, to pick up the phone, make an appointment with a coroner, and head out to the morgue with a notebook in hand.

I needed to go to take in the sounds and smells. To interview a staff. To investigate. To research. Scribble notes. Record the interview. Look around the crypt where the bodies are kept. Did it have a high vaulted ceiling or a low one? Were there bare light bulbs or phosphorescent track lighting? Were the walls tile or plaster? Then take it all back to my computer, throw out the dross, and turn the key elements into fiction.

I was a newspaper reporter, yet I had never taken that basic step, at least for this particular scene.

Now, wait a minute, you may say. Why do we need to do this? If we’re fiction writers, don’t we get to make things up? And if the fiction is autobiographical, can’t we just rely on our own memories? We lived it, after all. What if we’re magical realists? What if my protagonist is a centaur or a flying squirrel who thinks he’s Batman? And as for creative nonfiction, aren’t many of us writing memoirs, which means the topic is subjective? Who needs research, to say nothing of shoe-leather reporting?

Well, when we write a scene, whether it is magical realism or a noir tale of murder, we strive to imagine a narrative world that is vivid and believable within the rules it agrees to play by. In one way or another, we seek to establish a sense of verisimilitude. Beyond that, we want our construction of events to seem plausible within the universe of writing. We wish to speak with authority. Reporting and hands-on research will inspire stories and suggest images and characters and the plotline itself.

When a reader takes up a book, he and the author are engaged in a joint act of creation, and he must reconstruct that world in his mind based on the details the author presents in words.

Think of the reader as Hellen Keller: she is blind and deaf and, for that matter, let us imagine that she doesn’t even have a sense of smell. All she relies on is touch: the touch of our words. We sign into her palm, telling her what is out there. She must trust us. We as authors are all she has to experience this created world. She clings to our arm, eager to know what we see and hear, forming pictures of her own within her mind. Thus she, too, participates in a joint creative act by envisioning the scenes and the characters that we sketch with words.

But when we hit a false note, Ms. Keller perceives the author behind the artifice of fiction, dressed in sweats, unshaven, unshowered, slouching in a chair with a cup of microwaved coffee, trying to think of some event to move the story along.

There are days when we all may feel we’re staring at a screen going nowhere. Perhaps these, most of all, are the days that could stand the help of reporting. The writer who thinks his job is confined to his desk at home is much more likely to trip up readers with phony descriptions or outlandish turns of plot. He yanks Ms. Keller out of the joint act of dreaming and thrusts her into the role of skeptic.

In 1989, Harpers Magazine published an essay by Tom Wolfe titled, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” a manifesto that was as bombastic and full of itself as its title. Wolfe quoted his own fiction approvingly and at length, and took it upon himself to denounce many of his contemporaries, who were angered and bewildered by his tone. The New Yorker described him as crashing a cocktail party and throwing writers around like a professional wrestler. A literary brawl ensued (always a fun thing), with some of America’s leading writers weighing in in the letters to the editor. But amid the uproar, Wolfe outlined some important lessons for writers, and I would argue that these apply both to fiction and creative non-fiction. He stated:

[The] task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage.

He goes on:

Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary. To write Elmer Gantry, the great portrait of … a corrupt evangelist … Lewis left his home in New England and moved to Kansas City. He organized Bible study groups for clergymen, delivered sermons from the pulpits of preachers on summer vacation, attended tent meetings and Chatauqua lectures and church conferences and classes at the seminaries, all the while doggedly taking notes on five-by-eight cards.

Fine, you may say. That was Tom Wolfe, the guy in the white suits and high-collared shirts. The showman. Sure, he writes novels, such as Bonfire of the Vanities, but he cut his teeth on nonfiction like The Right Stuff. Of course he would recommend playing the reporter.

And as for me, I am a newspaper reporter by profession. Of course I am going to plug the skills of my dying medium, which is going the way of the town crier.

So how about a literary figure who is more in tune with the spirit of our times?

As it happens, not everyone agrees with Wolfe. Consider Jonathan Franzen, author, Freedom, which propelled him onto the cover of Time magazine. He argues that these days research doesn’t matter much—including, presumably, the reporting, notebook in hand, that I recommend.

In February he was asked to contribute a list of rules of writing to the Guardian. Number 5 was this: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” Likewise, in an interview, he says, “I avoid [research] as much as possible. It gets in the way of invention.”

So is Wolfe wrong, or embarrassingly passé? Are we at our best when we discipline ourselves to remain at the desk and just pound the words out, unleashing the magical forces of our creativity?

In the age of Google, are we just wasting our time when we go out and scribble notes about the slaughtered lambs hanging in a halal butcher shop or the Chicago ex-cons selling jars of organic honey at a farmers market? If we are out jotting impressions in notebooks, aren’t guys like Franzen racing ahead by sitting at his desk and applying himself to the actual writing of books?

Time magazine hailed Franzen as “A Great American Novelist,” and nobody has called me up to sit for a cover portrait. No doubt his greatness contains such multitudes that he could write just as well from a padded cell. Perhaps only we hacks need to actually look at the things we are describing, the way minor artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci looked at live models when they drew the human form.

But I shall let you in on a secret: even Franzen doesn’t really believe what he is telling you. It strikes me as so unhelpful, I almost wonder if he is trying to winnow the competition by sending young writers up the wrong path.

Ha! They believed me, the suckers!

Here is why I know he isn’t being entirely straight with us. In the very next sentence of that interview I just cited, he admits that he traveled to West Virginia for four days to investigate coal mining communities for Freedom. He also said he had the help of others in researching Minneapolis neighborhoods, even though he himself is from Minnesota.

The research shows. He writes of the “matchstick Appalachian woods and the mining-ravaged districts.” He describes an hourglass-shaped vein of coal that lies under the mountains, at the center of which lives a clan headed by a man named Coyle Mathis, who is refusing to sell his ancestral home to a company that plans to remove the mountaintop, mine the coal, and create a nature reserve. When Mathis receives an offer to buy his property, Franzen writes, he “didn’t even wait to hear the details. He said, ‘No, N-O,’ and added that he intended to be buried in the family cemetery and no one was going to stop him.” When Mathis threatens to sick his dogs on the man making the offer, even shoot him, the scene has an authenticity that surely owes something to Franzen’s reporting in West Virginia.

So how do we use research and reporting to enhance, rather than obstruct, creativity? Here are some recommendations:


1. Get out.

As writers, we tend to feel that the only work that matters is that spent in front of the computer, pushing up the word count displayed at the bottom of the page. But simply getting up and getting out into the world can make the words flow afterwards, whether we’re heading to an A&P, like John Updike, or a scrap metal yard or a foreign country.

In Michelle Huneven’s novel Blame, an alcoholic history professor with a wild streak, Patsy MacLemoore, wakes up in jail after blackout. Patsy’s story begins thus:

Patsy MacLemoore came to on a concrete shelf in a cell in the basement of the Altadena Sheriff’s department. Her hair had woken her up. It stank.

She had said she would rather die than come back here. She’d said that both times she’d been here before.

The little jail had no windows. Fluorescent tubes quivered night and day. A fan clattered, off-kilter. Each of the three connected cells contained a seatless stainless-steel toilet and a tiny, one-faucet sink.

Lurching to the undersized sink, she drank from it sideways, cheek anchored against the greasy spout. The dribble was tepid and tasted of mold. In the next cell over, June’s haughty face loomed. Did she fuckin live here? Every time Patsy’d been in, she was, too. June’s top lip was like two paisleys touching. What’d you do this time, Professor? said the lips.

Don’t know, Patsy said. …

Not what I heard, June said. And lookit your face.

Patsy’s fingers went to a ridge of scab crystallizing along her cheekbone. No wonder her head hurt.

Returning to the shelf, she noted the itchy rasp of the prison gown. Lead-blue, unrippable, it was made of 45 percent stainless-steel, according to the label. She was naked beneath, not even panties.

I hear you’re in deep shit, Professor, [June said].

It is not until Patsy is sitting opposite two cops and her own lawyer does she begin to comprehend what she has done. She is tossing out flippant remarks—“We have to stop meeting like this”—when she sees a file in front of the detective. On it is written, HOMICIDE.

She learns she has been accused of running over and killing a mother and daughter while driving drunk. Her whole life as she knew it is over and she is heading for prison.

In an email, I asked Huneven how she was able to portray so convincingly the events including Patsy’s time in jail and a prison firefighting camp. Her discussion of how she researches illustrates my point. Huneven interviewed widely. She talked to everyone she knew, male and female, who had been in prison or jail. She unearthed subplots and storylines in real life.

She wrote me, “One woman in particular—she’s essentially Gloria in the book—talked to me at length; she’d been sober forever, but was manic depressive. With twenty years sober, she got off her meds, stole a hundred thousand bucks from her boss and drove across country delivering it to poor people she met at McDonalds and the like. She was sentenced to 4 years, served two, part of it in fire camp. For the firefighting details I interviewed a young woman I know who recently spent two summers fighting fires in the Sierra.”

Equally important, she visited the scene. Lacking Franzen’s mystical abilities as a seer, she was forced to trudge on down to a courtroom in person and spend a day observing what went on.

She writes:

“I interviewed prosecutors, who in turn did research for me about how much time a drunk driving/ criminal negligence charge would get you in the early 1980’s. I was momentarily stumped when I found out that they couldn’t prosecute for drunk driving because the accident happened on [private] property, but that ended being up a rather interesting part of the narrative, I thought. I interviewed a probation officer, I actually made my husband, who is a lawyer, write the declaration that frees Patsy from responsibility in the end. He gave me SUCH a dull document my agent made me slice it back to the few salient sentences.”

In my own writing, getting out of the office has inspired some of my best-received stories. I used to live in the Russian Far East, and I made five reporting trips to China. On one trip I encountered a couple whose lives would inspire a short story in my collection, The Irish Martyr.

In China when a freelance reporter such as myself asks around in a hotel for an interpreter, an uncomfortably friendly middle-aged man with hair dyed shoe-polish-black will show up in a white sedan with a soldier at the wheel and red flags flapping from the bumpers. Because I usually did business reporting, this never was a problem.

But on one visit I wanted to write about a highly sensitive topic, North Korean refugees. I couldn’t rely on the official story. Through friends I found an interpreter, and by sheer luck he knew of a refugee.

She had escaped North Korean, her hair thinning from malnutrition, and was sold as a wife to a Chinese peasant. In my story, “Dear Leader,” I described the day she is taken to meet her new husband. Let me do a Tom Wolfe and approvingly quote my own fiction:

An ethnic Korean marriage broker named Bong-il drove her to her new home near Yanji, rasping dire warnings all the way in the back seat of his smoky Land Cruiser while his driver adjusted the music on the stereo. “If you run away, we will find you, understand? He is paying good money for you, and we are men of our word. We will return you, and you’ll discover what an angry husband can do to a girl. I know this one guy, he chained his wife to the bed and gouged her eyes out the third time she tried to run away. If we don’t find you, the police will, and you know what that means: back to North Korea. Stay put. Even if he beats you, you’ll be fed, unlike in Hongwan, right? You will live. Seems like a fair bargain.” He threw his cigarette butt out the window and asked, “Are you listening?” She was. “Good,” he said, “because I’m not trying to scare you, I hope you’re happy, I truly do, you are such a pretty girl, or you will be when you fatten up and your hair grows back. … Incidentally, it’s his prerogative to resell you if he wishes. Maybe that isn’t so bad. Think of it this way: if you don’t get along, maybe you’ll end up with someone more compatible.”

This monologue was inspired by the refugee’s description of the conditions under which she arrived. In fact her very predicament is drawn from my interviews with the real-life refugee woman and the husband who had bought her.

We mere scribblers cannot invent such situations. We go out and sift through the infinite range of stories the world offers us. And it amazes us.


2. Find a Guide.

Dante had Virgil to guide him in his pilgrimage through hell, purgatory, and heaven. If you are overwhelmed in an unfamiliar area or topic, find a guide.

By way of example let us consider George Packer, a reporter for the New Yorker. In a 2007 nonfiction piece, Packer described meeting two young Iraqis in Baghdad. Othman was Sunni, Laith was Shiite.

Packer met them at the Palestine Hotel, where, two years earlier, a suicide bomber driving a cement mixer had triggered an explosion that nearly brought down the hotel’s eighteen-story tower. He writes:

It had taken Othman three days to get to the hotel from his house, in western Baghdad. On the way, he was trapped for two nights at his sister’s house, which was in an ethnically mixed neighborhood: gun battles had broken out between Sunni and Shiite militiamen. Othman watched the home of his sister’s neighbor, a Sunni, burn to the ground. Shiite militiamen scrawled the words “Leave or else” on the doors of Sunni houses. Othman was able to leave the house only because his sister’s husband—a Shiite, who was known to the local Shia militias—escorted him out. Othman took a taxi to the house of Laith’s grandfather; from there, he and Laith went to the Palestine, where they enjoyed their first hot water in several weeks.

These two men became his guides. Packer says in an interview with the Poynter Institute that this is his general practice. “I need someone who can provide me with the introduction to the place and give me sense of the landscape,” he says.

For a story on the U.S. Senate, Packer relied on the insights of beat reporters who knew the ins and outs of the institution, along with the staffers familiar with its obscure rules. When he decided to investigate the roots of the financial meltdown, he chose Tampa in part because a friend there could show him around. The two canvassed the Tampa Bay area, driving through subdivisions and taking to people randomly. What he learned in those interviews became the core of the story.

“Once I get there, I’m constantly saying, ‘Who else should I talk to?’ ‘Do you know anyone in this situation?’ ” Packer says. “And people tend to be quite generous with that information, and most people want to tell their story.”

Fiction writers also may find a guide helpful in unfamiliar territory. In interviews, Colum McCann has talked about how he lived with homeless people in the subway tunnels and traveled to Russia to research another novel. But the book I wish to discuss is Zoli, is about a Roma, or Gypsy, singer and poet born in Slovakia in the 1930s during the height of fascist power in Europe.

In it, the six-year-old Zoli, who will become an acclaimed singer and poet, learns from her grandfather that fascist militiamen have driven her clan and its wagons and horses out onto the winter ice and encircled the shore with fires. The ice collapses and the people drown. Zoli tells us, “My mother was gone, my father, my brothers, my sister and cousins, too.”

The book has been praised for its realistic portrayal of the life of Roma, a society that has long been persecuted and also closed to outsiders. Its descriptions struck me as deeply authentic. Consider this description of a visitor enters a Roma settlement:

Doorframes used as tables. Sackcloth for curtains. Empty çuçu bottles strung up as wind chimes. At his feet, bits of wood and porridge containers, lollipop sticks and shattered glass, the ground-down bones of some dead animal. He catches glimpses of babies hammocked from ceilings, flies buzzing around them as they sleep. He reaches for his camera but is pushed on in the swell of children. Open doorways are quickly closed. Bare bulbs switched off. He notices carpets on the walls, and pictures of Christ, and pictures of Lenin, and pictures of Mary Magdalene, and pictures of Saint Jude lit by small red candles high above empty shelves. From everywhere comes the swell of music, no accordions, no harps, no violins, but every shack with a TV or a radio on full volume, an endless thump. …

He is led around a sharp corner to the largest shanty of all. A satellite dish sits new and shiny on the roof. He knocks on the plywood door. It swings open a little further with each knuckle rap. Inside there is a contingent of eight, nine, maybe ten men. They raise their heads like a parliament of ravens. A few of them nod, but they continue their hand, and he knows the game is nonchalance—he has played it himself in other parts of the country, the flats of Bratislava, the ghettos of Presov, the slums of Letanovce.

In an interview McCann discusses his research methods. He says his guides, Martin and Laco, introduced him to writers, musicians, ethnographers, sociologists and Roma activists. He went to the most notorious Slovakian settlements to see the conditions of life there: the mud and wattle huts, the poverty, the desolation. No electricity, he says. No running water. He sang old Irish songs, hung out and watched what they did. He was an outsider, dependent on others to show him around, but he showed empathy and tried not to intrude.

He adds:

[O]ne day I was in Svinia … [and] a big group of kids and I went down to the local soccer pitch to play football together. We were playing away happily, quietly. But then these “white” women started shouting at us from a distance. Before we knew it we were hounded out by the mayor and the local policemen who called us “fucking Gypsies.” Except they were a bit puzzled by me. They kept staring at me. As if to say, Who’s the white boy? … We got kicked out. They locked the gates behind us. I tried to protest in English and apparently they were calling me another bleeding heart, another European sentimentalist. We walked away, back to the settlement. A half-mile along this country road. Quietly. No fuss. No fights. There was lots of broken glass at the field near the settlement. That’s why we couldn’t play there and had to go to town.

But therein lies the dilemma. I could make this a story about being treated terribly by the local authorities. That’s true, but it’s also true that nobody smashed glass on that field other than the Roma themselves. The kids had ruined their own field. That’s the heartbreak. That’s the contradiction that fiction, too, has to find.

Moments like that are hard to create from an office chair in front of your laptop.


3. Talk to sources who have lived the life you’re writing about.

Interview taxi drivers, garbage men, street preachers, beauticians, aldermen, astrophysicists, the homeless Poles who sleep in dumpsters in Chicago—whomever you’re writing about.

In November 1959, two ex-cons entered a farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, and murdered the owner, his wife, and their two children. It was a horrific, senseless, random crime of the sort that makes headlines nationwide and then vanishes into the criminal system. But Truman Capote saw behind the headlines a powerful story worthy of a great writer’s attention, and he decided to pursue it for his so-called “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. He and his assistant, Harper Lee, traveled to Kansas. At the courthouse they tracked down the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents who were handling the case.

In 1997 George Plimpton wrote an oral history on the writing of the book for the New Yorker.  He recounts how Capote left a singular impression with the people he spoke to.

One agent tells Plimpton, “Al Dewey [a KBI agent], invited me to come up and meet this gentleman who’d come to town to write a book. So the four of us, KBI agents, went up to his room that evening after dinner. And here [Truman] is in kind of a new pink negligee, silk with lace, and he’s strutting across the floor with his hands on his hips telling us all about how he’s going to write this book.”

My point is not that we all need to wear pink negligees when we’re interviewing cops. Rather, is that Capote, a gay New Yorker, was bold enough to go into an alien milieu, that of homicide detectives, and win their cooperation, despite some outrageous behavior. He obtained extensive interviews with nearly every major person in the book, including the murderers themselves.

KBI agent Alvin Dewey said, “He got information nobody else got, not even us.”

(Truman’s breach of ethics in achieving this scoop are a matter of discussion for another day.)


Last year I dug up that old novel of mine—the one with the cigar-smoking coroner—and I blushed when I read some of the scenes. But still, I thought it was worth another go, and after a revision, so did my agent.

When I first dove into the manuscript again, I decided to research every major element of the plot. I interviewed cops and day laborers and a guy who paints houses for a living. I found two University of Chicago surgeons who treat bullet wounds, and I  sat in on the class of an Aikido instructor.

A cult plays a central role in the novel so I interviewed a woman who had spent two decades in Tony Alamo Christian Ministries; its leader is now serving a 175-year sentence in federal penitentiary for taking girls as young as nine across state lines to have sex with them. I listened to sermons by the Rev. Jim Jones, who led 900 of his followers to their deaths. I interviewed the CEO of a nonprofit dedicated to the rescue of big cats such as lions and tigers.

Since writing the original draft I had visited a morgue in Russia, but I still sought out an investigator at the coroner’s office in Los Angeles. That, after all, was where the book was set. She agreed to talk to me, but she said we could not under any circumstances, see the crypt—the area where they store the bodies—or the rooms where the autopsies are done. All we could do is meet in her office.

I was a little disappointed, but it was better than nothing.

We looked at all kinds of grisly photos. As I described the situation in my novel, she would show me pictures. She saw that I wasn’t going to throw up on her desk when we saw the grim images. When I asked about the layout of the crypt, she said, “Oh, hell. Let’s just go look at it.”

And suddenly we were trotting downstairs, donning surgeon’s masks—which kind of hindered our cigar-smoking—and marching in to see the room where several hundred bodies were stored.

Now, I’m not going to give away all my hard-earned research to other writers. Needless to say that in this particular morgue, at least, was nothing like what you see on TV.

There is no substitute for seeking out sources. If your character is a high school football coach, call one up and ask if you can drop by practice some afternoon. If she is a lawyer or a foot masseuse or a Ukrainian baker, go find one to talk to. If you want to write about a journalist, talk to one.

If you are writing a memoir, be willing to interview your family or friends or others who lived the experience you are writing about.

All right, but how do you reach the people you need to talk to? Admittedly, it is harder for a fiction writer than a newspaper reporter, but it is not impossible.

For the LA County Coroner’s Office, I dug up a story that quoted a woman extensively, and called her directly. I simply told her I am a writer working on a novel, and I wanted to get things right. She seemed pleased at my diligence. To talk to a cop, I called the LAPD public affairs office. The spokeswoman told me she doubted any detective would talk to me, but she said she would ask. It turned out the head of the department was intrigued by my project and was willing to help.

If the official sources say no, try a back door. Talk to friends and put out feelers to reach people.

Record your interviews. Interestingly, Capote didn’t do this, but he claimed to have had near perfect recall. He said that when he was a boy, he would memorize pages of the New York telephone book. Then he would have somebody quiz him: “On line so-and-so, what’s the name there and what’s the telephone number.” He didn’t even take notes; he and Lee would return to their rooms and write down their recollections of conversations afterwards.

For mere mortals, a good recorder is essential. In writing Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer and his collaborator Lawrence Schiller said they recorded hundreds of hours of interviews amounting to thousands of pages of transcripts. This is why the voice so closely parallels those of the characters whose lives it recounts. I have a little Sony digital recorder that you can plug it into your computer when you get home, so you can download the audio file and transcribe it later. As you do, this will help you accurately recall what they said. It gives you a sense of your source’s voice, character, thought patterns, and manerisms.

Once you have talked to your sources, something interesting happens. They become a Council of the Wise whom you can consult with further questions. Ask them for their email address. You need to use them judiciously, but they are great for checking out details. Don’t send lists of 20 questions or they won’t reply, but use them.

I did this with the coroner’s investigator. The missing persons detective had told me a rather amazing story about how a cadaver dog sniffed up a homicide victim. But I needed to know who would respond to a scene where a body is found in a backyard. I emailed my source in the coroner’s department, asking how many personnel would show up, and she sent me a long email in reply. Here is just a small part:

Shallow Grave in a backyard: Personnel present: Police Department Homicide Detectives & Photographer, Coroner Special Operations response team (Handling Investigator, Criminalist, Forensic Anthropolgist, Photographer and Cadaver Dog & Handler -remaining team members consisting of other Investigators, Forensic Attendants and Criminalists).


4. Do your homework.

Fine, but how do we know what sources to seek out? Of course, this is often plain from the work itself. But it also helps to do your homework. Before McCann traveled to Europe to research the Roma, he spent a year in the New York Public Library. Huneven had done a major investigative piece on the California Youth Authority years ago, and she drew off of the contacts she made them.

Doug Glover has a novel named Elle, about a lusty young French girl whose shipmates abandon her on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence during an early expedition to colonize Canada. She is found by a native hunter, who becomes her lover and helps her survive, and she is drawn into what has been called “a bear-haunted dream world.” She even shape-shifts into a bear.

The novel makes heavy use of aboriginal mythology and magic. And yet what also interested me was the vivid realism in its portrayal of 16th century France and native life in its newly established colonies. It feels grounded in reality. The myths it describes are convincing. In his acknowledgments Doug, says he plundered many books to come up with a compelling vision of life that era. But he also tells me that in researching the novel, he talked to a librarian at a reservation who had archived tapes of interviews with old Indians.

Doug also hunts through bibliographies looking for papers published in journals, especially old ones. He would find a paper, and from its bibliography and get even more sources.

“The key to research is that you’re looking for the fact that is not commonly known,” he told me. “It infuses your writing with authenticity, if it’s real yet somewhat surprising.”

He also offers a hint for those who are uncomfortable with the idea of interviewing. Doug says he would never go up to an Indian and ask him about anything directly. But if you hang around, you start to get a feel for things such as way they name and nickname people and the kind of humor they have.

Thus he gives his characters names like Comes Winter, an Indian girl who was kidnapped and taken to France and is dying of consumption. One little boy is named Old Man, while an old man is named Gets Close to Caribou.

Gets Close to Caribou earned his name one winter when a panicky caribou spooked in the wrong direction and almost trampled him to death. Gets Close was unconscious for a week—he dreamed the caribou lifted him in its mouth and carried him to Caribou Mountain, north of the Land of Nothing. He stayed with the king of the caribou, a former hunter who had fallen in love with a caribou-woman. All present-day caribou are descended from this hunter and his caribou girlfriend.

In my own case, in reporting for my fiction, I have gone to the federal courthouse in Chicago and pulled records on an ongoing Russian mafia trial, including indictments and transcripts of FBI wiretaps. This gave me the chance to read about the father-son team of money launderers Lev and Boris Stratievsky. The father was nicknamed Dollar, the son Half-Dollar. Great names! I didn’t use those in my fiction, but they set my imagination running.

The two were laundering millions of dollars as a part of a broader criminal network of Eastern Europeans. They were shipping stolen cars and heavy machinery abroad, peddling drugs and guns to Chicago street gangs, committing mortgage fraud, and trafficking in young women. These reports provided a rich background that allowed me to think more expansively about the mobster at the center of my story. For one thing, I moved my mobster out of a Chicago two-flat into a mansion on Lake Michigan.

Think creatively. You can also request military records to find out if that veteran you are writing about is telling the truth about the Navy Cross he claims he won or whether he even was in Vietnam, let alone butchered all those women and children he butchered there.

You are all familiar with the Internet, but I will say two things.

1. It can be a marvelous research tool for original documents, even if you don’t have access to legal databases. For example, there is a web site that has extensive documentation, including original court records, on American jihadists who have been convicted on terror charges.

Elsewhere, you can find FBI transcripts of Jim Jones urging his followers to commit suicide in Guyana, and one woman arguing, futilely, that the children should be spared.

2. But the Internet can be a deadly trap. It keeps you at your desk, rather than getting you out into the world. It’s tempting to check out Google street view rather than drive to that neighborhood with a notebook in hand. It is also a distraction. Franzen warns about this with his usual hyperbole: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”


Let me conclude by returning to Tom Wolfe. His point is not merely that on-scene research and reporting create verisimilitude and make a novel gripping or absorbing, although these are important. Rather, he states, this kind of reporting is essential for the very greatest effects literature can achieve. Wolf writes:

In 1884 Zola went down into the mines at Anzin to do the documentation for what was to become the novel Germinal. Posing as a secretary for a member of the French Chamber of Deputies, he descended into the pits wearing his city clothes, his frock coat, high stiff collar, and high stiff hat … and carrying a notebook and pen. One day Zola and the miners who were serving as his guides were 150 feet below the ground when Zola noticed an enormous workhorse … pulling a sled piled with coal through a tunnel. Zola asked, “How do you get that animal in and out of the mine every day?” At first the miners thought he was joking. Then they realized he was serious, and one of them said, “Mr. Zola, don’t you understand? That horse comes down here once, when he’s a colt, barely more than a foal, and still able to fit into the buckets that bring us down here. That horse grows up down here. He grows blind down here after a year or two, from the lack of light. He hauls coal down here until he can’t haul it anymore, and then he dies down here, and his bones are buried down here.” When Zola transfers this revelation from the pages of his documentation notebook to the pages of Germinal, it makes the hair on your arms stand on end. You realize, without the need of amplification, that the horse is the miners themselves, who descend below the face of the earth as children and dig coal down in the pit until they can dig no more and then are buried, often literally, down there.

The moment of The Horse in Germinal is one of the supreme moments in French literature—and it would have been impossible without that peculiar drudgery that Zola called documentation.

— Russell Working


Russell Working is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of two collections of short fiction: Resurrectionists, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Irish Martyr, winner of the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. His stories and humor have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Narrative, and Zoetrope: All-Story.  A writer living in Oak Park, Ill., he spent five years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.  His byline has appeared in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the South China Morning Post,the Japan Times, and dozens of other newspapers and magazines around the world.



May 162013


Like Paul Curtis, as a young writer I was enthralled by Lawrence Durrell’s four astounding novels — Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive & Clea — together known as The Alexandria Quartet. I can’t count the vivid snippets of scene and dialogue that still float up in my mind: especially the end of Clea when the painter’s wounded hand can suddenly “paint” as here healthy hand had never been able to do or the moment when the feckless journalist (a minor character throughout) returns from war in the desert, a tan, golden warrior who has suddenly found his place in existence. Yes, I love the transformations at the end of the quartet, when time suddenly moves forward. I loved the mysterious and ineffably sad hand prints on the brothel walls, Justine’s mad search for her stolen child, and Pursewarden’s epigrams (I began to learn to write epigrams reading The Alexandria Quartet). There are so many things I tried to copy here as a beginning writer (the faux Einsteinian structure and the Pursewarden endnotes, for example), so many ideals inhaled and transformed to my own uses.

I met Paul M. Curtis during my East Coast reading tour last November and we discovered a bond over beer at the Tide & Boar in Moncton, a bond that included dogs and Durrell. He offers here an all too brief glance backward at the novel of his youth. He began the project half afraid that what he had remembered so passionately might not hold up in the years of wisdom. But his essay sent me back, and when I went to my bookshelves to get the book, I realized my copy was gone, a gift to one of my sons in whom I hope it ignites the same conflagration it did in my heart. And I hope this essay sends our readers to the Quartet as well, an experience you should not miss, the brilliant, elaborate structure, the explosive lava flow of language, the stark view of modern love, the redemption of art.


TheAlexandriaQuartetImage via Wikipedia


At the time when we knew [Pursewarden] he was reading hardly anything but science.  This for some reason annoyed Justine who took him to task for wasting his time in these studies.  He defended himself by saying that the Relativity proposition was directly responsible for abstract painting, atonal music, and formless (or at any rate cyclic forms in) literature.  Once it was grasped they were understood, too.  He added: “In the Space and Time marriage we have the greatest Boy meets Girl story of the age.”  (B, 142)[1]

— you might try a four-card trick in the form of  a novel, passing a common axis through four stories, say, and dedicating each to one of the four winds of heaven. A continuum, forsooth, embodying not a temps retrouvé but a temps délivré.

Pursewarden to “Brother Ass” (C, 135)


The year 2012 was the centenary of the birth of Lawrence George Durrell, and the event was celebrated with The Guardian’s online reading group of The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60), the publication by Faber of a new edition of the Quartet (with a specially commissioned intro by Jan Morris) and an important conference in London sponsored by the International Lawrence Durrell Society. Durrell was born in Jullundur in the Punjab, India, 27 February 1912, the son of Anglo-Indian parents who had never been to England. The circumstances of Durrell’s birth, while distant from the mother country, pluralized his identity as Anglo-Indian-Irish (Irish on his Mother’s side). Born into colonial exile, the religious and political ideologies of Edwardian England, “Home of the eccentric and the sexually disabled” (M, 85), haunted the young Durrell through his first three novels: Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), Panic Spring (1937) and the The Black Book (1938).[2]  Since one is haunted only by what the senses cannot perceive, Durrell had to turn upon his inner self and to exorcise much of his Englishness in order to become an artist. Through the creation of his symbolist künstlerroman, The Black Book, he “first heard the sound of [his] own voice” (Preface, The Black Book, 1960, 13).[3] As a young bohemian in the London of the late 1920’s, Durrell was polymathic in his ambition, a lover of Elizabethan literature, an alluring presence with a powerful sexuality. Yet, he grew into a man of contradictions, best summarized by Marc Alyn:

Here is a recluse who loves being surrounded by people; a hedonist whose great pleasure is asceticism; a lazy man who never stops working; a man who finds joy in despair; a traveller who enjoys nothing more than quiet contemplation; a dandy truly at his ease in the company of tramps and vagrants; a novelist whose major preoccupation is poetry; an enemy of literature who gives the best of himself to his work.[4]

PaniccovIn celebration of the centenary I had the good fortune to embark upon a fresh reading of The Alexandria Quartet with several upper-year undergrads at l’Université de Moncton, and we were joined by several members of Moncton’s very vibrant and bilingual community of readers. Celebration aside, the objective of the reading was to determine if the Quartet still had ‘it’ – the power to hold today’s reader in an intimate and potentially redemptive connection with the work. I remember clearly thirty-two years ago when I read the Quartet, my first contact with Durrell. I spent one uninterrupted week in a glut of reading Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. The set pieces are unforgettable: the hunt on Lake Mareotis, the Carnival in all its excess, or the Sitna Damiana celebration and the slaughter of the camels in the desert encampment. In the wake of the reading I remember feeling as if I were held in a cocoon of sensation generated by the exoticism of the setting – in particular Alexandria, “the great winepress of love,” “the capital of Memory” (J 14, 188), “the cradle of all our scientific ideas,”[5] “the Alexandria of the human estate” (C, 223) – and being moved equally by the literary ambition of the series. Rarely have I had such an intense reading experience, and I was aware at the time that the originality of the Quartet’s form had marked me as a reader. I was not aware to what extent, however. With the help of our Moncton reader/critics I wanted to determine, in the wake of the Egyptian Spring, if the Quartet would produce a similar effect on first-time readers, and, secondly, to test if the seductions of Durrell’s prose would leave me vulnerable and critically lame as they had the first encounter. As our reading proceeded, the effect on the first-timers was strong and positive, and this in spite of the apparent devaluation of Durrell’s reputation as a late Modernist writer since his death, a confirmed Buddhist, 7 November 1990. From a personal perspective, I came to realize that the Quartet had been my aesthetic standard for the novelistic treatments of time and love, and, even more destabilizing to realize, that this standard had been in silent, unconscious but continuous operation since my first reading. No small claim for one whose job is professing ‘objectively’. Then again, if the Quartet’s  “Relativity proposition” holds true, the starting point for every reader, amateur or professional alike, partakes of a relativity particular to each and whose dictates determine each reading.

Justine1The scope of the novel is grand with various settings in Alexandria, Cairo and an unnamed island in the Cyclades. The novel begins with the Englishman Darley’s arrival in Alexandria in 1933 and concludes in 1945 after his second stay there through the war.[6] The grandness of the setting, however, is little compared to Durrell’s ambitions for the form of his novel. Durrell, a poet, novelist, playwright, painter (as ‘Oscar Epfs’) and a playful philosopher (an Epfsistentialist!), is everywhere concerned with form. As laid out in his important Preface to Balthazar, the second volume, he wanted to write “a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition.” Durrell later called this ambition pompous presumably because the link to early Twentieth-Century physics is tenuous. I remember one waggish critic commenting that surely one couldn’t fly to Mars after reading the Quartet. Durrell later explained that he wanted to create a bridge between Einstein and Freud, whom he cites in the first epigraph to Justine. The young and aspiring writer Darley is the first-person narrator of the eponymous Justine. The narrative point of view is crucial here because Darley narrates his love affairs first with Melissa, a tubercular dance-hall girl of serene resiliency, and then concurrently with Justine, the deeply flawed mythical figure who is also a powerful and power-hungry Alexandrian Jewess. “When it comes to men who genuinely like women,” Durrell once observed, “each of them is quite simply a mythical being” (Conversations, 30). Melissa is described as “washed up like a half-drowned bird … with her sex broken” (J, 24). However powerless Melissa might be over her life and lovers, the acceptance of her solitude transforms her into a powerful force of agape.[7] Justine’s mythical being, by contrast, is aligned with beauty and a death-dealing political power. She has “the austere mindless primitive face of Aphrodite” (J, 109) — divine beauty, yes, but beauty unblemished by a conscience. Whereas Melissa’s presence is positive and loving, Justine’s influence is “death-propelled” (M, 197), hence thanatic. “[Justine] was not really human – nobody wholly dedicated to the ego is” (J, 203).

Balthazar1At the conclusion of the first volume, Justine disappears and Darley retreats to an island in the Cyclades to lick his love wounds. Once there, he writes an MS which becomes, metafictionally, the novel Justine, the first novel of the Quartet. The Balthazar of the second volume is a homosexual Alexandrian doctor and cabalist who lives and works at the centre of the novel’s ex-pat society. In Balthazar, related again from Darley’s point of view, Durrell creates the device of the “great interlinear” (B, 21), a massive and detailed commentary written by Balthazar on what must be Darley’s MS of Justine. The genius of Durrell’s technique is to relativize – or, better still, recreate — the events of the first novel through the device of Balthazar’s interlinear. Balthazar has an eye for association and the logic of continuum over that of sequence: “But I love to feel events overlapping each other, crawling over one another like wet crabs in a basket” (B, 125). From Balthazar’s interlinear the reader infers that her task is doubled: one should read between the lines of both Balthazar and the Justine it destabilizes. As Darley comes to realize that Justine has used him for political ends and that she loves the other older writer Ludwig Pursewarden, the reader shares his deception with an ontological frisson.

mountolive1But the relativism continues with Mountolive. The third novel is remarkable for the political overlay it provides to the previous two, and especially because its apparently banal naturalistic technique is held in sharp contrast to the inventiveness of its content. Durrell called Mountolive the “clou[8] of the series, and in it he re-shuffles the “four-decker” yet again. Within the omniscient third-person narrative technique, Darley becomes an objective character, much as he thought the others had been from his first-person perspective in Justine and Balthazar. Pursewarden, the political officer serving Ambassador David Mountolive, gets caught in the knot of plot and takes his own life, but not before he has revealed the cause of his deception by writing a message on a mirror. The message is the political and symbolic crux of the novel: politically, because it reveals Pursewarden’s unwitting self-deception with regard to Justine’s “Faustian compact” (M, 201) on behalf of the nascent Jewish state; symbolically, because the surface of this mirror reveals for once its depths that have been hidden in plain sight. As implied within Keats’ famous epitaph, “Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water,” the careful reader has a momentary and awful glimpse of the depths below the surface of reality that, to the more casual, has always seemed to be everywhere intact, constant, reliable. As we read very early on in Justine, “Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern.” Once we catch a glimpse of this meaning, we behold what Durrell has called the Heraldic Universe, the natural home of the imagination from where it makes “‘sudden raids on the inarticulate’” (Conversations, 136).

The first three novels are “siblings,” as Durrell explains in the note to Balthazar, “and are not linked in a serial form. They interlap, interweave, in a purely spatial relation. Time is stayed. The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel.”

You see, Justine is written by Darley. It’s his autobiography. The second volume, Balthazar, is Darley’s autobiography corrected or revised by Balthazar. In Mountolive, written by me, Darley is an object in the outside world. Clea would be the new autobiography of Darley some years later, in Alexandria once again (Conversations, 41).

Clea1In Clea, the maturer Darley returns to Alexandria now engulfed by the Second World War. The Vichy frigates, “symbolising the western consciousness” (B, 105), lie under arrest at anchor in the harbour; the crew members, however, have the permission to carry small arms. The blonde blue-eyed painter Clea, modelled after Durrell’s third wife, the Alexandrian Claude-Marie Forde, has a significant presence in all three previous novels. Like Darley, she too is an artist evermore about to be, and she paints the portraits of several characters including that of Justine, with whom she had an affair. The tetralogy holds forth the promise of redemption by means of Clea’s transformation into the artist at the novel’s conclusion. Only art has the power to free humanity from its own perversions, eminently the case in Alexandria before a world run riot with fascist ego. In Clea’s apartment, defenceless against a night-time bombing raid, she and Darley become lovers. However genuine their love might be, it comes from a mismatched readiness and founders temporarily.  Their love succeeds ultimately, however, through Darley’s newfound “willpower of desirelessness” (Conversations, 119), the Taoist posture from which one respects, contemplates and yet engages Nature.

When you read Clea I hope you will feel that Darley was necessarily as he was in Justine because the whole business of the four books, apart from other things, shows the way an artist grows up…. I wanted to show, in the floundering Darley, how an artist may have first-class equipment and still not be one.[9]

Before Clea realizes herself as an artist at the novel’s conclusion, Durrell creates a remarkable parable of rebirth. The scene takes place in an underwater gallery off the legendary islet of Timonium, where, in the ruins of their world well lost, Antony and Cleopatra fled after Actium (C, 227). Clea’s right wrist, her brush hand, is pinned underwater accidentally.  Darley must deform the hand to release her and to regain the surface. In a life-saving act of resuscitation that is the simulacrum of love-making, the forces of eros and thanatos are held in momentary equilibrium over the unconscious Clea before she splutters back to consciousness and, subsequently, to her new life as artist.


The second epigraph to this essay occurs in the second chapter of the second Book of Clea,[10] and appears in Pursewarden’s diary entitled “My Conversation with Brother Ass.” His imagined interlocutor is Darley. In addition to being the Quartet’s foremost novelist, Pursewarden serves as Durrell’s artistic consciousness of the series. On Pursewarden as character, Durrell observes teasingly, “You must become a Knowbody before you become a Sunbody” (Conversations, 73). Pursewarden knows the difficult lessons of love, even incestuous love, and his ribald wit shines through the entire novel. The reader’s reflex is to give weight to everything he says since he, in effect, compels it.  “We live,” he declaims early on in Balthazar, “lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time – not by our personalities as we like to think” (B, 14). Pursewarden is the first to articulate the fiction of personality and, in particular, the danger posed by the ego. “My Conversation” is the greatest concentration of Pursewardian apothegms that “litter” the novel,[11] and it’s addressed to the Darley of his imagination, or “Brother Ass,” the aspiring author in the Quartet and the ‘author’ of the first-person ‘autobiographies’ Justine, Balthazar and Clea. Darley reads the conversation in the MS after Pursewarden has taken his own life, ostensibly for a diplomatic gaffe with international reverb. With a wink at the forthcoming literary post-modernism, Pursewarden describes neatly the sprawling structure of the Quartet from within its fourth and final volume. Such a metafictional irony enhances Durrell’s interest in the relativity proposition as he set out in the forward to Balthazar. Unwise as it is to trust any author’s self-evaluation, the four-decker novel is the Quartet’s principle conceit, and it arranges across the four novels, as we shall, see several “moments of connected recollection.”[12] Darley’s attempt at reading the past in order to understand his love for Justine and Melissa is ‘true’, however subjectively. What Darley doesn’t realize in the first two novels is that he cannot escape his own subjectivity in a multi-dimensional universe. By the time the reader has reached the fourth volume, she has been trained to read retroactively, that is to say, with a forward view of the plot at hand as well as simultaneously of its prior layerings. The overall effect is to hold before the reader’s mind a valence of several stories. More to the point, the book teaches us to look forward to looking back. The overall effect of these alternant plots is to make the reader, this reader at least, think about the Quartet less as a sequence and more as a “word-continuum”(Author’s Note to Clea).[13] The reading experience is quite unlike any other series of novels. As we shall see, each narrative layer contains a purposeful misconception on Durrell’s part. And as each layer dissolves with the information supplied by each succeeding volume, the reader experiences a sudden awareness that is compelling because an event first interpreted innocently must be reinterpreted through the powerful catalysis of each narrative development. Each event in the story is dynamic as if it has a life of its own, the plot of which we discover as we proceed. Each, therefore, has the potential to become an opening into time rather than a reified point in some Freytagian progression. Let us turn to one such example of narrative layering that will serve to illustrate Durrell’s finesse with form.

The first example depends upon the agency of a telescope. The scene occurs in Justine at the summer house of Nessim and Justine Hosnani, and I cite the excerpt at length in the hope that the reader will sense the planes of emotion Durrell evokes and superimposes as the passage proceeds. Darley is anxious that Justine’s infidelity has been discovered by her husband Nessim who is also Darley’s close friend.

This further warning was given point for me by an incident which occurred very shortly afterwards when, in search of a sheet of notepaper on which to write to Melissa, I strayed into Nessim’s little observatory and rummaged about on his desk for when I needed.  I happened to notice that the telescope barrel had been canted downwards so that it no longer pointed at the sky but across the dunes towards where the city slumbered in its misty reaches of pearl cloud.  This was not unusual, for trying to catch glimpses of the highest minarets as the airs condensed and shifted was a favourite pastime.  I sat on the three-legged stool and placed my eye to the eye-piece, to allow the faintly trembling and vibrating image of the landscape to assemble for me.  Despite the firm stone base on which the tripod stood the high magnification of the lens and the heat haze between them contributed a feathery vibration to the image which gave the landscape the appearance of breathing softly and irregularly.  I was astonished to see – quivering and jumping, yet pin-point clear – the little reed hut where not an hour since Justine and I had been lying in each other’s arms, talking of Pursewarden.  A brilliant yellow patch on the dune showed up the cover of a pocket King Lear which I had taken out with me and forgotten to bring back; had the image not trembled so I do not doubt but that I should have been able to read the title on the cover.  I stared at this image breathlessly for a long moment and became afraid.  It was as if, all of a sudden, in a dark but familiar room one believed was empty a hand had suddenly reached out and placed itself on one’s shoulder.  I tiptoed from the observatory with the writing pad and pencil and sat in the armchair looking out at the sea, wondering what I could say to Melissa (J, 168-9).

The passage begins by establishing an earthbound perspective as the perspective descends from sky to minaret to hut, and the agency of the telescope serves to conflate the vision of Nessim and Darley. The telescope’s magnification brings to Darley’s eye the precise scene that it had previously brought to Nessim’s, and with an eerie irony Darley becomes an eyewitness to his own adultery as he rummages about in his host’s private quarters. The lovely personification of the breathing landscape in contrast to Darley’s breathlessness brings to bear the weighty hauntedness of the scene. Seeing through Nessim’s eyes magnifies, of course, Darley’s own blindness vis-à-vis the affair. Such shifting of visual perspectives is the Quartet’s primary motif, and the characters often encounter each other through the beguiling surface of a mirror, at one remove from unmediated vision.[14]  Darley’s ostensible reason for his presence in the observatory is for paper to write Melissa, his other lover; but one can’t help but wonder how sincere Darley’s motivation to write her might be if he pursues it in the wake of a beach-hut encounter with Justine. The copy of King Lear is a clever device developed with increasing effectiveness by Durrell in his first three novels. Shakespeare’s play resonates powerfully in this scene more from an ambiguity of symbolic reference than through precise allusion. Does Darley’s revelatory moment of telescopic vision imply Gloucester’s blindness and fall to another beach? Or is the reference more general still, about the power of a genuine love unperceived, as is Cordelia’s by Lear and Melissa’s by Darley? The example is one of Durrell’s painterly touches where an image creates a plane of emotion that haunts a scene rather than appearing in full outline.

The telescope returns in the fourth volume, Clea, but with purposeful differences. The Egyptians have begun to expropriate Nessim’s things in punishment for his political adventurism, and his friends defend him in the interim by buying his possessions. Now Mountolive’s, the telescope re-emerges on the verandah of the British summer legation overlooking the Corniche.  Clea, “with time to kill,” sees Mountolive and Liza Pursewarden, the dead writer’s sister (and former lover), opposite the legation walking along the Stanley Bay front:

As I had time to kill I started to fool with the telescope, and idly trained it on the far corner of the bay.  It was a blowy day, with high seas running, and the black flags out which signalled dangerous bathing.  There were only a few cars about in that end of the town, and hardly anyone on foot.  Quite soon I saw the Embassy car come round the corner and stop on the seafront.  Liza and David got down and began to walk away from it towards the beach end.  It was amazing how clearly I could see them; I had the impression that I could touch them by just putting out a hand.  They were arguing furiously, and she had an expression of grief and pain on her face.  I increased the magnification until I discovered with a shock that I could literally lip-read their remarks!  It was startling, indeed a little frightening.  I could not ‘hear’ him because his face was half turned aside, but Liza was looking into my telescope like a giant image on a cinema screen.  The wind was blowing her dark hair back in a shock from her temples, and with her sightless eyes she looked like some strange Greek statue come to life (C, 117).

Undoubtedly, Durrell wants the reader to telescope the two scenes across the four-decker novel, and in so doing to see the one through the other. Whereas Darley in Justine is haunted as if by a hand on his shoulder, Clea, in her mind’s eye, extends her hand as if to touch the lovers on the beach. Darley’s ‘blind’ love for Justine re-emerges as Liza’s physical blindness; but, whereas the blind Liza has insight into love, Darley must earn his insight through trial and experience. Such a compression of formal symmetries works with a crisp logic. If Darley can be the eyewitness to his own love affair in Justine, Clea’s view of lovers on another beach seals her own love Darley since, with a curious “optical democracy,”[15] she becomes Darley’s specular and, therefore, full partner. The extension of a telescope from volume one to four promotes the effect of looking forward to looking back and creates the illusion of the suspension of time, what Durrell calls disparagingly, the “Western deity.”[16] It’s as if each of these local smaller stories has a life that takes form within the larger narrative of the Quartet. As Darley considers Balthazar’s interlinear: “It was cross-hatched, crabbed, starred with questions and answers in different-coloured inks, in typescript. It seemed to me then to be somehow symbolic of the very reality we had shared – a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or individual traces, layer by layer” (B, 21-2). Each reader might enjoy the layers singly or in their shifting ensemble.


If one reads the interviews with Durrell about the time of the publication of the Quartet, Durrell raises constantly the question of form. It must have taken considerable daring or confidence and financial need for Durrell to publish the novels separately since the form of the tetralogy was unalterable once the first came to light.

I suppose (writes Balthazar) that if you wished somehow to incorporate all I am telling you into your own Justine manuscript now, you would find yourself with a curious sort of book — the story would be told, so to speak, in layers.  Unwittingly I may have supplied you with a form, something out of the way!  Not unlike Pursewarden’s idea of a series of novels with “sliding panels” as he called them.  Or else, perhaps, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one obliterating or perhaps supplementing another.  Industrious monks scraping away an elegy to make room for a verse of Holy Writ (B, 183)!

When one attempts to account for form in a novel, the necessary phrase ‘narrative technique’ might sound commonplace to the ear, especially after the metafictional ironies of Ackroyd, Calvino, Don Coles, and David Foster Wallace, to name but a few. Narrative technique is everywhere apparent in the Quartet because of the overlay of diary, letter, novel within novel, commonplace book, and the “great interlinear” which informs much of Balthazar and Justine. The characters as well have a bit of the artist about them: Clea, Nessim and Pursewarden are painters – the first professional, the latter two amateur. Pursewarden, Arnauti, and Darley are writers – again, the first two professional, the latter coming into being through the story of Quartet. Durrell was very conscious of the difficulties of writing a ‘great’ book in the wake of Proust and Joyce. He chose not to write a novel of temps retrouvé or a roman fleuve. Each novel in the Quartet is a “sibling” hence genetically kin rather than related through, say, religion, philosophy or the logic of cause and effect. The principal beauty of Durrell’s narrative technique lies in its enactment of relativity rather than an invocation of it at one remove by means of description. In a manifestly complicated novel, people and events occupy a single time, often a single moment. Each occupation of the moment creates considerable narrative momentum since we see the same moment repeatedly, but differently with each repetition, the familiar made fresh. As Durrell overlays narrative bits in the Quartet, each bit accrues about it its own story, such as Scobie’s apotheosis from a cross-dressing transvestite and alcoholic to the saintly El Scob with his annual feast day. Each overlay aligns planes of emotion that produce a greater impact in their ensemble than might any incident taken singly. Like Balthazar’s “wet crabs” each incident has a narrative ‘life’ as it expressed through the contact with or awareness of another incident. Examples come to mind such as that of Balthazar’s gold ankh (J, 94), a key he uses to wind his pocket watch and the loss and discovery of which triggers its own narrative. Justine has an eburnine ring (B, 200). During the masked Carnival, when rings or wedding bands serve as signs of identity, Justine gives her ring to a minor character, Toto de Bunuel, so that she might pursue an unknown mission anonymously.  Toto, mistaken for Justine, is murdered that very night with her ring on his finger. Upon his return to Alexandria, Darley glimpses Clea for the first time “by chance, not design:”

My heart heeled half-seas over for a moment, for she was sitting where once (that first day) Melissa had been sitting, gazing at a coffee cup with a wry reflective air of amusement, with her hands supporting her chin.  The exact station in place and time where I had once found Melissa, and with such difficulty mustered enough courage at last to enter the place and speak to her.  It gave me a strange sense of unreality to repeat this forgotten action at such a great remove of time, like unlocking a door which had remained closed and bolted for a generation.  Yet it was in truth Clea and not Melissa, and her blonde head was bent with an air of childish concentration over her coffee cup.  She was in the act of shaking the dregs three times and emptying them into the saucer to study them as they dried into the contours from which fortune-tellers ‘skry’ — a familiar gesture (C, 76-7).

As Darley’s and the reader’s consciousness of the overlay grow, so does the potential for meaning. The story of Balthazar’s ankh – so redolent with suggestions of time — winds the time of its loss and discovery into a recursive loop.  Justine’s ring, exhumed from an ancient tomb, partakes of death and confers it, however unintentionally. Darley’s vision of Clea superimposed upon the memory of Melissa “refund[s] an old love in a new” (C, 112). Melissa is the most vulnerable, marginalized and yet the strongest female in the Quartet, and Clea must be reborn before assuming her nature as artist. As Darley remarks to himself, as if speaking of a grammar of the heart, “And in my own life … the three women who also arranged themselves as if to represent the moods of the great verb, Love: Melissa, Justine and Clea” (C, 177). Enacting the relativity proposition across episodes, then, has everything to do with form. As Balthazar comments, “To intercalate realities is the only way to be faithful to time” (B, 226). Or, in Durrell’s own words:

The root [of the mirror game] is relatively banal like an Agatha Christie novel; but by changing the lighting the reality of the thing is changed. My primary game was to write a Tibetan novel rather than a European novel. I attempted to bring together the four Greek dimensions, which are the basis of our mathematics and the five skandas of Chinese Buddhism. For us the individual consciousness of each person is filtered through five perceptions and notions. I wanted to observe what would become an ordinary novel if one changed the lighting and if individuality became blurred. What seems stable in Mountolive in the Quartet is simply the collection of states that are always in agitation. In Chinese philosophy destiny is not limited to a single life; it is well known that you don’t learn anything in one life (Conversations, 197-8).


An essay such as this is can offer but a glimpse of the Quartet because the novel lends itself to multiple types of reading. We can read it for the exoticism of its setting, for its treatment of modern love and for Durrell’s skills as a literary innovator, “An assassin of polish.”[17] As Durrell himself remarked:

The thing was, I wanted to produce something that would be readable on a superficial level, while at the same time giving he reader—to the extent that he was touched by the more enigmatic aspects—the opportunity to attempt the second layer, and so on …Just like a house-painter; he puts on three, four coats. And then it starts to rain, and you see the second coat coming through. A sort of palimpsest (BS, 66).

Durrell noted often and brilliantly that the English language had only one word for love. “The richest of human experiences is also the most limited in its range of expression. Words kill love as they kill everything else” (M, 48). One paradox of Durrell’s treatment of “modern love” is its power to convince Darley of his own objectivity while he is in the midst of the purest egotism. “For observation throws down a field about the observed person or object” (M, 160). His reading of events, however sincere as a seeker of ‘truth’, is still bound unwittingly by the emotional perspective of the loving, and aching, ‘self’. [18] We learn as we read in Justine, “Egotism is a fortress in which the conscience de soi-même, like a corrosive, eats away everything. True pleasure is in giving surely” (53). The notion of the “impossible ego” (Conversations, 214), moreover, is the thematic bridge between the investigation into modern love with the birth of Darley and Clea as artists. Darley discovers his truer expanded self by letting go of his ego and by letting go of Clea and his love for her at the end of the fourth volume. The letting go of his love, and Clea’s intuitive acceptance of the gesture, serves in part to transform both Darley and Clea into artists. Such a pleasure in loving without attachment is the novel’s concluding redemptive moment.

In the investigation, the selfishness of modern love is so necessary, because through the narcissism one comes to the poetic realization and at the end they (Clea and Darley) are both fit to marry each other, so to speak. They have evaluated sexuality and attachment as its true function and they use it in the most spiritual way possible, because it’s information, it’s the algebra of love they’ve discovered” (Conversations, 243).

Durrell’s insistence on the spirituality of their love explains his choice of De Sade for the epigraphs of each novel. De Sade is as “infantile as modern man is: cruel, hysterical, stupid, and destructive – just like us all. [De Sade] is our spiritual malady personified.” [19] In order to release the love and the art within, one must conquer the ego in a Taoist sense. Another contemporary novelist obsessed with form is David Foster Wallace. In reference to the writer’s attitude to her work, he once commented, “The obvious fact that the kids [young writers of the 1990’s] don’t Want to Write so much as Want to Be Writers makes their letters so depressing.”[20] The phrase ‘Want to Be Writers’, in effect, erects statues in honour of and submission to the demands of the ego. The second ‘Want to Write’ presupposes an ‘I’ who creates from beyond the bounds of ego, as did Blake, so as not to be enslaved by the creations of another man. The Quartet concludes in a position of spiritual equilibrium. Clea and Darley are in love but are not together. Their love exists all the more powerfully in the egoless plenitude of its possibility. The “nudge” from the universe felt by Darley at the novel’s last page prompts him to begin a story with the words “Once upon a time.” The time has come for Darley to write from a posture of serenity, of actionless action. To those few artists who can perceive with the Taoist smile in their mind’s eye, such a cosmic nudge is nevertheless the most furtive and yet the most enduring.

 To the lucky now who have lovers or friends,
Who move to their sweet undiscovered ends,
Or whom the great conspiracy deceives,
I wish these whirling autumn leaves:
Promontories splashed by the salty sea,
Groaned on in darkness by the tram
To horizons of love or good luck or more love –
As for me now I move
Through many negatives to what I am.[21]



—Paul M. Curtis



Alyn, Marc. The Big Supposer: A Dialogue with Marc Alyn. Trans. Francine Barker. London: Abelard-Scuman, 1973.

Durrell, Lawrence. A Smile in the Mind’s Eye. London: Wildwood House, 1980.

_______________. The Alexandria Quartet. 4 vols. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961.

_______________. Collected Poems: 1931-1974. Ed. James A. Brigham. New York: Viking Press, 1980.

Haag, Michael. “Only the City Is Real: Lawrence Durrell’s Journey to Alexandria.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 26, Wanderlust: Travel Literature of Egypt and the Middle East(2006): 39-47.

Hitchens, Christopher. Arguably. Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2011.

Ingersoll, Earl G. Ed. Conversations. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

Kaczvinsky, Donald P. “When Was Darley in Alexandria? A Chronology for The Alexandria Quartet.” Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 17 No. 4 (Spring, 1991): 591-594.

MacNiven, Ian A. “Lawrence George Durrell.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ( 11 July 2012.

______________. Lawrence Durrell: A Biography. London: Faber & Faber, 1998.

Max, D. T. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.  New York: Viking, 2012.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage International, 1992.

Morrison, Ray. A Smile in his Mind’s Eye: A Study of the Early Works of Lawrence Durrell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

____________. “Mirrors and the Heraldic Universe in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 33 No. 4 (Winter, 1987): 499-514.

Wedin, Warren. “The Artist as Narrator in The Alexandria Quartet.” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 18 No. 3 (July, 1972): 175-180.

Wood, Michael. “Sink or Skim.” London Review of Books Vol. 31 No 1, 1 January 2009.


Paul M. Curtis

Paul M. Curtis is Director of the English Department at l’Université de Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, where he has taught English Language and Literature since 1990. He has published numerous articles on the poetry and prose of Lord Byron. Professor Curtis is preparing the first digital scholarly edition of Byron’s correspondence.




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. All citations are from The Alexandria Quartet, 4 vols. (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1961) and are indicated by the initial of the volume: J, B, M, C and page number.
  2. Thanks to ECW Press at the University of Victoria, the first two novels have been recently republished. In the The Black Book, the protagonist Lawrence Lucifer transforms himself into an artist by liberating himself from the mind-forg’d manacles of England’s manufacture. Ray Morrison, in his A Smile in his Mind’s Eye: A Study of the Early Works of Lawrence Durrell (Toronto: U of T Press, 2005), is the only critic who has come to terms with the LGD’s debt to Taoism.
  3. Quoted in Ian MacNiven’s biographical article in the ODNB:
  4. The Big Supposer: A Dialogue with Marc Alyn, trans. Francine Barker (London: Abelard-Scuman, 1973) 11.
  5. Conversations, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998) 207. Hereafter Conversations followed by page number. This collection of interviews is essential reading.
  6. On the chronology of the novel see, Donald P. Kaczvinsky’s “When Was Darley in Alexandria? A Chronology for The Alexandria Quartet,” Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 17 No. 4 (Spring, 1991): 591-594.
  7. Monsieur, je suis devenue la solitude même. ”Melissa to Pursewarden as they dance (M, 168).
  8. Ian A. MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1998) 466.
  9. Quoted in Warren Wedin, “The Artist as Narrator in The Alexandria Quartet,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 18 No. 3 (July, 1972): 175.
  10. My attention to the detail of narrative divisions in the AQ is out of respect to LGD’s formal intentions. If one were to cast her eye over the entire tetralogy and divide each novel into its sub-headings of numerical division, book or chapter number, and then calculate the number of pages contained in each book’s smallest division, the reader would begin to get the impression of the formal (a)symmetries and narrative rhythms that LGD exploits.
  11. Michael Wood, “Sink or Skim,” London Review of Books Vol. 31 No 1, 1 January 2009.
  12. To pilfer one of Christopher Hitchens’ phrases, see the essay “Rebecca West: Things worth Fighting For,” [2007] in his collection, Arguably (Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2011) 194.
  13. See Conversations, “If you remember scenes or characters and can’t quite remember which book they come in, it proves that the four are one work tightly woven, doesn’t it? The joiner is the reader, the continuum is his private property. One dimension in light of the other.” (71).
  14. As Ray Morrison informs us, mirrors occur 120 times in the AQ. “Mirrors and the Heraldic Universe in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 33 No. 4 (Winter, 1987): 499-514.
  15. This brilliant phrase is original to Cormac McCarthy in his Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (New York: Vintage International, 1992) 247.
  16. Durrell’s notebook “A Cosmography of the Womb, London Jan 1939,” is quoted in Michael Haag’s “Only the City Is Real: Lawrence Durrell’s Journey to Alexandria,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 26, Wanderlust: Travel Literature of Egypt and the Middle East(2006): 42.
  17. “Style,” Collected Poems: 1931-1974, ed. James A. Brigham (New York: Viking Press, 1980) 243-4.
  18. “Then in the relativity field you get the relation of subject and object completely changed. In other words you can’t look at a field without influencing it. A very singular thing” (Conversations, 121).
  19. MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell, 433.
  20. See the first full-length biography on DFW by D. T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story (New York: Viking, 2012) 178.
  21. “Alexandria,” Collected Poems, 154, lines 1-9.
May 152013

Herewith Betsy Sholl’s diffident, respectful and intensely thoughtful essay on Osip Mandelstam, his life, poetry, and translations. Betsy is a dear friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she teaches poetry and I teach prose and we meet and catch up every six months at the residencies in Montpelier. At once an essay about poetry and about the art of translation, “The Dark Speech of Silence Laboring” plays on the oscillation between intimacy and distance involved in reading poems in translation and ends by celebrating that distance. She writes: “Maybe the sense of lifting one veil only to find another describes all reading, describes our human condition.”


When I ask myself why, for the last several years, I have gone back to the work Osip Mandelstam more than any other poet, the answer seems to involve some combination of the man and his work, or perhaps the man in his work.  There is an  intimacy in his voice that carries a quality of purity, as if the poems welled up from within and were first whispered to himself as provisional stays against the chaos around him.  The words are like boulders allowing him to cross a difficult river, one bank being his own interior life, the other the outside world of Soviet life.  Even in translation the intensity of his language comes through, a sense of the physicality of his words, an almost palpable voice.  His genius for metaphor is clear: in the rapidity of association images have that quality of transformability or convertibility, which he admires in Dante, whose  “similes that are,” he says, “never descriptive, that is, purely representational.  They always pursue the concrete goal of giving the inner image of the structure or the force… (Conversation about Dante).”  To suggest something of the original quality of his mind, here is a prose description from Journey to Armenia:

I managed to observe the clouds performing their devotions to Ararat.

It was the descending and ascending motion of cream when it is poured into a glass of ruddy tea and roils in all directions like cumulous tubers.

The sky in the land of Ararat gives little pleasure, however, to the Lord of Sabaoth; it was dreamed by the blue titmouse in the spirit of the most ancient atheism.

There is in the passage, of course, the delicious metaphor of clouds like cream in tea.  But there is so much more.  Ararat is the mountain where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed, which suggests a world in dubious straits—some element of survival surrounded by vast destruction. If the Jewish God is one of justice and order, then the roiling clouds suggest a kind of airily chaotic movement in contrast to the rest commanded by the “Lord of Sabaoth.”  I don’t fully understand the blue titmouse, but it seems that this resting place, this starting place for the new order of life is still in tension with something older, wilder, not to be easily subdued.  Clouds like tubers, descending and ascending, atheism and the blue titmouse—God seems hardly able to control the world he has been trying to get right!

Though Mandelstam conveys a kind of interior landscape that can seem very private, nevertheless the poems are deeply engaged with culture and history, registering the rapid changes in the world around him.   The poems work with interior images, like much lyric poetry of our current time, but Mandelstam does not merely depict his own sensibility; he takes all the resources of lyricism and uses them to address the world around him.


For several reasons the poems can be difficult.  Some have to do with our ignorance of Russian culture and history: we miss the lines of other poets embedded in his own, and many subtle allusions a Russian reader would recognize.  Other references and associative leaps come from such a deeply personal place, the best we can do is catch the resonance, the dust flying off his boot soles. His widow Nadezhda Mandelstam sometimes argues against accepted interpretations of certain poems, as though even Russian scholars have missed private allusions. In his “Conversation about Dante,” Mandelstam himself compares the rapidity of poetic association to running across a river, “jammed with mobile Chinese junks sailing at various directions.”  He continues, “This is how the meaning of poetic speech is created.   Its route cannot be reconstructed by interviewing the boatmen: they will not tell how and why we were leaping from junk to junk.”   So we make our way, leaping, stumbling.  Despite the difficulties and the problems of translation, Mandelstam’s emotional openness and vulnerability clearly come across.

HopeAnd that brings me to the life.  Mandelstam was born in 1891, and came of age during the revolution with its various conflicting parties, its terrorism and deprivations.  I won’t spend time here on biography or Russian history—those things are easy enough to find.  Suffice it to say the aftermath of revolution was chaotic with various leaders in and out of power, endless atrocities.  In the mid ‘20s Stalin rose to the top.  By 1930 he had published a letter announcing that “nothing should be published that was at variance with the official point of view.”  In 1933, as if silent acquiescence had become intolerable, Mandelstam composed his famous “Stalin Epigram” and read it to at least two different gatherings, clearly aware someone would probably turn him in.   Nadezhda Mandelstam, in her memoir Hope Against Hope, says in doing this, he was “choosing his manner of death.”  Perhaps the real crime, and for Mandelstam the real necessity, was what she calls “the usurpation of the right to words and thoughts that the ruling powers reserved exclusively for themselves….”   At any rate, it was like signing his own death sentence, which Mandelstam himself suggested in a kind of recklessly sanguine moment when he said to her, “Why do you complain?  Poetry is respected only in this country—people kill for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”  In Mandelstam’s case, he was jailed, interrogated and eventually exiled for three years, from 1934 to May of 1937, then arrested again in May of 1938, and sentenced to hard labor.  He died in a transit camp in Eastern Siberia that December.  Here’s the poem in Merwin’s translation:


Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms of his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
one for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

[November, 1933]


W.S. Merwin

This poem is more accessible than most of Mandelstam’s poems, which suggests he felt his fate closing in, and wanted to make his position clear, leaving nothing to ambiguity.  Certain lines of Merwin’s version are burned into my mind, and I hate to even look at other versions: “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,”  “Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses,” “He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.”  However, if we look at the Hayward translation, which is the one printed in Hope Against Hope, there is “the broad-chested Ossette,”  and that reference is clearly in the original.  Apparently there was some question about whether Stalin was actually from Georgian or Ossetia, the small republic next door.  Ossetians were viewed as less refined and more violent, so Stalin officially claimed to be Georgian.   It’s telling to consider that even as Mandelstam recited the poem, knowing the dangers, he was concerned with its artistic quality, and said he wanted to get rid of those last lines, they were no good. Perhaps Merwin was wise to avoid a reference the poet himself questioned, and that wouldn’t mean much to English readers anyway.  The “berries” in Merwin are raspberries in the original, which apparently is gangster-speak for the criminal underworld.   It is clear from just these little points how compacted a Mandelstam poem is, even one of his most accessible.  Joseph Brodsky has said that this “overloaded” quality of his verse is what makes Mandelstam unique.   (For the most part he worked in traditional forms—rhyme and iambic meter.)


Joseph Brodsky

Given our experience in America, where poems, cartoons, rants on just about everything go into the blogosphere with no repercussions, it may be good to stop a moment and realize the nature of Soviet life.  The closest parallel in our times might be the fundamentalist extremism of certain theocracies.  In Soviet Russia the state controlled everything—work, housing, food.  Arrests, sentences of hard labor or exile, executions were ongoing.  Currying favor was basically the only way to have any kind of bearable life—a place to stay, enough work to survive, ration books for food.  Many intellectuals and artists caved, turned in fellow writers, wrote what would get them the few benefits available, or else they sat out the terror in silence.  So, what made it possible for Mandelstam to speak out?  He chose to respond to Stalin as a poet, in a poem read to other poets, so I wonder if there is something in his concept of poetry that contributed to his ability to resist what Nadezhda calls “a rationalist program of social change [that] demanded blind faith and obedience to authority.”  Of course there are many factors separate from poetry involving background, education, character, a whole complex belief system.  But there must have been something in his understanding of poetry and its place in the world that contributed as well.

For one thing, with his fellow Acmeists he rejected the Russian Symbolist emphasis on a form of subjectivity that considered the poet a superior being, whose poem was significant only in so far as it was the vehicle for the poet’s statements.  For the more extreme Symbolists, the world was insignificant and the spirit all; they were happy to mix and match spiritual doctrines for their own ends.  That kind of individualism and subjectivity can easily lead to an emphasis on self-preservation at any cost, a willingness to reinvent one’s frame of reference to suit that end.  In contrast, the Acmeists valued craft, the poem in itself, and they valued the phenomenal world.  Mandelstam once defined Acmeism as “nostalgia for world culture.”  Nadezhda says, it was “also an affirmation of life on earth and social concern.”  In “The Morning of Acmeism,” Mandelstam says, “The earth is not an encumbrance or an unfortunate accident, but a God-given palace.”   That implies attention and awe, and also a belief system that looks beyond the utilitarian.  As to nostalgia for world culture, that implies an awareness of history, the classical world, a larger frame of reference and sensibility than his own moment.   Along with this was his personal sense of identification with his fellow humans, among whom he lived and shared a fate, and his sense of not speaking for them, but with them.

Because Mandelstam valued craft, attended to the roots and origins of words, to tradition, nothing in his understanding of himself or poetry would allow him to write propaganda.  Identifying with the people, with the earth, and a larger world perhaps reinforced his own innate sense of responsibility.  As a Jew in Tsarist Russia, he was used to being on the edge of admission, which may have helped him remain clear eyed and skeptical of mass indoctrination.


Finally, there was his sense of poetry as a calling, not a profession.  He once pushed a fellow poet down the stairs for complaining about not getting published, and shouted at him, “What Jesus Christ published?”  He lived a literary life, writing essays while traveling by boxcar and crashing at various places.   But he didn’t will poems into being.  Either they came or they didn’t.  When they came, they often began physically as a ringing in the ears before the formation of words, a process he described as “the recollection of something that has never before been said, and the search for lost words….”  He didn’t sit at a desk.  He paced, or walked through the streets, muttering, concentrating so hard, sometimes he’d get lost.  He never wrote down the “Stalin Epigram.”  Whoever turned him in remembered it well enough to recite it for the police to write down.  If Mandelstam had been less overwhelmed by his interrogator, he’d have known from the version shown him, which reading his betrayer had attended.  At any rate, such a view of art and such a mode of composition suggest that poetry was too essential to his very being to be transgressed.  The one time he composed at a desk it was his “Ode to Stalin,” written in the hope of gaining his freedom, but written with such contradictions embedded in the language, it couldn’t possibly have worked.  He simply couldn’t conceal his attitude toward tyranny, murder, blind obedience and self-interest.

I used to think Mandelstam was harassed for being a personal poet, for maintaining belief in the individual spirit, in independence and privacy, against the tyranny of the collective.  You might see that in this poem, “Leningrad,” as translated by Merwin.

I’ve come back to my city. These are my own old tears,
my own little veins, the swollen glands of childhood.

So you’re back.  Open wide.  Swallow
the fish-oil from the river lamps of Leningrad.

Open your eyes.  Do you know this December day,
the egg-yolk with the deadly tar beaten into it?

Petersburg!  I don’t want to die yet!
You know my telephone numbers.

Petersburg!  I’ve still got the addresses:
I can look up dead voices.

I live on back stairs, and the bell,
torn out nerves and all, jangles in my temples.

And I wait till morning for guests that I love,
and rattle the door in its chains.

Leningrad, née St. Petersburg, is where Mandelstam grew up.  And where like Dante he was never able to live again.  This was composed in 1930, during Mandelstam’s final unsuccessful attempt to settle in Leningrad. I love the way he evokes childhood in the first couplet, and then moves from the swollen glands to the second couplet, which seems to superimpose onto that childhood with its fish-oil tonic the darker experience.  “Open wide.  Swallow,” a mother or doctor might say to a child.  But now he is swallowing the new city of Leningrad, no longer Petersburg, no longer the capital or the most Western city in Russia.  Now he is swallowing the oily river.  “Open your eyes” the speaker says to himself, and raises the question of “this December day,” the deadly tar in the egg—as if everything now is dangerous.  December evokes the Petersburg worker strikes, which could be called the start of the revolution in 1904.

“Petersburg!” he cries out, addressing the old life. “Petersburg!”—the city where his friend and Akhmatova’s husband Nicolai Gumilev was executed,  the city that evokes his desire to live and his fear of dying.  Tapped wires, death threats, the old addresses of those who have been arrested or killed.  Apartments split up so people live in just one room, or less.  Internal and external disharmony—the bell’s torn wires, the frayed nerves.  And the speaker waits all night for “the guests that I love,” some remaining fragment of humanity, perhaps.  He rattles his own door, as if it’s been locked from outside—an image of the individual trying to break out of the imposed restriction.

But is this what Mandelstam wrote?  Bernard Meares’ translation, apparently approved by Joseph Brodsky, ends with these two couplets:

I live on the backstairs and the doorbell buzz
Strikes me in the temple and tears at my flesh.

And all night long I await those dear guests of yours,
Rattling, like manacles, the chains on the doors.

Osipbook1“Dear guests,” according to Meares, is a euphemism for the political police. Tony Brinkley, who also translates Mandelstam, says that “gostei dorogikh (‘dear guests’) might also be translated as ‘special visitors.’  Dorogik apparently means ‘dear’ as in expensive, i.e. you pay dearly.  Gostei can also mean ‘visitors’.  In any case these guests, I think, are the Cheka, the GPU, the political police.”  So in Meares’ version, it’s the speaker who has chained the door, though the need for those chains makes them feel like manacles, and also suggests a fear of future imprisonment.  But the guests clearly are not loved ones; those “dear guests of yours” suggests the beloved city is now in collusion with the police, the old city of his childhood, the cultural capital, is gone, and the place now is associated with danger, betrayal, arrest

Meares gives us a different poem, maybe even a different poet from Merwin’s, and a significant filling in of our understanding. Still, the Merwin to my mind is a better poem.   Compare the first 3 couplets:

I’ve come back to my city. These are my own old tears,
my own little veins, the swollen glands of childhood.

So you’re back.  Open wide.  Swallow
the fish-oil from the river lamps of Leningrad.

Open your eyes.  Do you know this December day,
the egg-yolk with the deadly tar beaten into it?

to Meares:

I returned to my city, familiar as tears,
As veins, as mumps from childhood years.

You’ve returned here, so swallow as quick as you can
The cod-liver oil of Leningrad’s riverside lamps.

Recognize when you can December’s brief day:
Egg yolk folded into its ominous tar.

The Meares has little of Merwin’s fluidity, Merwin’s music, swollen glands to swallow, the use of “Open wide” and “Swallow” to evoke childhood, which then shifts to the poet’s self injunction to be to open his own eyes, a move from the old nurture to the current need for vigilance.   Merwin in general is more concrete and more colloquial.

Osipbook2But did Merwin read a softer, less political Mandelstam, one for whom nostalgia was stronger than anxiety, one less willing to define the nature of experience in Soviet Russia?

The Meares translation in particular suggests that for Mandelstam the political and the personal were never separate, that he responded to the world around him with all of his interior resources.  Here is a poem (Merwin translation) written during the last six months of his exile in Voronezh, # 355:

Now I’m in the spider-web of light.
The people with all the shadows of their hair
need light and the pale blue air
and bread, and snow from the peak of Elbrus.

And there’s no one I can ask about it.
Alone, where would I look?
These clear stones weeping themselves
come from no mountains of ours.

The people need poetry that will be their own secret
to keep them awake forever,
and bathe them in the bright-haired wave
of its breathing.

Osipbook4Richard and Elizabeth McKane say, “The people need a poem that is both mysterious and familiar.”  I guess we can see this poem as a model—the spider web of light, the shadow of hair, juxtaposed with Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Caucasus.  There’s something mysterious in those images, at least to my mind.  What does it mean to be in the “spider-web of light?”  Is the poet caught, a fly entangled in the web?  Yes.  But it’s a web of light, and the people need light.   So perhaps it’s not only an image of entrapment, but also one of being at the center of an act of making.   There’s an old myth that has Prometheus shackled to Mt. Elbrus, so perhaps Mandelstam is imagining a new Prometheus who would meet his people’s needs, not stealing fire, but language from the gods of the state.

Then there’s the poet’s isolation.  As the McKanes have it, “There’s no one to give me advice, and I don’t think I can work it out on my own.”   Mandelstam is literally isolated, having set out on a course of resistance.   Beyond that, questions of what the people need, what the poet can give, what the light exposes, are bigger than anyone can fully answer. There’s both vulnerability and resolve in these lines.  The weeping stones—perhaps in snow melt, or a stream from that mountain—also combine something hard with something vulnerable, a lament perhaps for the distance the current age has moved from its cultural heights.  The poem itself is a mix of strength and weakness, assertion and secrecy.   Poetry becomes a means of awakening, but secret, as opposed to corrupted by public speech.   Whatever translation we look to for the end, we see that quality of transformability that Mandelstam praises in Dante, as poetry in its cleansing power becomes water, wind, voice and breath.  In the McKane’s translation the connection to earth is more prominent, but in either case there’s an immersion, poetry as a form of cleansing.

Late Mandelstam poems are very compressed, and often combine a sense of pleasure or beauty with a sense of doom.   Here’s a short poem from March 1937, not too divergent in its translations,  Merwin’s translation of “Winejug”:

Bad debtor to an endless thirst,
wise pander of wine and water,
the young goats jump up around you
and the fruits are swelling to music.

The flutes shrill, they rail and shriek
because the black and red all around you
tell of ruin to come
and no one there to change it.

In a museum in Voronezh Mandelstam had seen a Greek urn on which satyrs are playing flutes, and apparently angry at the chipped condition of the jug.  But of course we can’t help reading as well the state of the country, and situation of the Mandelstams in particular.   I think of Mandelstam visiting the museum in Voronezh, and no matter what pressure he is under—broke, spied upon, unable to get work, having to change apartments constantly—still he celebrates these artifacts of world culture—celebrates and mourns.   In the same month he writes “The Last Supper”:

The heaven of the supper fell in love with the wall.
It filled it with cracks.  It fills them with light.
It fell into the wall.  It shines out there
in the form of thirteen heads.

And that’s my night sky, before me,
and I’m the child standing under it,
my back getting cold, an ache in my eyes,
and the wall-battering heaven battering me.

At every blow of the battering ram
stars without eyes rain down,
new wounds in the last supper,
the unfinished mist on the wall.

[Merwin’s translation]

We begin with a sort of allegory.  The heaven of the supper fell in love with the wall.  The intensity of heaven both cracks the weak vessel of the wall and fills it with light, which suggests an incarnation, the divine breaking into the human, and also perhaps something about how inspiration works.  We’re looking at Da Vinci’s painting, of course, so this light manifests itself through the thirteen heads of the disciples and Christ—as if illumination needs concrete vessels.  Thoughts of the painting move him to recognize another form of illumination, the night sky, before which he becomes a child—in memory and in the experience of awe.  But if he feels the awe of a child, under the whole night sky, there is also a chill—the cold is at his back, the ache in his eyes.  This heaven has something of violence in it—wall-battering and battering him.  A more positive reading of this image suggests the way any spiritual or aesthetic experience breaks down walls, knocks us out of our habitual slumber, out of the familiar and into the strange ache of revelation.

But then the poem turns to a different kind of battering for sure: the battering ram, stars without eyes—headless stars, the McKanes say—whatever they are, they are no longer the disciples bearing a message of forgiveness and peace.  New wounds in the last supper, suggest new betrayals, new deaths.  Christ on the cross said, “It is finished,” but here nothing is finished, the battering goes on.   I don’t know what that “mist” is about.  The McKanes translate that as “the gloom of an unfinished eternity…,” so maybe it alludes to the mist and chaos at the beginning of creation.  The painting Mandelstam would have seen in was severely damaged in the 17th and 18th centuries.   In the last verse, according to the McKanes, the word “ram” in Russian is “tarana,” one vowel away from “tirana,” which means tyrant.

Here’s one more poem, this one from Mandelstam’s  early days in Voronezh.   It’s the second poem recorded in the notebooks he kept there.   From Voronezh, April, 1935:

Manured, blackened, worked to a fine tilth, combed
like a stallion’s mane, stroked under the wide air,
all the loosened ridges cast up in a single choir,
the damp crumbs of my earth and my freedom!

In the first days of plowing it’s so black it looks blue.
Here the labor without tools begins.
A thousand mounds of rumor plowed open—I see
the limits of this have no limits.

Yet the earth’s a mistake, the back of an axe;
fall at her feet, she won’t notice.
She pricks up our ears with her rotting flute,
freezes them with the wood-winds of her morning.

How good the fat earth feels on the plowshare.
How still the steppe, turned up to April.
Salutations, black earth.  Courage.  Keep the eye wide.
Be the dark speech of silence laboring.

Merwin gives the suggestion of a horse more emphasis than other translators, who just say “well groomed,” or “everything groomed withers.”   I’d like to think Merwin here is closer to the way Mandelstam works, with the same convertibility or transformability of Dante.  There is an associative logic in going from manured earth, to that “fine tilth combed like a horse’s mane,” and then to let the horse move on pulling its plough, while the speaker remains looking at the turned-up earth like rows in a choir loft.   Already a connection between earth and language is suggested, as well as earth and freedom, as if there is liberty in being grounded, in earth as a physical counter-weight to abstraction and deceit, the entire Bolshevik collective machinery.   Merwin’s “labor without tools” suggests the earth’s own work of germination, separate from what its workers might will.  While other translators speak of “unwarlike labor” or render the phrase as “ploughing is pacifist work,”  Merwin’s “the labor without tools” hints more at Mandelstam’s way of composition—the labor of language beginning to emerge first without language.   I don’t know what Russian word “rumor “ is translating, but it’s interesting that the Latin root of our “rumor” means “noise.”  We tend to read it as pejorative, but it could also hint at something else, the incipient word coming from a distance (literal or psychic), not yet fully heard or realized.  In “The Word and Culture” Mandelstam writes “Poetry is a plough, turning up time so that its deep layers, its black earth appear on top.”  Clearly, earth and language are intimately connected here.  And yet earth is a mistake.   Is it a mistake to the Soviets who can’t control it they way they can control human beings?   Or is it a mistake for us to expect consolation from the earth?   No answered prayers, no protection in nature.   But there is a kind of music that is mixed with its own demise, its own vulnerability.  Earth pricks our ears with her rotting flute, or her mildewed flute, she sharpens our hearing with her dying flute.   What moves, what quickens us in the natural world is its very temporal nature.   Our ears are ploughed (in Greene) or frozen—big difference—with morning sounds: the wood-winds of morning, a chilly morning clarinet.   The music is not permanent, but it sharpens or whets our hearing.  How clearly Merwin goes for the more physical: “pricks up our ears,” which hints at the horse in those opening lines.

There’s a celebration in the final quatrain.  The silence is fruitful, a germination.

Salutations, black earth.  Courage.  Keep the eye wide.
Be the dark speech of silence laboring.

I love Merwin’s continuation of the direct address, a kind of simpatico here, a little shared and benign conspiracy.   The McKanes break that sense with,  “There is a fertile black silence in work.” Greene: “A black-voiced silence is at work.”    In any case, the silence is fruitful, there’s a germination going on, something stirring—perhaps Mandelstam’s hope that there in Voronezh language will come back to him, an unwarlike work.  But the place isn’t without danger.  He is still under surveillance.  Even the earth needs courage, needs to keep the eye wide, and the speech that comes may be dark.  Later, in fact, he will write a darker poem, which reduces the earth to the size of his grave:

You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you?  Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

Mandelstam found other things left to him, even in exile.  “You’re still alive,” he tells himself, and lists those great oxymorons: “Opulent poverty, regal indigence!”  If we ask how a poet can survive under deprivation and oppression, perhaps the ability to live in contradictions, to accept paradox has something to do with it.  Mandelstam uses the word “blessed,” and speaks of his work as innocent, “the labor’s singing sweetness,” or in the McKane, “the sweet-voiced work…without sin.”   So, his own integrity is a comfort.

Perhaps no better example of that integrity comes from the translation work of Tony Brinkley and Raina Kostova.   Here is their translation of the fourth section of “Lines on the Unknown Soldier,” complete with some Russian words left in the text to illustrate their point:

An Arabian medley, muddled, tangled, crumbling,
World-light of velocities, ground to a beam—
On my retina the beam pauses
In my eye on squinted feet.

Millions of dead men cheaply killed
Have walked a path through emptiness—
Good night!  Best wishes to them all!
From the façade, the face of these earth-fortresses.

Sky of the trenches, incorruptible,
The sky of mass, of wholesale deaths,
Beyond, behind—away from you—entirely—
I am moving with my lips in darkness.

Beyond the craters, the voronki, behind embankments,
Scree, osypi—where he lingered, darkened,
Overturning—gloomy, pockmarked, ospennyi
The unsettled graves’ belittled genius.

In the final stanza the translators show us how carefully Mandelstam worked, nesting words within words, drawing on roots and origins, using echo and innuendo—much as Dante does, whom Mandelstam read in the original Italian.  Brinkley and Kostova include some of the Russian words here, along with notes to explain the way meanings are embedded.   They point out that voronki means “craters,” but also names Voronezh, and more than that it is also the name for the “ ‘little ravens,’ the black vans that roamed city streets at night and that the police used to transport prisoners.”   Mandelstam’s name, Osip, appears in osypi (scree) and ospennyi (pockmarked), but those words also suggest Stalin’s pockmarked face and his given name, which is also Joseph or Osip.  Just this brief excerpt shows us how carefully Mandelstam worked, his ear always to the language, hearing echoes, roots, reverberations.  Language was something almost sacred, it seems, far beyond a tool for manipulation.    The language becomes co-creator with the poet, suggesting a little more concretely what Mandelstam means when he describes his process as “the recollection of something that has never before been said, and the search for lost words…”—words lost within words, or buried there.


I was reluctant to write about Mandelstam for fear of a kind of desecration, my words dimming, rather than illuminating his work.  I am equally reluctant to conclude, perhaps for a similar reason.   One realization I’ve come to is that it would be an error to mistake intimacy with a translation for intimacy with the original.  But I would actually like to celebrate that distance.  When I first read Mandelstam’s “Conversation about Dante,” it was in winter.  I was sitting in the window with the whole vast black night behind me, and on my lap? –an English translation of that twentieth century post-revolution Russian writer discussing his reading of a medieval poet in the original Italian.  It seemed miraculous to be there, holding such vast distances in my hands. Perhaps the enormous gap in time, language, history, culture makes what we have all the more precious. Still, that gap is certainly real: between the text and what we can absorb, between Mandelstam and us, us and Dante, you and me.  Maybe the sense of lifting one veil only to find another describes all reading, describes our human condition.


A final reflection for me has to do with how we translate from Mandelstam’s life into our own.  Perhaps in any age artists face the possibility of corruption, involving self-preservation, careerism, lesser ambitions, attitudes of superiority to fellow citizens. Perhaps it’s always hard to see our own temptations. For me, across the distance of time and culture and extremity, Mandelstam becomes a model of integrity, a reminder of a larger world culture, perhaps now many world cultures; he challenges me to sharpen my craft, to both broaden my engagement with the world and be more interior—and not to assume there’s a divide between the two.   However limited our own audiences might be, those who find us still need a poetry that is “both mysterious and familiar,” that will be a shared secret to keep us awake: because even one reader counts in a world where nobody is expendable, which is the world Mandelstam loved and died for.

—Betsy Sholl


Brinkley, Tony and Kostova, Raina, “ ‘The Road to Stalin’: Mandelstam’s Ode to Stalin and ‘Lines on the Unknown Soldier,’’ Shofar, Summer 2003, Vol 21, N0. 4.

Mandelatam, Nadezhda,  Hope Against Hope:  A Memoir, trans. Max Hayward (New York: The Modern Library,1999).

Mandelstam, Osip, The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004).

Mandelstam, Osip. Selected Poems, trans. James Greene (London: Penguin, 2004).

Mandelstam, Osip, The Voronezh Notebooks, trans. Richard and Elizabeth McKane,(Newcastle Upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, Ltd., 1996).

Mandelstam, Osip. 50 Poems, trans. Bernard Meares (New York: Persea Books, 1977).

Mandelstam, Osip,  Complete Critical Prose,  trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link (Dana Point, California: Ardis, 1997).

Mandelstam, Osip, The Noise of Time, trans. Clarence Brown (New York:  Penguin Books, 1985).


Betsy Sholl served as Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.  She is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Rough Cradle (Alice James Books), Late Psalm, Don’t Explain,and The Red Line.  A new book is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press.   Her awards include the AWP Prize for Poetry, the Felix Pollak Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and two Maine Individual Artists Grants.  Recent poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Image, Field, Brilliant Corners, Best American Poetry, 2009, Best Spiritual Writing, 2012.  She teaches at the University of Southern Maine and in the MFA Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.





May 142013

Hilary, girl writer. Photo credit: Bill Hayward.Hilary Mullins, girl writer. Photo credit: bill hayward.

“Elephants Can Remember” is a sweet, all too brief memoir of a grandmother and a childhood from Hilary Mullins, a Vermont writer I have known since she was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, yea, these many years ago. Hilary was never my student but she has the gift of making friends, and she used to hang out in Francois Camoin’s room across from me in Noble Hall where a group of us would be drinking wine and talking late into the night. In this essay, Hilary writes about her beloved grandmother, nicknamed Germ, who was a force of nature, a tank, as one of her children called her, and a puzzle. One of the puzzles is how much she loved puzzles and mystery novels, especially the novels of Agatha Christie. This is Hilary’s fourth contribution to NC; she has previously published two sermons and a piece on Hurricane Irene in Bethel, VT. And it’s a gorgeous addition to our growing list of Childhood essays.

As an added perk we also have photographs of the girl writer by the renowned New York photographer bill hayward who happens to be Hilary’s uncle and who took the epic Gordon Lish photos we published a couple of issues ago. In an email, Hilary wrote: “For the record, the black and whites from my childhood were taken by Bill–check out that cowboy hat, eh? He gave it to me for my 5th birthday as I recall, and oh what a big deal it was. When I was 10 and he lived in Vermont too, I really couldn’t think of anything to do that was more exciting than going to visit my uncle Bill.”



One late summer day this year, I went up to the attic of the old house where I grew up, climbing the steep and narrow stairs to the open, slanted space, a familiar musty smell of aged wood and bat dung thick in my nose. Turning right, I walked along the top of the west ell of the house, threading between two long, chest-high mounds made by the sheets my father draped over shelves and boxes long ago to protect them from bat droppings. Though the bats are all but gone now—those little mummies wrapped in wrinkled sackcloth hanging upside down in clusters along the joists like dark seed pods everywhere–the sheets are still here, a sign of hope for their resurrection left so long I’ve forgotten what lies buried below.

But I’ve not forgotten what’s down to the right of the small, spidery window at the end of the ell: my grandmother’s things, boxes of pots and pans and chotzkes. Germie’s corner is how I think of that spot, and my guess is all of us in the family think of it that way: her stuff has been here twenty-five years, since she died one night in January  of ‘87, when I was just twenty-five myself.

Of course not everything my grandmother, whose name was Ethel, had is still here: five years ago, for instance, around the time of the anniversary of her passing, my dad and stepmother brought out a couple boxes of her jewelry, each of us at the dinner table choosing a few things, laughing as we picked through the baubles, fingering clip-on earrings, shaking our heads as we remembered the woman one of her sons, now gone himself, used to refer to as “my mother the Russian tank.”


So I knew the jewelry was gone. But that wasn’t what I was after: it never was. I was coming at last for the books. I had decided to write a mystery. Never mind I’ve never been a mystery reader myself: my grandmother was, most emphatically, and I thought I might take a clue from her. So pulling away the thin and dusty sheets, ashy attic grime smearing onto my fingers, I began to dig through the boxes until I found what I’d come for:  a book by Agatha Christie, the one writer I could remember for sure my grandmother had loved. And this particular book, called Elephants Can Remember, I even vaguely recognized, a hardcover book clad in an off-white cover, an outline image on the front of an elephant made up of puzzle pieces with one missing, a skull-shaped hole gaping just below his neck, the skull itself floating eerily just above, a bit of levitated, mock ghastliness I dimly remembered, the elephant and the skull and the book itself sitting on the shelf in her place, the top of which I could catch a glimpse of even now through the window in the attic, my grandmother’s two little kitchen windows below.

There in the little apartment fashioned out of the first floor of what once was a barn-slash-woodshed, a place we called, after her own joking suggestion, Ethel’s Luncheonette, she had read this book and done her crossword puzzles, my grandmother the Russian tank, a first-generation German born just after the turn of the last century, a stout woman with big feet and hands and a tissue stuck under the strap of her bra, a working class woman who liked her fancy clothes when occasion called for it, but usually wore colorful sweatshirts and polyester pants. Which, in my mind’s eye, she’s wearing still, enthroned in her large, wood-framed easy chair, sneakers propped on an overstuffed orange plastic hassock before her, cigarette adding its idle punctuation to her nonstop talk, that perennial bit of smoke drifting up from her fingers.

Germ in 1986, shortly before she died in this chair. Photo credit: Janet Hayward Burnham & Bill Hayward

Germ in 1986, shortly before she died in this chair. Photo credit: Janet Hayward Burnham & bill hayward

So, too, at night when Johnny Carson was over and we’d all gone to bed, she was in that chair, sipping her rum and Cokes, smoking her Pall Malls, drifting with her puzzles and er books long and late into the night, immersed in the word.

I, too, already, was immersed in the word back then, was famous—or infamous depending I suppose—for churning out book reports as steadily as our hot-air popper spewed out popcorn, reading books in bed, in trees, in class behind my Junior High English text book. And I was writing. Badly, childishly, but still. Writing. And as I got older and went away to boarding school, my stuff got darker.

My grandmother did not approve. “Why do you always have to write about sad things?” she’d chide me. “Write about something happy. People don’t want to read sad stories.” What did I say to her? I don’t know. All I remember is a little smoke between the ears, that particular keen-edged resentment young people can feel towards their all-knowing elders when they haven’t yet figured out how to articulate their own dissenting sense of a thing. Now, all these years later, it occurs to me we perhaps were after all, the same but different, going to books for analogous causes but in search of different balms. I wanted to find some expression, however transmuted, of the quiet disasters I was enduring. But my grandmother, I’d guess, went in order to think of different things altogether. And for that I cannot blame her.

Ethel Weippert Mullins had grown up poor in a large immigrant family, the oldest daughter of a violent German father who, I’ve been given the impression, would knock you across the room soon as talk to you, a policeman so infamously brutal that African Americans in Newark would cross the street rather than walk in front of his house. Though in the end my grandmother herself was a proud survivor, far as I can make out, life in her family was a series of catastrophes, her brothers drowning themselves in their bottles, one of her sisters becoming a drug addict, later murdered in the bathtub by her husband.

1975 Germ with her remaining siblings. Two--a brother and a sister--have already died (sister's murder is mentioned in essay).

1975 Germ with her remaining siblings. Two–a brother and a sister–have already died (one of her sisters was murdered). Photo credit: Janet Hayward Burnham & bill hayward

No wonder then my grandmother ran off just as soon as she could, fleeing with a handsome Canadian Irish man named Bernard who did not drink but gambled with the same reckless abandon her brothers had all taken to booze. For a while she lived with him in Montreal, doubtless hoping for a new and better life, but three little boys later, in the midst of the Depression, when that better life was not coming to pass, she left him, still so very young herself, and fled again back to the States to live with her mother in Connecticut, raising her sons on the rough side of Danbury and never marrying again.

Germ and her three boys in October of 1934. My father is on the left.

Germ and her three boys in October of 1934. My father is on the left.

So my grandmother, who’d had her fill of sad, quite understandably had no wish to go to books for more. Instead, I imagine her during those long nights alone, savoring her books and crossword puzzles like sweets, using their plots and grids to chart her way across the vast hours of darkness.

Because my grandmother stayed up so late, she also slept in, sometimes till as late as eleven, snoring so loudly that in the summer when we were little, we could hear her through the open window and catch scandalized glimpses of a high lump under the covers where we knew she was sleeping with no clothes on. But she was not to be wakened, a boundary she always reinforced by last thing at night locking her door, a Dutch-style door with an upper and lower half. Many a morning I gave that door a careful, quiet tug to see if it was still latched from the inside, but many a morning, it would not budge. Finally a half hour later, maybe a whole hour, you would hear it, the characteristic iron-striking-iron sound that door made when she popped the deadbolt open and threw back the cast iron swivel-arm that held the two halves together.

Then you were glad: the door was open and you went romping in, hoping for the spaghetti she would fry up with peppers and onions and eggs, hoping for her chipped beef, hoping for a hundred things. Because my grandmother gave continually, putting before us not just breakfast but dinner too some nights, and in between, brownies and chocolate puddings and games of cards, clearing her table to spread out another hand of Go Fish or Kings in the Corner. Summers she took us swimming, stowing a cooler in the trunk of her old Rambler which skittered up and down the dirt roads like an oversized Pepsi can. Then, at the lake, at a place where you could park all day for $3, we kids immersed ourselves like pollywogs in the miraculously clean water while she presided from the little beach in her lawn chair, the kind with aluminum pole legs and colorful plastic webbing, one leg crossed over the other, her big red painted toenails prominent even from out in the water. Finally, at some point she would always heft herself up and come in too, wading her bulk in, letting my little sister and me shimmy underwater through her legs a few times before she headed out for her own swim, using a stroke I still like to use myself from time to time, a combination of side and breast stroke, a strolling way through the water. Or she would roll over and rest there on the surface like a pontoon, placid and still. Her ability to do this mystified me. When I tried, I sank like a little barrel filled with sand. But she floated without even effort, imperturbable, content with her portion of water and sky.

1969, My brothers, sister and me

1969. My brothers, sister and me. Photo credit: Janet Hayward Burnham & bill hayward

Given all this, it was only natural we were keen in the mornings for our grandmother to wake. True, like any Russian tank, she might run us over from time to time—but never with malice, for though she was, to put it bluntly, bossy, she was not unkind. The only way any of us I think ever felt truly flattened by her was through her talk, which at times had a kind of stunning endlessness to it, a tendency which became more pronounced as she got older, the way she would neglect to finish the end of one sentence before taking off on another, fumbling for that tissue under her bra strap to wipe the sides of her mouth and yet still scarcely pausing, her words endlessly surging at you, as if you were trapped beneath a falls, the water coming constantly, bombarding you senseless.

Looking back, it seems to me some of this barrage must have found its springs in her loneliness—to come with us in the late sixties to rural Vermont, with its farmers and fields, our grandmother had left behind the rest of her family and friends back in Danbury, a move that had worked well when we were little, but to a large extent left her stranded as we got older and began to scatter and my parents’ marriage broke up too, leaving her alone for days on end three miles out from town on a back road, a situation that understandably made her not only angry but overly chatty.

Be that as it may however, much of my grandmother’s talk was more than chatter in overdrive: it was conversation, for she was a woman who had things she wanted you to know. And yet, for all her intense need to convey this or that or the next hundred things, there was also a way I began to understand she was not exactly communicating, at least not in the hopeful sense of the word. For that was the other thing: when it came to my grandmother and her talk, I often had this sense of her standing back behind the flood of words as if behind a tree at a river, calculating what she intended, peering out from her shelter to gauge your response. She had a way of leaving a key piece out, of hinting around it to see what you might know or think yourself, as if trying to flush you out first, rather than hazarding a clear statement of her own to begin with. She was always holding something back.

Of course I know now this is, more or less, the way the whole world talks. Always we too are leaving a key thing out, too afraid, too defended, or just too insensible, mis-trained as it were, to clearly say what we see and feel and think. I do it myself. And yet my grandmother did it more, feinting and dodging, retreating behind her words, where, in spite of all she said, she would not declare herself.  And that made her, as my sister-in-law commented recently, “hard to understand, that’s for sure.”

But let me be fair.  There were things plenty easy to understand about her, even when I was little. If I close my eyes for instance, I can still feel her hug, the way she would draw me close in, smushing me right up into her big mamma bear body, her large arms wrapping warmth around me. Truth is to be loved by my grandmother was to have a place in the world and be anchored there.

And so she held us, and so the years went on. And so too, even as we grew older, we still tugged at that door in the morning, and we waited, and we tried again.  And we also saw she was getting older herself, a fact which began to give her locked door another significance: I doubt I was the only one who began to regard it with some misgiving, dreading the morning that door would not open.

Don't know date--my sister and I

My sister and me. Photo credit: bill hayward

As it turned out, when that morning came, I was not there. My sister was though, home from college, with one of my brothers, the two of them finally resorting in the early afternoon to pushing open one of the small windows over Germie’s sink from the outside, my brother boosting my sister up so she could clamber in, crawl across the sink, and lower herself carefully down.  And when she came around the corner to the little sitting room, she found our grandmother still in her chair, crossword puzzle in her lap, already gone.

No more puzzles then, no more books either for our grandmother, just a poem I read at her funeral a few days later, a poem about a child and her kite, a poem that closed with the kite doing what it wants most, what the soul perhaps wants most of all in the end, to burst past night and rise through haze/ of radiance to a sky beyond these skies/where brighter beings float free of earth’s ties.

Was that really what we all believed? I don’t know: everyone has their own ideas about these things. In the end, the only thing we knew for sure was like the kite, she was gone: all we had left was a canister of ashes kept in the cupboard by the fireplace. But we knew they were not ours to keep either. Finally, two and a half years later, on a late summer morning, we took a row boat out into the lake she’d taken us to so many times  and sowed her ashes to the waters, watching the strange trails those powdery shards made across the surface, windings garnished with the wild flowers my sister had cut that morning from a field, a bright yellow profusion strewed out behind us.


1971 Photo Credit: bill hayward

Twenty-five years now it’s been, and I miss her still, not with that stunning acuteness of first loss, but with a kind of keen wistfulness. Because of course I want her back. More than anything that was what brought me up to the attic to find her old Agatha Christie books. Fifty now, gaining on the age my grandmother was when I first knew her, I thought I might get a better sense of her through her treasures, even if those treasures seemed to me a little gaudy, a little cheap, the literary equivalent of her old costume jewelry. But that was ok: I was ready to be wrong about that. I wanted to like Christie. I was looking forward to digging into her pages, to casting around in her passages for some echo of my grandmother, of how she thought about things. Really, to be frank, I would say I was looking for a little philosophy, a little love.

But half a dozen Christie books later, all I can really say I’ve found are puzzles. True, they are most often well-wrought puzzles, wrapped in a requisite amount of deft characterization and dialogue, but it’s a comic world my grandmother’s favorite writer conjures up, not a place of depth. Where I look for meaning, Agatha Christie is producing clues. And yet that must be the key, I figure, when it comes to my grandmother. She loved her crosswords just as much as she loved Christie, probably because both are built on clues, and because the pleasure involved, I suppose, is what you construct in your mind with those clues as you read–along with the completed perfection of the thing at the end when Bingo! all the pieces connect.

Still, for someone with a poetic, even scholarly bent, this is not much to show for my efforts. So what if I’ve discovered my grandmother enjoyed putting clues together? And so the world is round, they say, and goes about the sun. And tomorrow is another day.

But let me temper myself. My disappointment is making me sell them both short. Christie may have thought of herself, for instance, as merely clever, but at her best, she does have a kind of mad genius for these puzzles of hers, especially in her inexhaustible churning out of those clues. For as limited as the settings in her books tend to be—a little clutch of characters in a teacup—Christie’s clues come in stupefying superabundance, the tart Miss Marple or the smug M. Poirot amassing bewildering thickets of them. In Elephants Can Remember, the book for instance, I found in my grandmother’s things, the murder is a dated one, but the same pattern holds, Poirot and his confidante, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer of all things, flushing out aging clues from aging characters, many of whom make cameo appearances just long enough to contribute their little clue.

And yet even with this potentially slow-as-syrup scenario, Christie keeps the clues coming like a pitching machine gone haywire. And these clues have energy: they direct your attention. One tugs your nose one way, the next yanks you in another, and meanwhile, ten more are coming straight on at you, a blur in succession, a blizzard in your headlights.

Did my grandmother hang on through all this? I wish I could joke with her about it because I certainly didn’t. I just got buried, barely hanging on as chapter by chapter M. Poirot or Miss Marple navigated the way with lanterns, lead explorers in a cave at last clicking on the light, banishing darkness at book’s end to reveal a marvelously intricate design on the walls.

So yes, I can see the pleasure in all this. And yet my grandmother was right when she did not try to share her books with me, the way she did with my mother and sister-in-law, eagerly passing her favorites on. I think even if she did not approve of my tastes—and I’m afraid she didn’t, thinking of me as arrogant–she understood I did not go to books for Bingo, that I was not interested in that delicious moment when the chips all line up–a fact time has not changed. For we are different readers still, my grandmother and me. The only puzzles I really care about are the ones we cannot solve. And she was one of them.

Me the next fall, age 25, after she died in '87. This photo I just had scanned not cause I think it should really go in but because I like it. But it is about the age I was in the scene I describe at the end of the essay.

Me, age 25, the fall after Germ died in ’87. Photo credit: Kristen Mullins

A couple of years after I graduated from college, my grandmother asked me to drive her up to visit her sister-in-law Bernice in Toronto. I remember specially the drive north, the particular pleasure she took in that autumn day, a day that in my recollection is filled with an abundance of light, light on the glittering waters around the Champlain Islands, on the glowing swaths of the still green fields, light suffused in the richly brilliant reds and yellows of the maples.

Then we arrived at Bernice’s. Though she’d left Bernice’s brother so many years before, having nothing to do with him afterwards, I knew my grandmother had always stayed close with Bernice herself. I also knew she had once been a great beauty, but it was hard to discern even faded glory in this nice but shrunken old woman who hosted us, this continual smoker who seemed not so much caved in but hollowed out, as if the gods had sucked at her bones like straws, leaving her skin dry as old paper. She seemed to blink often and never once went out the whole time we were there, never once changed out of her bathrobe, slowly making her way around that small, smoky, always darkened apartment, a cave I was glad to escape from once or twice a day for the long weekend we were there, walking up to the wide open grounds of a local school to breathe and feel my legs again.

Meanwhile, back in the den as it were, my grandmother and Bernice were having their great visit, their last one in fact, something they both must have known was likely. One night they got into their cups and, stationed at one end of Bernice’s bed, which took up nearly the whole of the room, commenced to spin out some story, the two of them made merry and wise by drink, each adding bits to their patchwork of recollection, chuckling and chucking their chins, as people who have known each other for years will do, nodding sadly in one spot, smirking in another.

Because there was nowhere else to go in that stuffy, tiny place, I was in the room too, reading at the other end of the bed but made privy to their talk, the realization gradually dawning on me as their words filled my ears that for the first time, I was seeing someone who wasn’t just my grandmother, but a woman in her own right, a woman like me with an entire life teeming full of friends and work, heart-felt things, dramas, things I was suddenly keen to know about.

So as they sat there, mildly tittering over another thing somebody once had done, I asked a question about it, aware I might be trespassing, but feeling somehow that my motivation was good. Unfortunately my execution probably wasn’t. I think I went about it stumbling, the way a child does on skates the first time, awkwardly stiff, lofting my words self-consciously—or at least that’s how it feels in my guilty recall.

Because no grace came of it. Instead my grandmother turned on me as she never had before, rearing back with a snarl. “You might want to know, but you never will—you will never know the truth about my life!”

Think of a bear that smacks its young with claws out. Without moving from where she was the other side of the room, she landed a direct blow, one that even seemed sharpened with the pleasure she took in her ability to withhold herself from me, some spite in it surging across the years now as clearly as it did then, dazing me even yet because I still don’t understand it, why she reacted that way. And standing alongside her, Bernice in her bathrobe seemed to be wondering at it too, blinking, shifting her weight to another foot, looking away. I retreated.

The next morning I was back outside, walking the windy grounds behind the school up the block. Overhead, the dark sky was thickly blanketed in gray, a color that seemed to be overtaking everything–the field I was walking in and the trees that bordered it, their branches stripped, thrashing in the gusts that now and again tore across the exposed landscape. It was a Saturday or a Sunday, no children in sight, and I had no particular endpoint in mind either. I was just walking, chin tucked into my jacket as I crossed the gradual slope.

Then I saw it, though at first I did not understand what it was, some strange flurry of white in motion that only gradually came into focus: an old dictionary, sprawled on the ground in pieces, as if some defiant student had just ripped through it, shredding out the innards and heaving the covers aside. But rather than being destroyed, the words now were liberated, the pages everywhere, each one intensely peopled with words, and now in the wind they were scattering across the hillside like big bright leaves, they were swirling like a thrumming, eager flock, a gust lifting them at last in an eruption of wings, my baffled heart lifting with them.

August 1950, Germ working as an operator for Southern Bell. Note the bare feet!

August 1950, Germ working as an operator for Southern Bell. Note the bare feet!

The morning our grandmother’s door did not open came a few months after this, on the coldest night of that next winter, my sister finding her in her big wooden chair, the pen she’d been writing with still in her fingers but her spirit flown, her big friendly body uninhabited, an empty place all of us came home to circle around and grieve. And yet, now, even after all these years, we find it’s us she inhabits, secured behind a lock she will not throw back, but dwelling all the same deep within the marrow of our bones and brains, floating in us word on word, our grandmother, exquisitely puzzling, like the line of flowers and ashes she left behind, a bright and silent trail I am following still.

–Hilary Mullins


Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.

May 132013


The Burgess Boys
Elizabeth Strout
Random House
320 pages, $26.00

Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her book of connected short stories Olive Kitteridge, has written an engrossing, strictly realistic, tightly plotted novel replete with family secrets, long-held grudges, and crises of faith and politics. Set in Olive Kitteridge’s home town of Shirley Falls, Maine, the new novel features a diverse cast of meticulously drawn characters who grow and change. The various braided stories in the book resolve with a sense of the past accepted and the future embraced.

In short, it’s everything a doctrinaire Modernist critic might be tempted to dismiss out of hand.

In his book What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici asks the classic novelist,

What gives you the authority to decide that it will be this rather than that? No authority, the classic novelist will reply, but simply the requirements of realism, the requirements of my plot. But do these things have to do with anything other than ensuring your novel is saleable? That of course is a very reasonable requirement, but let us then simply relegate it to the world of consumerism, of fitted kitchens and package holidays.

His point is that the artificial tidiness and contrivance of conventional literary novels create an organized dream where “well-made” stories reach satisfactory conclusions and console us with a sense of ultimate meaning. But the universe is essentially meaningless, and any fiction which disguises this fact trivializes itself and accomplishes little beyond mere escapism.  Life as people really live it moment by moment can only be described and honored by capturing the ongoing rush of consciousness. The attempt to grasp the unknowable, to sing aloud the intricate harmonies playing silently inside your head, is the true purpose of art.

So how does a writer working long after Virginia Woolf and Alain Robbe-Grillet, a writer of best-selling fiction in 2013, reconcile the demands of story-telling with this higher calling, this need to reveal that which stories, by their very nature,  conceal? For Elizabeth Strout, it involves animating the machinery of her plot with moments of pure consciousness from the interior lives of her characters. It’s an uneasy compromise, and it certainly does not address the modernist need to “write against” and comment on the artificial constructions of the novel form. But it works. It lifts her book above the middle-brow pack, and lets the reader take away something surprising and ineffable, beyond the homely satisfactions of a tale well told.

The tale begins when Zachary, the 17-year-old son of Susan Burgess, shocks the town of Shirley Falls, Maine, by rolling a frozen (but thawing) pig’s head down the center aisle of the local mosque. The mosque is the central place of worship for the town’s Somali immigrants and Zachary’s bizarre hate crime casts an unflattering light, not unlike the harsh fluorescent lights in the local department store changing rooms, on the racism and xenophobia of this small northern village.

Both of Susan’s brothers, Bob and Jim, had fled the State of Maine years before to make their careers in New York City. They are both lawyers, Jim considerably more successful than Bob, but Zachary’s arrest brings them, however reluctantly, home.

The abiding narrative between the titular Burgess boys had begun decades before with a moment of horror that left the family splintered and scarred forever.  All three children were left in a car by their father one evening and somehow Bob crawled into the front seat and released the emergency brake. The car rolled downhill, hit their father and killed him. Throughout his childhood Bob carried the guilt of that moment like a backpack bulging with textbooks, and the burden continues to deform him, well into middle age.

As for Jim, he was always the star of the family, football player, class president and eventually nationally prominent defense lawyer, most famous for getting beloved country music star Wall Packer acquitted in a notorious murder trial.

Jim is less successful in his attempts to intervene on Zachary’s behalf. He slights the governor after a rousing speech, and ineptly bullies the prosecutor. Similar errors of judgment contaminate both his personal life and his career. The two overlap disastrously when an affair with one of the paralegals in his office leads to a threatened sexual harassment law suit. Jim gets fired and divorced, humiliated in every way. He winds up using the last of his connections to secure a low-paying teaching job at an upstate college for rich slackers.

Lies have defined his life from the beginning. It turns out that it was in fact Jim who released the emergency brake and killed their father. Even at eight years old he was cunning enough to scramble into the back seat and position Bob up front, behind the wheel, so that his hapless baby brother would take the blame.

This revelation causes a tectonic shift in Bob Burgess’s life. The quake reduces all his assumptions to rubble. The hero and sovereign of his life becomes at a stroke nemesis and grifter, villain and fool, too awful to love, too sad and puny to hate. As for Bob himself, the curse he’s lived with all his life has lifted; he’s free. The liberation extends beyond his immediate family. His first wife Pam, who left him because they couldn’t have children, loses her hold over him as well: “Pam was gone for him. Gone with Jim somehow. The two of them seemed to have fallen into the pocket where the self knows to put dark unpleasant things …”

Pam is a complex interesting character and one of her private moments touches on the struggling modernism of this conventionally structured novel:

So she lay awake at night and at times there was a curious peacefulness to this, the darkness warm as though the deep violet duvet held its color unseen, wrapping around Pam some soothing aspect of her youth, as her  mind wandered over a life that felt puzzlingly long; she experienced a quiet surprise that so many lifetimes could be fit into one. She couldn’t name them so much as feel them, the soccer field of her high school in autumn, her first boyfriend’s thin torso, the innocence unbelievable to her now, and the sexual innocence in some ways being the smallest part of innocence, there was no way to name the slender, true piercing hopes of a young girl in a rural Massachusetts town – then Orono, and the campus and Shirley Falls, and Bob, and Bob, the first infidelity … and then her new marriage and her boys. Her boys. Nothing is what you imagine. Her mind hovered above this simple and alarming thought. The variables were too great, the particularities too distinct, life a flood of translations from the shadow-edged yearnings of the heart to the immutable aspects of the physical world – this violet duvet and her lightly snoring husband.

Finally she arrives at the ultimate modernist conclusion: “Nothing could be told and be accurate.” Elizabeth Strout allows her character this thought, but the only way to ratify its fatalism would be to fall silent and this she refuses to do. She has a story to tell. The story of Bob’s liberation and his budding romance with the local Unitarian minister; the story of Susan Burgess’s struggles as a single mother, dealing with her son’s crime and his flight to Sweden to hide out with his expatriate father, his ultimate return home. And it’s the story of another expatriate, a Somali named Abdikarim Ahmed, separated from his own son, whose compassion for a troubled boy rescues Zachary both from the anger of the Somali community and the machinery of American justice.

Strout shows tremendous compassion for the Somali community and a sharp awareness of the discomfort of the locals as their community is knocked sideways from the comfort of its historically homogenous world into the era of diversity. Susan’s trip to New York City, which she finds almost as alienating as another country, gives her a faint sense of the overwhelming exile the Somali’s endure. But she can’t grasp, and probably wouldn’t want fully understand, the horror from which her new neighbors have fled. Strout allows us a glimpse of that nightmare, through the moments we spend with Abdikarim:

He should have left Mogadishu earlier. He should have put the two worlds of his mind into one. Siad Barre had fled the city and when the resistance group split in two, Abdikarim’s own mind seemed to split in two. When the mind occupies two worlds it cannot see. One world of his mind had said: Abdikarim, send your wife and young daughters away – and he had done that. The other world of his mind had said: I will stay and keep my shop open, with my son.

His son, dark-eyed, looking at his father, terrified and behind him in the street, and the walls becoming upside down, dust and smoke and the boy falling, as though his arms had been pulled one way, he legs another – To shoot was bad enough to last his lifetime and the next, but not bad enough for the depraved men-boys, who had burst through the door, the splintered shelves and tables, who swung their large, American-made guns. For some reason – no reason – one had stayed behind and smashed the end of his gun onto Baashi repeatedly, while Abdikarim crawled to him. In the dream he never reached him.

Ironically, it’s this loss, this raw view of authentic savagery that gives Abdikarim his compassion for Zachary and helps heal his adopted town.

As to Zachary, his motives are never really made clear. The central figure, the instigator of the story, remains a mystery. He mother is at a loss; so are his uncles. It’s doubtful whether even Zachary fully comprehends the impulse that drove him to bowl that pig’s head into a mosque during Ramadan. The feral distrust of the different had something to do with it. Susan expresses it this way: “They don’t want to be here. They’re waiting to go home. They don’t want to become part of our country. They’re just kind of sitting here, but meanwhile they think our way of life is trashy and glitzy and crummy. It hurts my feelings, honestly.”

So Zachary absorbs his mother’s baffled hostility, he feels separate and alienated, judged and invaded, angry and diminished. But at times he insists that it was just a prank, a random moment of perverse mischief, badly timed, horrifically inappropriate, drastically misinterpreted. None of the explanations add up to a coherent motivation, and that may be Strout’s point, the secret kernel of modernist non-meaning at the heart of the book that helps sustain all its tangled narratives.

As Josipovici remarks, discussing mainstream English novelists like Anthony Powell and Iris Murdoch,

They do what they set out to do perfectly and adequately: they help tell a story and create a world and characters to inhabit that world that do not flout the laws of probability. We never doubt what they are telling us … such narratives are easy to read. They are also illustrative in Bacon’s sense: they tell a story, they have no life of their own … the smooth chain of sentences gives us a sense of security, of comfort even, precisely because it denies the openness, the ‘trembling’ of life itself; the very confidence of the narrative gives the lie to our own sense of things being confused, dark, impossible to grasp fully.

And that, finally, is what Elizabeth Strout delivers in this fine novel: the openness, the trembling, of life itself. That she does this in a solid, deftly plotted piece of classical story-telling makes her accomplishment all the greater – and more mysterious.

—Steven Axelrod


Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his work has appeared at and various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.



May 122013



MY MOTHER ALWAYS WANTED to live in a French Provincial house–but the house she imagined was in Fairway Manor, Kansas not in rural France.  And her idea of “French Provincial” was not a southwest peasant Perigord but a Midwest suburban ranch.  A shake shingle roof, wide soffits, and something called “weeping mortar” could turn a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie House  into a domesticated Mansard.  Decorate the inside in late fifties chartreuse drapes and upholstery, put identical lamps on identical tables on either side of a three cushion couch (with a matching “coffee table” in front–on which you never had coffee, and in a living room in which you did not live), and you were in my mother’s Midi.

“I don’t know why you have to leave America,” my mother said when I told her I planned to settle in France.  “How am I going to call you if I need you?”  We are sitting (for once) at my mother’s coffee table.  I have come on a surprise visit over a May weekend that has lifted the ban on the living room.

“I’ll write out all the numbers.”

“They’ll be in French,” my mother said.

“French numbers and America numbers are the same,” I said.

“You’re talking,” she said.  My mother had a way of teasing me that I was never sure about.

“I’ll call you,” I said.

“I’ll be here,” my mother had said.  “But write me as well. You can’t reread a phone call.”

“Yes, mother.”

“Do you speak French?”

“Un petit peu.”

“What does that mean?”

“ ‘A little bit,’” I said.

“You can tell me other French words when you call.”

“Five a phone call and after a year you’ll be speaking French,” I said.

“I should live so long.”

My mother was suspicious of Europe, especially of France.  Not that she was ignorant of foreign countries.  Because my father had worked for TWA, we traveled when I was growing up:  Paris.  Rome.  Venice.  London. And a few car trips as well.  I remember a long drive from Athens to Paris along the peaceful Adriatic coast of Tito’s Yugoslavia, complete with a two-day stop in Joyce’s Trieste.

And not that my mother was the “Ugly American” of those days.  She traveled with patience and modesty, and with the understanding that if she did not always appreciate the local customs that was more her problem than others.  Still, it did not suit her in Paris to eat hard rolls in the mornings, nor to drink wine at lunch, nor for the stores to be closed from noon to two–nor for dinner to be served at eight in the evening.

“It is bad for the digestion,” she would say.  “You’ll just get fat and lazy eating so much at night and then going to sleep on a full stomach.  And the lunches they have!   With wine.  And corks in the bottles. No wonder they have to take a nap.”  It was my mother who insisted that we book reservations at our Paris hotel restaurant for six.  We ate in lonely splendor.  And then took a long walk along the Seine afterwards.

“That’s better,” she had said.  “Look at Notre Dame.  The name means ‘Our Lady.’  The French are Catholic. Tomorrow we go home.”  Home was Fairway Manor, Kansas.  Weeping mortar.  A privet hedge.  Anne Page bread from which she made “French Toast” on Sundays.  And dinner at six, with wine–my mother drank Mogen David.  No corks.  My father had a Jim Beam before dinner.  A Coors afterwards. On Fridays two Coors while he watched the fights.

But even given her relative patience with foreign travel, my mother was still wary of it.  There was the water problem.   The money was difficult to figure. Venice had an odor about it.  In Athens they spoke Greek.  In Paris it rained.    There were menus to read and misunderstand  (in northern Italy she once ordered what appeared to me then–and even now in my mind’s eye–to be the stuffed intestine of a small mammal). The traffic was impossible.  Especially in cities where her assignment was to be the navigator to my captain father.

“We are at via Vicenza and Polizia,” said my mother as we wound our way in and around Rome one day in desperate search of our hotel.  We had just come back from a two-day trip down the Almafie drive.

“That can’t be,” said my father.

“Now we are at Via Vicenza and Gelato,” said my mother.

“’Gelato’ means ice cream,” I said from the back seat.

“’Polizia’ probably means ‘police’,” my father said from his Captain’s seat.  When under pressure my father would resort to understatement.

“There’s the train station,” my mother said.  “Does that help?”

“We’re looking for Piazza Navona,” my father said.  “Our hotel is just off the Piazza Navona.”

“We’re at Piazza Maggiore,” said my mother, looking up from her map, then down, then up.  “Take the first left.”  Which my father did, going a number of blocks the wrong way up a one-way street against a full orchestra of Italian horns.

“I don’t think this right,” said my father.

“Oh dear,” said my mother.   “Now we’re at Via de Serpenti and Gelato.” In Rome all roads lead to ice cream.  Or to the Polizia–who stopped us just as we exited into Roman sunshine of some fountained circle–and then waved us on when they saw that my mother was an American housewife lost in her map.

“Oh dear.”

“When we get to the hotel may I get an ice cream cone?”

“Just what are you going to do in France?” my mother had asked that May Sunday.

“Live,” I said.   How else to explain to her what I was not sure I could explain to myself.

“Not like the French, I hope,” she said.  “Promise me you won’t eat late.  You’ll just get fat and lazy.  Or drink wine for lunch.  And tell the truth when you write me, not like those stories of yours.  The things you make up.”

“I won’t promise,” I said.  “But by this time next year, you can come and see for yourself.  I’ll pick you up at the airport. You’ll be speaking French.”

“I should live so long,” she said.  “Now where is it you are you going to be?”

“Southwestern France,” I said.  “Far from Paris.”

“Do they still have those hard rolls?” she said.  “And what about the water?”

“The water is fine,” I said.  “And yes they still have the hard rolls.  But I eat pain au chocolate for breakfasts.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“You must eat cereal for breakfast,” she said.  “Even in France.  And remember cheese constipates.  Eat salads with dinner. Prunes will help.”

“Yes mother.”

“I don’t see the sense in it,” she said.  “Show me on a map exactly where you’re going to live so I know where to call when I need you.”

“Yes, mother.”

I got out the map of France and southern Europe I had brought along for her to see where Bordeaux was, and where St. Emilion and Castillion were, and where the tiny village of St. Michel de Montaigne was–for it was in St. Michel and on the former Montaigne estate that I had made arrangements with Armel, a friend of mine, to restore an old farm house in exchange for living there.  Until the basic work was done I would be staying in Armel’s guest house in the village itself.

“Have we ever been there?” said my mother as she looked at the map, and the place on the map I had circled.  “Did we go there with your father?”

“No,” I said.  “I have been there, but you haven’t.   However the three of us drove up through Austria from Athens, then on to Paris.”  And I showed her the route we had taken.

“Where did I order the inside of the possum?”  she asked.  “You remember the time I ordered the inside of the possum?”

“I do,” I said.  And I pointed to northern Italy.

“Do you remember the time in Rome when I kept telling your father we were at the corner of Via whatever and ice cream,” she said.

“I do indeed,” I said.

“Those were good times,” she said.  “And do you remember how your father took us to Alfrado’s after we finally found the hotel, and that Alfrado served me the pasta in his own bowl with those golden spoons.”


“And when the violinist came to our table your father asked him to play Come back to Sorrento, because that was the day we came back from Sorrento and how scared I was of the road.”  She is looking at the map and with her finger finding these places on it.

“I remember that as well,” I said.

“Your father was very patient with me,” said my mother.  “Now tell me again, why are you going to France?”

“It is a doctor for you from American on the phone,” Armel says. It is the middle of the night.  He has come over to the guesthouse to wake me.

Over the summer I had made it my habit to call my mother every Sunday.  In this way I have told her of my life in France: How the water is safe to drink; that I have named the swallows nesting at the farm house I am restoring; and about Hooter, a Dame Blanche that flies out of attic each evening at dusk.  I have not told her that I drink wine with corks in the bottles.

She wants to know about the weather and if I am eating my cereal.  And salads.  And prunes.  I tell her about the trips I make with Armel in his Deux Chevaux, and that its name means “two horses,” and that the French word for ice cream is glace, and the word for street is rue.  I have written her as well, but not as often as I should have.  You can’t reread a phone call echoes in my head after all these years.

As summer faded and September came on, I tell my mother about the grape harvest, and how I am helping at the Montaigne estate pick the grapes that will be made into wine, and that I will have the owner sign a bottle for her that will be her present when she visits me next May.  I tell her that we will use Armel’s Deux Chevaux and ride to Castillion and have lunch at the Hotel des Voyageurs and drink wine from a bottle that had a cork in it–and afterward, we will have glace from a pastry shop I know down the rue were the ice cream is rich and smooth.

I should live so long, she had said on the phone the Sunday before Armel came to the guest room to wake me.

 —Robert Day


Robert DayRobert Days most recent books are Where I Am Now, a collection of short stories published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press, Speaking French in Kansas (short stories) and The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction) can be obtained through Western Books.  His 1977 novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and has seen multiple reprintings. Day is past president of the Associated Writing Programs and Adjunct Professor at Washington College in Maryland.


May 112013

David Helwig

David Helwig, author of over 35 books, who has contributed translations, poems, and fiction to NC over the years, an insistent and constant recidivist in other words, herewith changes genre and turns photographer, offering a collection of graffiti art he has discovered, mostly in Canada but as far away as China and Venice. Graffiti art is folk art, hybrid art, amateur art, uneasy art — rebellious, dramatic, inappropriate (often), underground, illegal (sometimes), piratical, dangerous (how do they do those highway overpasses?), a sign of life.


Venice12 040Venice 2012

Trip OttTor 020Gatineau 2011

Trip OttTor 019Gatineau 2010

  Toronto Wall art 09-04-2010 11-34-38 AMSan Francisco 2010

Toronto Wall art 09-04-2010 11-06-18 AMSan Francisco 2010

TO 067Toronto 2011

SnaFran 014-2San Francisco 2010

87210015Toronto 2009

87190006Toronto 2011

55120086Montreal 1993

55120062Montreal 1993

53040102Montreal 1994

53040021Montreal 1993

15490008China 1987

2010-12-45Toronto 2010

2010-12-34Toronto 2010

 —David Helwig


David Helwig is the author of more than 35 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction including, most recently, About Love, 3 Stories by Chekhov (Biblioasis) and The Year One (Gaspereau Press), Duet and his autobiography The Name of Things (Porcupine’s Quill). The founder of the Best Canadian Short Story Series, he has edited more than 25 books for Oberon Press. His avocation, however, is not writing but vocal music. After abandoning this for some years, he returned to it in his forties and has sung with a number of choirs in Kingston, Montreal and Charlottetown. He has appeared as bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and Mozart’s Requiem. He currently lives in an old house in the village of Eldon in Prince Edward Island.

May 102013

Stephen Henighan

A little parable about race, narrow opinions, false assumptions and having your head so far up your own ass you can’t see the woods for the trees (to mix my clichés). Stephen Henighan is a world traveler, translator, activist, scholar and fiction writer extraordinaire. I put him in Best Canadian Stories when I used to edit that estimable annual volume. The characters here are mostly low end manual labour doing the traditional low end Canadian job of pulling young trees for replanting. Grading is the act of evaluating, of deciding which trees to keep and which to leave behind. Ah, yes, but in life, with people, we are always deciding which to keep and which to leave behind — it’s an ugly aspect of human society; mostly we congratulate ourselves on not being too obvious (this is called being polite). In his fiction, Stephen Henighan has an awkward (brutally honest) habit of poking holes in that facade of politeness, culture and sophistication.


And me spit out by the city and slung down on my knees in the cold dirt. I thought I’d done everything right: got some education, learned some French – the whole nine yards. But no matter how  tightly you latch  yourself into the city, you can always end up back  in the countryside you came from, pulling trees for quick cash.

They pay us fifteen dollars for a thousand trees. The cedar I’m pulling has roots matted tighter than the threads of my grandma’s old  wool blanket.  You have to rip and tear to  get  each  tree loose. The grading—deciding which trees you keep for your bundle and which ones you toss—is supposed to go quickly since  cedars are nearly impossible to kill. But by the time you’ve yanked the tree clear of its woven carpet of roots and checked for hockey-stick  trunk, half the morning’s gone past. To top it  off,  they did  a shitty job lifting the flats. The old bugger driving  the International 84 Hydro shook each long flap of earth like he was knocking  dust  out of a blanket. The moment you  walk  into  the field, you see the white flashes of split  roots  and  slashed trunks. With that much grade in the furrows, you can forget about making good money.

There’s no escaping grade around here. I don’t know where they find these guys. Local high school drop-outs wearing  baseball caps  that  say I Live for Chev; lads whose only basis for  judging another member of  the community is: “What’s  he  drive?”   And girls,  too. Gert, the roving-eyed young woman next to  me,  complains all day about the boyfriend who jilted her for a loose little  hoo-er  he  met at the village’s new video arcade.  The wedding is next month. Gert plans to get cut,  swing  into the church and puke on the bride’s wedding dress.

Don’t  get me wrong, I’m not making fun of these folks. A  few short years ago I used to hang out with people like this. Then  I moved into Ottawa and got a job and a modern efficiency apartment with garbage disposal and central vac.  The people at the office came from all over the world, and on Fridays we all went out for drinks together after work. When the job  disappeared, so did the apartment. Now I’m country-poor, still the  proud owner of  a Chevrolet, but boxed up in a spare  room over the old fire hall that my uncle got me for free. I work in lowlife jobs. What I can’t get over is how I feel centuries away from my own home town.  From a financial point of view, I’m no better off than anybody else in this field; but an invisible shield separates me from the grade.  I’m not alone in this. There are women here paying the family mortgage, students saving for university. We all show up regularly and earn good money. The others put in a few days’ work, get smashed  on  their  first pay cheques and  never come back.  Every Monday a fresh gang ambles in. The ten or twelve of us who are regulars run a jaundiced eye over them to pick out the one or two who might still be here at the end of the week.

“Too much grade!”  the crew boss yells, closing the fingers of her work gloves around some of the white-slashed shit that  the lads are dumping on the tables.

I  bend forward, pulling like a piston. The odour of soil  and fertilizer blends in my nostrils. You’re never  so  close  to shifts in weather as when you’re hunkered down against the ground. It’s the beginning of April and we’ve worked in snow, in rain, in stinking heat that makes you peel off your shirt. The cold is the worst. It penetrates and paralyzes. Sitting on my knees,  ripping apart  trees at waist height, I spill cold soil down my legs  and shiver  as  it trickles over my workpants. If I don’t  brush  the soil away, my teeth begin to chatter. Some days my toes freeze up in  the  early morning and stay cold and numb inside  my  boots until  I  get home, no matter how hard the  afternoon  sun  beats down.

The  cedar pulls like molasses: the totals the tallyman  reads out  are pathetic. On a good day I can make  over a hundred bucks, but today I’m going to be lucky to hit sixty.  The crew boss, a Forestry woman with ruddy cheeks, tightly  curled  blond hair and a hoarse, cackling voice, tries to calm the punters  by promising that tomorrow we will be pulling white spruce.

“Yeah!”  I  say. But Gert, alongside me, groans. White spruce are tall trees, with short roots that grip the earth like  leeches.  A  guy with big hands can whip them out of  the ground as fast as picking up sticks. But for a woman, unless her hands are unusually large, white spruce hardly pulls any quicker than  cedar.   Red  pine is the woman’s tree.  It’s  prickly and twisted  and shelters close to the earth; the  long roots fall together like horse hair when you clasp ten trees into a  bundle. A  woman with nimble fingers can pull eight thousand red  pine  a day.

“Tomorrow,” the crew boss shouts, “new pullers will be coming out from the city. Looks like we used up all the grade  around here.”

Pullers  from the city! The announcement  combs  through  the crouched hordes like a ripple of unwelcome wind. What will  these new pullers be like?

Next morning we see what they’re like: they’re black.  Or at least two of them are. Husky young guys with an easygoing,  jokey manner.  The burlier, friendlier lad is called Reg; his thinner, quieter friend is Deon. Having been away from the  country for a couple of years, I can’t believe the reaction they get.  In this stretch of eastern Ontario you can drive forty klicks without meeting anybody who isn’t Scots-Irish or French-Canadian or maybe Dutch or German. For the first two hours  the  flats  are silent.  Only  the croak of the tallyman and the honk  of  Canada geese  winging home overhead break the scuffle and grunt  of  men and big-handed women feasting on the fast cash offered by a field of white spruce.

The spruce grows amid knee-high grass that ruffles like  water when the wind kicks up. As the breeze reaches the edge  of  the clearing,  it unveils the light undersides of the leaves in the groves of mature poplar and maple. There are moments when you can feel happy to be working outside. Glancing up, I catch the  glint of  Gert’s dark eyes seeking out mine. I turn away,  exchanging grimaces with Reg. Gert has been sending too many long looks in my direction.  I  try to figure out how, without hurting her, I can make her see the differences between us. I’m not the same guy I used to be.  When I was working in Ottawa I had a girlfriend, a big-city girl who screwed me purple for ten months without ever breathing the word marriage.  Since I came home, the girls seem like grandmas in training, the wedding dress the main thing on their mind. Gert can’t be more than twenty; and even when I was growing up around here, would  I have given a hoot about a girl who hung out in arcades?

Gert, meanwhile, is busy ignoring an admirer of her own.  Kev is a lanky, long-jawed, red-haired lad who talks even more like a farmer than most of the people working here. He’s been smitten by Gert’s pushiness. The more mouthy she gets with him, the more he acts like her slave. He fetches her water bottle, he lobs spare  trees in  her direction; he’s even offered to carry her bundles to  the table. I had Kev pegged  as grade, expecting him to  vanish after a week; but love has transformed him into a hard worker. He arrives at the crack of seven each morning, his watery blue  eyes scanning the furrows for Gert.

We  pick  our way forward in closed  formation,  swabbing  the field clean with hungry hands. The crew boss’s yells clang in our ears; her bright, laundered blue jeans glint in the corner of  my eye.  Gert and I lead the pack of pullers. Kev is closing in  on Gert from the right; Reg and Deon head up the next row.

By mid-afternoon the silence is making me sick.  I figure it’s time to set an example by acting naturally. I go back  to teasing  Gert.  “I  bet you’re getting  thirsty,  Gert,”  I  say. “What’ll you do if you need your water bottle?”

“If I need my water bottle,” she says, with a savage  sidelong glance at Kev, “I’ll get my nigger to bring it to me.”

For  five  seconds not a single tree gets pulled.  Everybody stares at Reg and Deon. Reg and Deon look  at each other. In the distance, I hear Canada geese honking.

“That was a pretty ignorant thing to say, Gert,” I tell her.

“You  go fuck yourself. You just think you’re hot shit ’cause you  lived someplace else.”  She bows her head into the chest  of her jeans jacket, her cheeks shaking.

“Move  it!”   the crew boss shouts.  “Anybody who  doesn’t  pull forty-five hundred today is outa here.”

I veer away from Gert and almost run into Reg. He and Deon are putting a broad patch of white spruce between themselves  and the  rest  of  us. As everybody else sinks into a silence even sicker than it was before, Reg and Deon can’t stop talking. They pull  like fury, exchanging stories in a jargon we can scarcely follow. Within thirty minutes a wheel of clean-picked dark  brown earth  has opened up around them. Trussed bundles lie  heaped  at their heels. They pull barehanded, the only workers in the  field not wearing gloves.

I glance across at Gert. She ignores me. Kev, put off  either by Gert’s rudeness or her tears, has drifted away to the  fringes of the field.

“Whoah!” the crew boss shouts. “You’re gettin’ way too  spread out. You’re missing good trees–  And you two,” she says, turning to  glare  down the laughing West Indians, “do you plan to shut your traps when I’m speaking?”

“No,  we  don’t,  ma’am,” Reg says. “We work  better when we talk.”

“You’re fired, mister,” she says. “It’s your fault this crew’s got screwed up today.” She plants her right hand on her hip  and gestures  with  her left for them to quit the field.  Red  blush-points break out high up on her cheeks.

The two men shrug their shoulders and saunter away towards the poplar grove.

“You’ll  be  paid for the work you’ve done,” she  hurls  after them. “Now the rest of yous get back to work or you’re next.”

Silence  splinters the crew. Nobody talks; nobody works  close to  anybody else. After more than a month of  pulling  trees  six days  a week, my body is aching all over. My joints creak and  my kneecaps click when I walk. My tiredness has outrun my ability to sleep  it off. At the end of the afternoon I stumble away  to  my Chev  without saying goodbye to Gert. Kev has  disappeared.  The sight of Gert kicking across the field, her head lowered and  her work gloves  dangling  from her fingers, tugs at my chest.  But  I recognize  the  tug  as guilt, not love. I turn the  key  in  the ignition.

My Chev rumbles over two kilometres of rutted dirt road winding between the fir plantations. When I turn onto the  highway, Reg  and Deon are standing holding their thumbs  out.  Reckoning that they must have been there for almost three hours,  I pull over onto the shoulder.

“I’m  only going ten minutes up the road,” I say, “but I’d  be happy to give you a lift.”

“Thanks,  but we need a ride into the city.”   Big Reg has slipped a woollen hat onto his head. Behind him, Deon issues  me a shy smile.

“I thought what she did to you was really shitty,” I say.  I take a breath. “Actually, I thought it was racist.”

“Aw,  we  knew we were rubbing that lady the wrong way,”  Reg says.  “If we’d really wanted the job, we would have  acted  more docile.  We just came out here today for fun.”

“Fun?”  I say.  “Don’t you need the work?”

For the first time Reg looks shy.  “We’re grad students in biology in Ottawa. We’ve got internships at a lab but it don’t start until two weeks from now and we were kind of bored.”

“We’d never seen the countryside,” Deon offers. “We always lived in cities.”

“I can’t believe how lazy people are out here,” Reg says. “Don’t they care about making something of themselves?”

The two of them stare down at me with the stare you save for a furrow full of slashed roots. Deon shakes his head.

“No offence to you,” Reg says.

“None  taken,” I reply.  “I know who I am.”   I roll up the window and  shift  my Chev into gear.

 —Stephen Henighan


Stephen Henighan was born in Germany and grew up in rural eastern Ontario. He is the author of three novels, three short story collections and half a dozen books of non-fiction. His forthcoming titles include A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change (Linda Leith Publishing, 2013), Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012 (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2014) and the English translation of Ondjaki’s Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret (Biblioasis, 2014).





May 092013

Jordan Smith 1

I’ll say it once: read these poems. Sombre, eloquent beauty marching by the words, line after line. I have known Jordan Smith since we were students at the Iowa Writers Workshop together, yea, these thirty or more years ago. He has only gotten better (can’t say the same for myself). Just look at “Brevity” which in one long sentence seems to compass life and mystery and the dwindling of self  (“…we disciples of friction, know how each little slip/ Undoes becoming, becomes undoing…”) and the flight of wisdom (“that great, awkward/ (Scrawled in the margins) auk”). Beautiful poems. Nothing more to be said.



2 Movies, 3 Transgressions
— for DSJ

Brideshead. The Dreamers. There is a great house,
An unexpected arrangement; a moment, a manner of meeting.
Brother, sister, friend of my youth. Instructions
For lovers (not yet), a protocol for seeing, for memory,
For the accidental, which is also the most practiced. There is a veil,
But we are allowed this glimpse, and so the first
Transgression is nearly the second: the wish to see
Becomes the sight, becomes only what remains
Of nobility: its willfulness, its audience. Not the dress
Circle dozing through Pelleas and the long diminuendo,
Not indifference, or all its commonplace misapprehensions,
Nor the familiar, shrugged hope that it will all end badly enough.
It is sentiment we’re left with, as if all those scandals
Were only a means to linger in the presence of something
Like pleasure, something, like salvation we were called
To witness, nodding assent to its poor tangled (gone,
And none too soon) shadows until the lights came on.


A Glass of Finger Lakes Red
Winifred  Smith, 1917-2011

Summer 1964,
Ten years old, drowsy, bored
In the catspaws on Canandaigua Lake,
I could hear the halyards shake,
See the telltales flutter, shift
As wind freshened off the shale cliffs
Of the Bristol Hills. The mainsail slacked
Then filled, the hull heeled as we tacked.
I held the jib.  Dad, smoking, perched
On the foredeck, half on watch
To see I kept things trim. Mom
Had the tiller. It was her calm
Pleasure I remember best,
Repeating the words for me, the mast
And gunwales, the centerboard shackle,
The frayed wire stays, the boom’s worn tackle,
Names for the boat, the lake, the weather.
In memory, love and naming tethered;
She’s in the low sun, bow splash, rope
On the palm, waves’ pitch and slope,
A few high cumulus barely looming.
He arm rests on the cockpit coaming.
And sunset is a local wine
Like this one, sweet and full, entwined
With shale and silt, the long, thin lake,
A sailboat, a mother, and their wake.
Sleepy, the boy lets the jib sheet fall,
The canvas luff, feels the hull stall
Until she takes both sails in hand,
Course set, no hurry, back towards land.


A Little Macbeth

Goes a long way. On the Saturday broadcast
On the way home from the grocery store, the witches—
Not three voices, but three choruses, the announcer says,
And trained to screech, swarm from the woods
To preach lies (sort of) to power. And I might be tempted too,
To sit in the driveway, to listen to how it all comes to light,
Jung’s collective unconscious, but so singular in how
We bear it, bear it forth. Until, of course, Verdi
Hams it up—he can’t resist those pizzicatos, those
Piccolos, those you’ve-got-to-hum-it melodies—
And though the voice over’s back, telling us how
In the third act all apparitions, mute or lyric
Will be revealed, here’s this astounding early spring
Heat wave, a shimmer of new buds, and as welcome
As simple prophecy: the space between bare trees
Dwindles, and is it just the summer or are they moving
Towards us, into the emptiness some king has left,
And not to crown the oak or bristling pine,
But only because the same chorus I can’t see anywhere
Has fallen silent to summon them.



Is the soul of it, so easily worn, worn away, to keep
The foot from the path, and although the mystics say the two
Are one, we disciples of friction, know how each little slip
Undoes becoming, becomes undoing, and to speak of it
Requires that we have less and less to say, which is all
I seem to have left, now that wisdom, that great, awkward
(Scrawled in the margins) auk has simply shown itself, flightless
And gone, a kind of sermon, and the kind I like best
Since it’s over quickly, so quickly I startle in the pew
As from a dream of brevity that meant just to go on and on.


The Dream of the Quarry

The night I knew my mother would be dying
I dreamed the dream again, but differently.
A small town square, cobbled streets, close houses,
A labyrinth of lanes, and mews, and closes,
The kind of doorways you might see in Dublin,
But this was on a height above the Hudson..
This time I was no tourist, drawn to the windows
Of shops or down streets where the vista dwindled
Beyond the dream’s permission. I wanted home,
Somewhere beyond the river’s cliffs: homecoming.
The fog was thick. The road I took led upward,
Past rising shale, dead-ending in a quarry.
There was one door, a hall of seated children
Silent in rose red robes, in meditation.
(The night before I’d dreamed of a temple carved
Of rock that color, elaborate, barbaric,
A place of sacrifice, panic, assassins,
But this was worse, so calm,as if redemption
Meant letting go at last of all we’d loved,
Meant admitting the world was stone, unmoving.)
I left, more lost, climbed a wooden scaffold
Near the wall’s top. On the river below, a gaff-rigged
Sloop was tacking upstream, upwind, and heeling.
Remember how for Christ the world unreeled
Below him as the tempter offered thrones,
Powers, dominions, the conclusion half-foregone,
Half balanced like a foot on a ladder’s rung,
No place to put it right that wasn’t wrong.

—Jordan Smith


Jordan Smith‘s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” is forthcoming issue of Big Fiction. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.

May 082013

Patrick J Keane smaller

Patrick J. Keane’s essay on Twain and Nietzsche is a dark and beautiful threnody on the lonely preoccupations of two great thinkers cut off from men and God by their own ruthless logic, their speculative courage and their self-honesty. A dense, thoughtful, lovely piece of writing.




In a May 1899 review of two translations of Nietzsche titled “Giving the Devil His Due,” G. B. Shaw introduced a concept he expanded on the following year in “Diabolonian Ethics,” published as part of his Preface to Three Plays for Puritans. In that essay, Dick Dudgeon, the hero of one of those plays, The Devil’s Disciple, is enlisted in a Diabolonian tradition whose lineage stretches from Prometheus through the Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to “our newest idol,” the Nietzschean Superman. In his original review, Shaw included Mark Twain in the tradition, though what he gave with one hand he abruptly took away with the other: “Mark Twain emitted some Diabolonian sparks, only to succumb to the overwhelming American atmosphere of chivalry, duty, and gentility.” The patronizing charge, which preceded Twain’s various Satanic fictions, was repeated precisely two decades later by an admirer of Twain, H. L. Mencken, a satirist as aware as Mark Twain was of how a heterodoxy-hating American public, its “pruderies outraged,” could bitterly turn on a dissenter, “even the gaudiest hero, and roll him in the mud.”[1]

Though this brief examination of late Mark Twain will conclude by emphasizing the liberating power that attends an unflinching confrontation of terrible, even appalling truths, the initial focus is on the decision by the gaudiest and best-loved American literary icon to withhold from publication his most vehement attacks, not only on institutional Christianity and collective hypocrisy, but on the Christian God himself. The charge of Shaw and Mencken that Twain had succumbed to pressure was expanded upon and personalized in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920) by Van Wyck Brooks, who claimed that a beloved and believing Livy tamed her husband, fueling the notion that Twain’s creativity fell victim to a destructive female dominance. While that may be a myth, Twain’s wife hated his deterministic treatise What is Man? and his daughters, Jean and Clara, disapproved of his essay “Reflections on Religion,” as well as the “Diabolonian” fictions Letters from the Earth and “The Chronicle of Young Satan” (part of the Mysterious Stranger papers). That familial disapproval may have become dramatized in Twain’s notoriously divided self as psychomachia: an internal and infernal dialogue between Blakean angel and devil. Most of these texts remained unpublished during Twain’s life. What is Man? was not released while Livy was alive, and “Letters from the Earth,” Satan’s devastating account of human folly and divine cruelty, written in 1909, the year before Twain’s death, went unpublished until the year of Clara’s death, 1962, when, at the outset of a turbulent decade, it put a suddenly revolutionary and “relevant” Twain on the New York Times best-seller list.

This context of public and familial disapproval illuminates Mark Twain’s most significant self-alliance with, and most guilt-ridden distinction from, the iconoclastic German philosopher who, using his “hammer” not as a brutal sledge but as a philosophic tuning-fork, exposed the hollowness of some of our Christian culture’s most cherished “idols.” Dictating to his secretary Isabel Lyon, who saw her employer and Nietzsche as kindred spirits, Twain observed on 4 September 1907:

Nietzsche published his book and was at once pronounced crazy by the world—by a world which included tens of thousands of bright, sane men who believed exactly as Nietzsche believed, but concealed the fact, and scoffed at Nietzsche. What a coward every man is! And how surely he will find it out if he will just let other people alone and sit down and examine himself. The human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner.[2]

Though Nietzsche was an enthusiastic reader of the novels of Mark Twain, whose exuberant humor and “fooleries” he embraced as an antidote to Germanic stodginess, Lyon had to push Twain, in August 1906, into listening to and reading passages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Despite his resistance and gruff dismissals (“Oh damn Nietzsche!” he shouted on August 8), Twain gradually expressed appreciation of Nietzsche’s irreverence. On August 27, he “slapped his leg hard” and shouted “Hurrah for Nietzsche!” when Lyon reported the philosopher’s description of “acts of God” as “divine kicks”—a  humorous deflation of the punitive Judeo-Christian God that tallies with similar attacks by Mark Twain.[3] The “Letters” Twain’s Satan sends back to Heaven reporting on his visit to Earth—alternately hilarious, racy, and, as the series goes on, increasingly embittered—convey Twain’s satiric j’accuse directed at an unjust and uncaring God:  a charge characteristically complemented by sympathy for God’s theologically misguided but suffering creatures.


Whenever tempted to become impatient with the misanthropic pessimism of later Mark Twain, flaunted even before the series of familial tragedies that struck him like a thunderbolt in the final decade and a half of his life, we should remember as well his immense empathy for the innocent who suffer. Many have been able to reconcile the doctrine that we are presided over by a loving deity with the facts on the ground: a long history of natural disaster, human evil, and “divine kicks.” Those able to accommodate themselves to the contradiction include readers of the Bible who choose to ignore unpleasant passages of scripture rather than abandon belief in a benevolent God. There are others, “those to whom the miseries of the world/ Are misery, and will not let them rest.” I’m quoting the Induction to The Fall of Hyperion (I.148-49) by John Keats, a great and deeply empathetic poet who saw, even in his tragically brief life, too much misery in the world, too much gratuitous suffering, especially by the innocent, to justify belief in a providential Design and a benign God. Charles Darwin felt the same way; so did Mark Twain.

His 1907 note strikes several major themes in Twain’s thinking, not least his characteristic sense of guilt, this time for lacking Nietzsche’s courage. Of course, Mark Twain also courageously defied rather than “succumbed” to conformist pressures. Within two years of Shaw’s 1899 review, outraged by the spectacle of his country shouldering the white man’s burden by wading through the blood of 200,000 Filipinos slain in the process of “liberating” them, Twain was emitting more than “sparks,” in fact aiming, in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” a satiric flamethrower at an unholy marriage of religion and politics: that noxious American mixture of jingoistic bombast and pious hypocrisy that plagues us still. Given the ferocity of Twain’s anti-imperialist protests against U. S. foreign policy (as well as British, German, and Belgian imperialism), Shaw, like those who greatly exaggerated rumors of Mark Twain’s death, would seem to be premature in depicting his “Diabolonian sparks” as extinguished by that smothering “American atmosphere.”

But there is a distinction between politics and religion when it came to what Twain was willing to reveal and to conceal. Politically, he often spoke out, risking his cherished and long-cultivated reputation with an adoring public by exposing American complacency and hypocrisy. He did so with a potent mixture of satiric wit and relentless honesty: a powerful challenge reminiscent of Jonathan Swift, whose scathing political satire in Gulliver’s Travels he admired and echoed. Excoriating American imperialism cloaked in crawthumping religious piety, Twain stood up courageously and publicly to the powers that be in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901). Unfortunately, he did acquiesce in a single editorial rejection of his brief but devastating satire, “The War Prayer” (1905)—posthumously published during World War I, appropriately re-situated among the poems of soldiers who, having experienced the gas-attacks, rats, and carnage of trench-warfare, bitterly rejected the old Horatian lie that it is sweet and fitting to die, or to kill, for one’s country.


When the targets were God and religious hypocrisy, Twain’s attacks are less Swiftian than Nietzschean. And yet Twain begins his self-contrast with the German philosopher by claiming “I have not read Nietzsche…nor any other philosopher,” choosing to go instead “to the fountainhead,” that is to say, to “the human race.” In a convenient reciprocity, he insists that “Every man is in his person the whole human race,” and that “in myself I find in big or little proportion every quality and every defect that is findable in the mass of the race.” This sounds remarkably like Twain’s fellow American and Nietzsche’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on the paradox of originality and the immersion of even the most self-reliant individual in a pool of shared ideas, a literary form of the Transcendentalist “Over-Soul.”  At the same time, it allows Twain to maintain his independence. In fact, in asserting from the outset that he had not “read Nietzsche,” Twain was anticipating a notably defensive Freud, who dubiously insisted that he avoided Nietzsche.[4]

Unlike Freud, Twain was not a covert student of Nietzsche; yet his note displays genuine insight into the philosopher he claimed not to have read: the recognition that Nietzsche had dared to say aloud what many in his age were thinking but refused to acknowledge, most notably the terrifying as well as liberating ramifications of the Death of God. This refusal amounted to an individual and collective act of “bad faith” and “repression” (a concept Nietzsche preceded Freud in delineating). In an act of sanctimonious hypocrisy that disgusted him, people (Nietzsche accused) continued to pay pious lip-service to a creed in which they, consciously or unconsciously, no longer believed. It was a “lie.” “By lie,” he said in The Antichrist, “I mean: wishing not to see something that one does see; wishing not to see something as one sees it.”[5] This modern Great Refusal amounted to a craven repression of the realization, one shared by late Twain, that institutional Christianity was a “slave morality” threatening individual independence, binding “free spirits” and their instincts (a “natural or ‘healthy” morality celebrated by Nietzsche and embodied by Huck Finn)[6] to an authoritarian moral code dominated by a simplistic and guilt-inducing distinction between conventional Good and Evil. That explains why all those “sane” conformists and cowards, who “believed exactly as Nietzsche believed,” concealed the fact, scoffed at Nietzsche, and called him “crazy”—a craven procession in which Twain sheepishly admitted he was not only marching but carrying a banner.

Twain may end with a characteristic final twist of “humor,” yet the passage as a whole is nothing if not serious. In 1907, when he wrote these words, Twain knew all too well what it meant to “sit down and examine himself” and then to courageously stand up to the powers not only of the state but of the church (Livy and his clergyman friend Joe Twichell were particularly  distressed by Twain’s emphasis on the role of Christian missionaries in enabling and cheering on  American and European imperialism). He did so by wielding his chosen weapons of humor and satire, laughing his targets off the stage, but always expressing authentic indignation. He then published the truth as he saw it—or tried to publish, or, yielding to the external or internal resistance he faced in his efforts to tell the truth, elected not to publish at all. Those in his vast audience who had always wanted “their” Mark Twain, rigged out exclusively in cap and bells, were surprised or disappointed when, during his most creative decade, he ventured into still funny but serious territory in Huckleberry Finn (1885), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), and Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). But he knew, or was made to know by family and friends, that the public would be unwilling to follow him when, in quest of the truth as he saw it, he emulated his most beloved character by “light[ing] out for the territory.” Determined to break free of those who would “sivilize me,” Huck, at the end of Huckleberry Finn, sets forth to seek freedom beyond the restraints of Christian civilization. But Twain was headed into the heart of darkness itself, in the form of those troubling late “dream”-centered texts he chose not to publish, and was sometimes unable even to finish.

Despite Twain’s final self-deprecating phrase, his note reveals that he is, in spirit, with Nietzsche. To employ a Joycean portmanteau adjective singularly apt when it comes to Mark Twain, he may be “jocoserious” in depicting himself carrying that “banner.” But, hyperbole aside, the self-indictment is genuine. Twain’s skepticism about institutional religion was hardly a secret to readers of some of his irreverent tracts. For the most part, however, he did not stand up publicly regarding his considered verdict on the ultimate Power. When it came to his most vehement assaults on free will, immortality, and the God of Christianity, Mark Twain behaved with something resembling the cowardice he attributed to himself in the comparison with Nietzsche. Though he worked on them for a dozen years (1897-1908), he never put into final form the subversive, literally Diabolonian Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, in which Young Satan and No. 44, both of whom genially but potently ridicule Christian hypocrisy, also pronounce the human race cowards and sheep, especially those who attack in public what they themselves believe in “their secret hearts.”  And he deferred to posthumous publication his Satanic fiction Letters from the Earth as well as his assault on God’s “all-comprehensive malice” in “Reflections on Religion,” written in 1906, the same year he had 250 copies of What is Man? printed “anonymously” and for private circulation among friends.

In fact, in his Prefatory note to the privately-printed What is Man? Twain says of these papers (which he had been brooding over for a quarter-century) that “Every thought in them has been thought (and accepted as unassailable truth) by millions upon millions of men—and concealed, kept private. Why did they not speak out? Because they dreaded (and could not bear) the disapproval of the people around them. Why have I not published? The same reason has restrained me, I think. I can find no other.” Ten years earlier (Notebook, 10 November 1895), finding it strange that the world was “not full of books” scoffing at the “useless universe” and “violent, contemptible human race,” Twain wondered “Why don’t I write such a book? Because I have a family”—a “family” he wished not to outrage, or to injure, and, presumably, to continue to feed by not alienating the vast audience that bought his books. Whatever the role of Livy, and his determination to ease her final years, in this remark, and in the Preface to What is Man?, Twain anticipates the self-censorship he would acknowledge a year later in numbering himself among those who agreed with Nietzsche on religion but concealed the fact. Though he had confided to his wife (and to his close clergymen friend, Joe Twichell), that he did not believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, described in “Reflections on Religion” as “the most damnatory biography that exists,” Twain did not want to hurt Livy. But she had died in 1904, and he still chose not to publish his most blasphemous attacks.


In his 1919 Smart Set essay, Mencken concluded that Twain’s dread of disapproval was partly internal since “his own speculations always half-appalled him. He was not only afraid to utter what he believed; he was even a bit timorous about believing what he believed.” This seems to me rather less true of Twain than of Nietzsche, whose relentlessly inquiring spirit led him to the discovery of dark truths he himself believed were “terrible”: truths—as he plaintively remarked in an 1885 letter to his friend Franz Overbeck—he wished in vain “somebody might make…appear incredible to me.”[7] But most of Mencken’s pointed but affectionate judgment seems on target:

Mark knew his countrymen. He knew their intense suspicion of ideas, their blind hatred of heterodoxy, their bitter way of dealing with dissenters. He knew how, their pruderies outraged, they would turn upon even the gaudiest hero and roll him in the mud. And knowing, he was afraid. He [and here Mencken quotes Twain himself from his prefatory note to What is Man?] “dreaded the disapproval of the people around him.” And part of that dread, I suspect, was peculiarly internal. In brief, Mark himself was also an American, and he shared the national horror of the unorthodox.[8]

Though Mencken finds some pusillanimity in Twain’s role in deferring to posthumous publication some of his most shocking documents, I prefer his critical but more empathetic stance to Shaw’s arch dismissal of Twain’s insufficient emission of Diabolonian sparks. If Mencken goes too far in that final phrase about Twain’s alleged timorousness in actually “believing what he believed,” the rest of his charge seems confirmed by Twain’s own admission in the Preface to What is Man? and in his private placing of himself, carrying a banner no less, in that procession of cowards that scoffed at Nietzsche, even though they believed, or disbelieved, more or less as he did.


Of course, Nietzsche is not merely an iconoclastic Nay-sayer. For all his bleak determinism, atheism, and existential loneliness, he insisted that his was an essentially affirming spirit. His terrible truths were countered by an exuberant embrace of amor fati, gaya scienza, and what Yeats described, with tonal accuracy, as that “strong enchanter’s…curious astringent joy,” and which he transformed into the “tragic joy” of such late poems as “The Gyres” and “Lapis Lazuli.”[9] For Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the enemy of the “spirit of gravity” is “laughter.” Twain’s Satan, in the “Chronicle of Young Satan,” recommends the same antidote to contemplating folly with “petrified gravity.” Faced with such examples of “colossal humbug” as papal infallibility, “only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”[10]

But there was of course a more-than-satiric function of elevated spirits and balancing humor. When an interviewer asked him on Thanksgiving Day, 1905, “What is it that strikes a spark of humor from a man?” Twain responded: “It is the effort to throw off, to fight back the burden of grief that is laid on each one of us. In youth we don’t feel it, but as we grow to manhood we find the burden on our shoulders. Humor? It is nature’s effort to harmonize conditions. The further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth.”[11] In a passage intended for “The Death of Jean,” but omitted from that moving Christmas Eve 2009 essay, Twain (sounding remarkably like Emerson when his nineteen-year-old wife Ellen died) acknowledged that “My temperament has never allowed my spirits to remain depressed long at a time.”[12]


A similar final affirmation can be found in Mark Twain’s conflicting attitudes toward “truth”: at times, as in What is Man?, it is subjected to the most extreme skepticism, elsewhere,  even (or especially) in the much-discussed and disputed finale of The Mysterious Stranger, the hard truth can be seen as liberating us from facile optimism and religious delusion. A number of critics have found light in the cosmic and seemingly nihilistic darkness of the final chapter of The Mysterious Stranger. A particularly perceptive discussion of the ambiguous but potentially positive ramifications of that chapter occurs in Ryan Simmons’s 2010 online essay, “Who Cares Who Wrote The Mysterious Stranger?[13] Simmons poses a philosophic thought experiment. We can imagine that God exists, in which case the world is “meaningful,” though, given human limitations, we are unable to perceive how it is “all part of God’s perfectly coherent and beneficent plan.” Conversely, we may imagine that “those who are honest” conclude that the “God we have assumed, and even worshipped, cannot exist”—the position, though Simmons never mentions him, of Nietzsche. The final chapter of The Mysterious Stranger would seem to urge us to conclude that God either does not exist or is so sadistic that it would be better if he didn’t: a God who “cursed” his human “children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body”; who “mouths” justice and mercy and yet “invented hell.”[14] If such a God did not exist, has the world, Simmons asks rhetorically, “truly become meaningless in his absence?” Or is it that, in delegating responsibility to God, we have “failed to take responsibility for events ourselves.” It may well be the case that “the meanings of the world are opened up, more available to us, if we remove the putative ‘author’ of the world, God, from the equation.” Rather like Descartes’ “evil demon” (though Simmons fails to note the really striking similarity between the final chapter of The Mysterious Stranger and Descartes’ provisional skepticism in Meditations on the First Philosophy), Twain’s mysterious stranger, by “demonstrating that people’s foundational convictions are in error,” forces us “to acknowledge what, at some level, we must already suspect: that the world is a less just, less orderly, less happy place than we typically pretend,” and that we ourselves are cosmologically “inconsequential.”

But, Simmons argues, The Mysterious Stranger “troubles knowledge not finally in order to advocate a radical skepticism,” but to discover whether such “impoverished abstractions” as the “moral sense” can “be filled with meanings.” Nietzsche, who pronounced the world intrinsically meaningless given the Death of God, also believed that we humans can “create meaning.” The song he sang on the train returning him to Basel after his complete mental breakdown in Turin in January 1889 is interpreted in this spirit by the character Walter Berger in Malraux’s The Walnut Trees of the Altenburg: as a “sublime” revelation as “strong” as life itself, proof that “the greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of matter and of the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.”[15]

Consider the final nihilistic vision presented by the mysterious and semi-Satanic No. 44 to August Fendler at the climax of Twain’s final, fragmentary novel: “Nothing exists: all is a dream. God—man—the world,—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream, they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space and you,” with August himself, “flung,” as it were, “at random,” reduced to a Cartesian cogito, a “Thought,” a vagrant, useless thought “wandering forlorn among the empty eternities.” Tonally, this is even more reminiscent of the Nietzschean madman’s famous description of the emptiness of a vertiginous universe bereft of the God we have murdered—“Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while?”—than it is of the literary source actually echoed in the two final chapters of The Mysterious Stranger: Prospero’s beautiful but nihilistic assertion that “we are such stuff/ As dreams are made on,” and that the “great globe itself…shall dissolve/ And like this insubstantial pageant faded,/ Leave not a rack behind.”[16] And yet the Death of God, though devastating to the radically spiritual thinker who felt compelled to announce it, also marks the true advent and liberation of Man; and Prospero, an agent of liberation, is himself “set free”—first by Ariel and, finally, in response to his “Epilogue,” by the prayers and applause of the audience in the theater.

Many, perhaps most, readers understandably see in the finale of The Mysterious Stranger a reflection of Twain’s profound and anguished loneliness in the final years of his life (Tom Quirk has made this point most poignantly), even as a retreat into solipsism. In their essay on “Twain and Nietzsche” in The Jester and the Sages, Gabriel Noah Brahm, Jr., and Forrest G. Robinson note that “Satan [they mean No. 44] is careful to highlight the liberating significance of his message”; and two of the contributors to the 2009 Centenary Reflections on The Mysterious Stranger, David Lionel Smith and John Bird, stress the unflinching affirmation of that existential loneliness and the “imaginative freedom” that ensues. I myself would emphasize the impact of The Tempest, not only Prospero’s speech, but the dominant motif of the play: being “set free.”[17]

I therefore share Simmons’s tentatively positive conclusion. Rather than a retreat into embittered solipsism, this disputed text—in which No. 44 presents August with terrible truths which nevertheless, he claims, have “set you free”— is best seen “as an inquiry into the nature of what is regarded as truth.” The implication is that were truth-seekers to “respond proportionately” to the truths that are available, “a better world would become possible from their acts.” A significant but seldom remarked aspect of The Mysterious Stranger is the “simple possibility that an anti-humanistic message will, ironically, lead to moral and humanistic behavior—that, in distinguishing ourselves from gods, people will remember to act like moral humans.” Recognizing the truth, are we humans capable of altering our lives for the better—“or are we condemned by our very knowledge to accept the inevitability of our own self-annihilation?” In instructing his readers to “Dream other dreams, and better,” the mysterious stranger, does not necessarily “detonate” the world—as Bernard De Voto had claimed Twain had done in order to remove his own personal sense of “guilt and responsibility.” Instead, Simmons concludes, Twain “opens it up radically to new and demanding possibilities, possibilities that deprive us equally of our delusions and of an excuse.”

But the opening of those possibilities demands that “we recognize the truth,” the truth that can set us free. An acknowledgement of proportion, of the place we humans truly occupy in the vastness of space, microscopic as well as cosmic, is at the cognitive, imaginative, moral, and therapeutic heart of Mark Twain’s final fantastic voyages—“The Great Dark,” “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes,” and, above all, the assertion by No. 44 that “It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream,” and August a “Vagrant Thought…wandering forlorn” through empty, interstellar space. This is the bleak but somehow bracing vision whose truth August acknowledges in the final sentence of The Mysterious Stranger: “He vanished, and left me appalled for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true” (405). I will conclude by returning to this question of truth: the courage it takes to face it, however difficult it may be, and the liberation, however limited that may be, that attends an unflinching confrontation of available truths, especially when they are “terrible truths.”


In a March 19, 1904 letter to his friend William Dean Howells, Mark Twain acknowledged that no matter how closely he—or an authorized biographer and others in the Family Circle—might monitor the official and flattering story-line, truth would out: “An autobiography is the truest of all books; for while it inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth, the remorseless truth is there, between the lines, where the author-cat is raking dust upon it which hides from the disinterested spectator neither it nor its smell…—the result being that the reader knows the author in spite of his wily diligences.” Along with Twain’s affectionate observation of the sanitizing and camouflaging efforts of cats, one detects a grudging admiration for the relentlessness of truth. In an earlier, unpublished letter to his brother Orion, written in 1880, precisely between The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which Huck kicks off by specifically accusing the author of Tom Sawyer of mixing with the truth some “stretchers”), Twain prophesied: “I perceive that when one deceives as often as I have done, there comes a time when he is not believed when he does tell the truth.”

Increasingly in his final, “dark” years, Twain felt there was a “truth” he had to tell—a hard and lonely truth. Isabel Lyon, reading the “What is Man?” manuscript in 1905, and adopting Twain’s “Gospel” as her own Nietzschean “gospel,” thought that, for at least “some,” it could “put granite foundations under them and show them how to stand alone.” On the morning of August 31, 1905, after she had played the orchestrelle for him, Twain invited her to his upstairs study, where

he read aloud to me a part of his Gospel—his unpublishable Gospel. But Oh, it is wonderful…full of wonderful thoughts—beautiful Thoughts, Terrible Truths—oh such a summing up of human motives—& if it belittles…does it belittle?—every human effort [,] it also has the power to lift you above that effort & make you fierce in your wish to better your own conduct—such poor stuff as your conduct is—[18]

Few of us will find in What is Man? as many wonderful or beautiful thoughts as Isabel Lyon did. True, beneath the rigid determinism that demands to be accepted, lock, stock, and barrel, and the relentless critique of altruism, there is the Old Man’s moral admonition to “train your ideals upward…toward a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbors and the community.”[19] It was to this “conduct” that Lyon was probably referring when she said that What is Man? had the potential “power” to “lift you above” yourself in a “fierce” wish to “better your own conduct.” But what she most emphasized were those shared pitiless truths Lyon felt made Nietzsche and Twain kindred spirits—“Terrible Truths,” which could, for some, “put granite foundations under themand show them how to stand alone.”

That seems, consciously or not, an endorsement of Nietzsche’s celebrated insistence, in Twilight of the Idols, that “what does not destroy me makes me stronger”: the prophet who (a point to which the Nietzschean Lyon may be alluding in making Twain’s her own “Gospel”) brought his own “glad tidings,” antithetical to the Christian “gospel.” Few have looked deeper into the nihilistic abyss than Nietzsche, and yet he called himself, in Ecce Homo, a “man of calamity” who remained an affirmer: “I contradict as has never been contradicted before and am nevertheless the opposite of a No-saying spirit. I am a bringer of glad tidings like no one before me.”  This is Nietzsche’s conscious “opposite” to the supposed glad tidings of Christianity—itself, according to Nietzsche, “the opposite of that which he had lived,” he being Jesus, the “evangel” who “died on the cross,” only to have the noble example of his life subverted by his disciples into the “ill tidings” of that “dysangel,” Christianity.As it happens, Twain explicitly agreed with Nietzsche that the last Christian died on the cross. “There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him.” This 1898 entry in Twain’s Notebook seems tantalizingly close to Nietzsche’s more celebrated assertion, published three years earlier: “The very word ‘Christianity’ is a misunderstanding: in truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.”[20]

In emphasizing the capacity of “truth” to “set us free,” I am not just putting a positive spin on the final chapter of The Mysterious Stranger, in effect joining Albert Paine, who rearranged the text to end on that positive note. I have no desire to ally myself with the man who altered the manuscript of The Mysterious Stranger in 1916 and remained committed for a decade more (as he told his contact at Harper’s in a franchise-protecting letter of 1926), and well beyond that, to guarding and preserving the hagiographic “traditional” image of Mark Twain. My intention, instead, is to stress the paradox of freedom within constraint, and to connect what No. 44’s young interlocutor agreed was appalling but “true,” with the words Jesus spoke to those who came to believe in him, rather than in what Nietzsche and Mark Twain would agree was the falsification that followed: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). In turn, that setting free became for Shakespeare the verbal formula of the ultimate “project” of The Tempest—as I think Mark Twain realized in the course of writing the Tempest-influenced finale of The Mysterious Stranger.


For in his final decade, at the end of his life and tether, this most iconic of public figures, speaking “as Samuel Clemens rather than as Mark Twain,” made, as Hamlin Hill has noted, a rare “attempt at complete honesty.”[21] A desperately lonely truth-seeker often feeling defeated in a world of mendacity, he would have been pleased by Isabel Lyon’s image of him providing, in the form of “Terrible Truths,” “granite foundations” upon which a selective few might “stand alone.” Despite their shared determinism and denial of free will (though not “free choice”), neither Mark Twain nor Nietzsche approaches the sublime pinnacle of lonely thought, the ghostly solitude, of Spinoza, that “precursor” revered by Nietzsche. And yet, Nietzsche (and, at the end, Mark Twain) was even lonelier. Spinoza’s “way of thinking,” Nietzsche told Franz Overbeck in that important 1885 letter, “made solitude bearable,” since he “somehow still had a God for company,” while “what I experience as ‘solitude’ really did not yet exist. My life now consists in the wish that it might be otherwise with all things than I comprehend, and that somebody might make my ‘truths’ appear incredible to me” (in The Portable Nietzsche, 441). No one did. And, in Twain’s case, when it came to his Old Man’s philosophy of mechanistic determinism, he was not even open to counter-argument.

One would like to think that that was not true of self-divided Mark Twain himself. And yet in the very last of his works to be written for publication, the first in a projected series of essays from notable figures asked to identify “The Turning-Point of My Life,” Twain rejected the titular premise and reaffirmed his deterministic philosophy. In his case, he insisted, there was no one pivotal moment that led him to his literary career; every event was a “link” in an inexorable “chain,” not only in his own life, but traceable back to the dawn of history. There was no singular event, nor any willed plan; everything was determined by the combination of external “circumstances” and one’s innate “temperament,” over which one has no control. Writing just a few months before his death, Twain leavened the grim determinism of What is Man? with an entertaining narrative and genuine humor. All would have been changed had there been a different couple in Eden, he concluded his essay. His “disappointment” in Adam and Eve, was “not in them, poor helpless young creatures—afflicted with temperaments made out of butter; which butter was commanded to get into contact with fire and be melted.” But what he “cannot help wishing is, that Adam and Eve had been postponed, and Martin Luther and Joan of Arc put in their place,” that “splendid pair equipped with temperaments not made of butter, but of asbestos. By neither sugary persuasions nor by hellfire could Satan have beguiled them to eat the apple.” Twain concludes: “There would have been results! Indeed, yes. The apple would be intact today; there would be no human race; there would be no you; there would be no me. And the old, creation-dawn scheme of ultimately launching me into the literary guild would have been defeated.[22] “Results,” indeed! In this, Mark Twain’s final display of balancing “humor,” the pendulum, swung out over “woe,” swings back over “mirth.”

A disciple of Nietzsche, W. B. Yeats, basing himself on Kant’s Third Antinomy (thesis: necessity, antithesis: freedom), pronounced himself “predestinate and free,” and Nietzsche’s own mentor, Emerson, deliberately juxtaposed “Fate” and “Power,” the first and second essays in The Conduct of Life.  In reading Yeats and Emerson, and certainly in reading Nietzsche and Mark Twain, we should address rather than evade the profound questions they raised. Rather than sinking into what Yeats called, in his great poetic sequence Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, “the half deceit of some intoxicant from shallow wits,” we should confront the dark, deterministic regions of the mind they illuminated. We might then, with what Isabel Lyon would call their “Terrible Truths” and “granite foundations” under us, work toward something resembling, if nothing so grand as a new birth of freedom, a series of individual liberations with the potential to set others free as well. Of course, there is no need to repair to Lincoln or Lyon. Twain’s own Mysterious Stranger tells Man, in the immediate form of young August Fendler, that “I your poor servant have revealed you to yourself and set you free”—precisely the role played by Ariel, the liberated servant who goes on to set his master free, triggering Prospero’s renunciation of “vengeance” in favor of “virtue” at the turning point (V.i.14-32) of The Tempest. No. 44 may be speaking, but he is, after all—both in his most dismaying utterances and here, in offering the chapter’s sole glimpse of a possible freedom beyond the solipsistic and nihilistic nothingness—a theatrical mask amplifying the voice of his creator, the self-divided, skeptical, but still truth-seeking Sam Clemens/ Mark Twain. The same is true of divided Nietzsche, who—despite his radical insistence that all “truths” were perspectival, a matter of “optics,” and that there were “no facts, only interpretations”—also burned his candle at the altar of “truth,” and deplored “lies,” a word that appears frequently in his work, especially in The Antichrist.



For all their affinities, and despite the badgering of Isabel Lyon, Twain read little of Nietzsche, while Nietzsche, who loved his American humor, and cant-puncturing “laughter,” devoured every work of Twain on which he could lay his hands, though always cherishing, as his favorite, the novel his mother had read to him, to spare his eyes, in 1879, when he enthusiastically recommended Tom Sawyer to his friend Overbeck (the letter appears in The Portable Nietzsche, 73). In his essentially vegetative life after his complete breakdown a decade later, Nietzsche, now mentally a child, was once again in her care. “On his good days she took him on walks and let him play the piano. Sometimes she read to him, ‘in a soothing monotone,’ from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.[23] It seems a final instance of rondure. Mark Twain came in and went out with Halley’s comet lighting up the sky, though, at the end, “he had,” as Paine said, “slipped out of life’s realities, except during an occasional moment” of lucidity.[24] In the case of Nietzsche, there was a decade-long mental eclipse with no illumination at all, let alone any final burst of celestial light. All the more reason, therefore, for us to be strangely moved to learn that his early favorite among Mark Twain novels was there again at the end—still being read to him by his mother, but this time to a person sitting in darkness.

— Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Shaw, “Giving the Devil His Due,” Saturday Review, LXXXI (May 13, 1899), iii. “Diabolian Ethics,” in Bernard Shaw, Complete Plays with Prefaces, 6 vols. (Dodd, Mead, 1963), 3:xliv-li. Mencken, “Mark Twain,” Smart Set, October 1919, reprinted in H. L. Mencken on American Literature, ed. S. T. Joshi (Ohio University Press, 2002).
  2. Autobiographical Note, in The Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California-Berkeley.
  3. Isabel Lyon Diary, in The Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library.
  4. Freud feared cooptation by a psychoanalytically precocious precursor who might leave him with no worlds to conquer. He admitted his anxiety of influence in 1931: “I rejected the study of Nietzsche although—no, because—it was plain that I would find insights in him very similar to psychoanalytic ones.” Quoted by Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (Norton, 1988), 46. But Freud’s claimed ignorance is belied by many of his own remarks about Nietzsche, who had, he told his biographer Ernest Jones, “a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or was likely to live”(Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (Basic Books, 1961), 2:344. Freud’s denial of serious reading of Nietzsche is belied as well by, for example, the traceable impact of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals on his own Civilization and its Discontents.
  5. The Antichrist §55, in The Portable Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (Viking, 1954), 640.
  6. “Every naturalism in morality—that is, every healthy morality—is dominated by an instinct of life…Anti-natural morality—that is, almost every morality which has so far been taught, revered, and preached—turns, conversely, against the instincts of life: it is a condemnation of these instincts….All that is good is instinct—and hence easy, necessary, free.” (Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, 489-90, 493-94). Huck, who embodies natural or instinctual morality in his own novel, explicitly endorses instinct in Tom Sawyer Abroad: “for all the brag you hear about knowledge being such a wonderful thing, instink is worth forty of it for real unerringness.” In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer, Detective, ed. John C. Gerber, Paul Baender, and Terry Firkins (University of California Press, 1980), 337.
  7. The Portable Nietzsche, 441. Though this letter (2 July 1885) is not among those in Christopher Middleton’s Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche (University of Chicago Press, 1969), the crucial phrase appears in a footnote (244n57). His translation is almost identical to Kaufmann’s: “My life now consists in wishing that everything may be different from the way in which I understand it, and that someone may make my ‘truths’ incredible to me.”
  8. “Mark Twain,” 31.
  9. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (Macmillan, 1955), 379. Both poems mentioned are clearly “Nietzschean.”
  10. The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, ed. William M. Gibson (University of California Press, 1969), 164-66.
  11. Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews (University of Alabama Press, 2006), ed. Gary Sharnhorst, 522-23.
  12. Cited by Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, 4: 1552. The passage began, “Shall I ever be cheerful again? Yes, and soon. For I know my temperament. And I know that the temperament is master of the man….A man’s temperament is born in him, and no circumstances can ever change it.” Though Emerson realized that he would “never again be able to connect” the beauty of nature with “the heart & life of an enchanting friend,” his “one first love,” he acknowledged his own “temperament,” one that has made many judge him to be unfeeling. Five days after Ellen’s death, he wrote in his journal: “This miserable apathy, I know, may wear off, I almost fear when it will….I shall go again among my friends with a tranquil countenance. Again I shall be amused, I shall stoop again to little hopes & little fears & forget the graveyard…” Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, 3:226-27.
  13. Swimming against the tide, Simmons prefers, as does James M. Cox, the 1916 version cobbled together by Albert Bigelow Paine. Paine was faced with three unfinished and partially overlapping manuscripts. However brazen his editing of the material and the emasculation of Twain’s polemic against God as conventionally conceived, he and his collaborator at Harpers, Frederick Duneka, did succeed (as Mark Twain hadn’t) in producing, not only a commercially viable book, but a coherent and readable text, one which, says Simmons, “despite its problematic history, is in my view the most interesting and significant variant for critics to address.” Though he refers almost exclusively to the 1916 text, he is still focusing on the chapter that concludes both the Paine-Duneka version and the manuscripts as presented in William M. Gibson’s scholarly edition, published in 1969 as The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts.
  14. The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, ed. William M. Gibson (University of California Press, 1969), 405.
  15. Malraux, Les Noyers de l’Altenburg (Gallimard, 1948), 99. The song was Nietzsche’s poem “Venice.” In the novel, Walter assists Franz Overbeck in bringing Nietzsche back to Basel.
  16. The Tempest IV.1.146-58, and Epilogue.. Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, 404, 405. Nietzsche, The Gay Science §125.
  17. The references in this paragraph are to three volumes published by the University of Missouri Press: Tom Quirk, Mark Twain and Human Nature (2007), 274; Brahm and Robinson, in The Jester and the Sages: Mark Twain in Conversation with Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx (2011), 22. Smith, “Samuel Clemons, Duality and Time Travel,” and Bird, “Dreams and Metaphors in No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger,” both in Centenary Reflections on Mark Twain’s No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger (2009), 187, 197, 198, 213-15.
  18. Quoted in Laura Trombley, Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final, Years (Knopf, 2010), 63-64.
  19. Mark Twain: What is Man? and Other Irreverent Essays, ed. S. T. Joshi (Prometheus Books, 2009), 55.
  20. Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (Modern Library, 1968), 783. The Antichrist §39, in The Portable Nietzsche, 612. The statement is often reduced to the even more succinct “The last Christian died on the cross.” The Antichrist was published in 1895, a half-dozen years after Nietzsche’s breakdown.
  21. Hill, Mark Twain: God’s Fool (Harper, 1973), xxiii.
  22. Harper’s Bazaar (February 1910), 118-19; reprinted in 1917, in What is Man? and Other Essays.
  23. Griffin, “ ‘American Laughter’: Nietzsche Reads Tom Sawyer,” The New England Quarterly (March, 2010), 129-41 (141). The internal quotation—the affecting detail about the mother’s “soothing monotone”—is taken, Griffin tells us, from David F. Krell and Donald Bates, The Good European (University of Chicago Press, 1996), 51.
  24. Paine to Mr. and Mrs. William H. Allen, April 25, 1910, quoted in Hill, Mark Twain: God’s Fool, 265.
May 072013

author top

What ultimately matters is the magnitude of Knausgaard’s investment in his project, the sense that here is a man writing to save himself, writing to survive, writing because these things mean so much to him. Somehow, he is able to make them mean almost as much to us. Like all great art, whatever the genre, one leaves these books with a renewed feeling for what life and art can be.
—Eric Foley



My Struggle: Book Two
A Man in Love
Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Archipelago Books, trade cloth
576 pages, $26.00

A Story of the Struggle to Tell a Story

“Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance.”
—Karl Ove Knausgaard

The year is 2007. For the past four years, Karl Ove Knausgaard has been trying to write about his troubled relationship with his deceased father. Though the 38-year-old author has two previously acclaimed novels under his belt (Out of the World, 1998, and 2004’s A Time For Everything), this time around the attempt to cast his material into fiction isn’t working:

Wherever you turned you saw fiction. All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. It was a crisis, I felt it in every fiber of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard, not the least because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it saw the same. This sameness, which was our world, was being mass-produced . . . I couldn’t write like this, it wouldn’t work, every sentence was met with the thought: but you’re just making this up. It has no value.

Finally, after returning home from a visit to the region of southern Norway where he grew up, Knausgaard stumbles upon a new strategy: to alter the distance between the work and the world by getting “as close as possible to my life.” That evening, after his family has gone to bed, he sits down at his desk and describes what he sees in front of him:

In the window before me I can vaguely see the image of my face. Apart from the eyes, which are shining, and the part directly beneath, which dimly reflects light, the whole of the left side lies in shade. Two deep furrows run down the forehead, one deep furrow runs down each cheek, all filled as it were with darkness, and when the eyes are staring and serious, and the mouth turned down at the corners it is impossible not to think of this face as somber.

What is it that has etched itself into you?

This mini-scene repeats itself in My Struggle. Its first appearance is on page 28 of Book One. There, we read it as a description of the book’s brooding central character, an isolated, conflicted man. In Then, Again: The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts writes that the genre “begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.” 962 pages later, near the end of Book Two, Knausgaard’s mini-scene reappears verbatim. Only at this point do we learn the scene’s greater significance: that it is the turning point in Knausgaard’s attempt to write about his father’s impact on his life, the kernel that contains the six volume autobiographical saga to come.

While the above passage is a good example of how Knausgaard employs repetition across time to build meaning in his work, it also neatly enacts, in miniature, another type of movement the author utilizes in the My Struggle books to powerful effect: a quietly intense attendance to visual phenomenon, always linked to the act of perception/self-perception, with a particular emphasis on the perceiving apparatus (the eyes), will suddenly be followed by a shift to a larger, abstract question. (Indeed, Knausgaard’s epic, relentless attempt to answer the question that ends the passage – “What is it that has etched itself into you? – could rightfully be said to form the true subject of these remarkable books.)

But let’s go back to February, 2007: Knausgaard has just begun his new method. He seeks to “dramatize the inner self” by uncovering his past: first five pages a day, then ten, and near the end as many as twenty pages; he writes as quickly as possible in an attempt to escape his conscious notions of what the form should be, trying to move beyond the desire (amply exhibited in his previous novels) to produce aesthetically beautiful prose. By 2009,  Knausgaard has accumulated 3600 pages. That same year, the first part of his novelistic “autobiography,” entitled Min Kamp (“My Struggle”), appears in Norway to equal amounts of praise and controversy. The controversy is not so much over the title, with its echoes of Hitler’s memoir (Mein Kampf in German, Min Kamp in Norwegian), but has rather to do with the people the author has “exposed.” In a northern European nation that prefers to keep family trauma private, Knausgaard has written directly about the most personal aspects of his family experiences without any attempt to disguise or change the names of his ex-wife, his father, his grandmother, and other friends and family. When the second volume of My Struggle appears, Knausgaard’s mother calls him and begs him to stop. An uncle threatens to sue. Ultimately, author and publisher agree to change a few of the names in subsequent editions, but the media storm grows, first spreading through Scandinavia, and then across Europe. Most agree about the power of the work, but at what cost has it been achieved? The books become a national obsession, selling 450,000 copies in a country of less than five million people. Norway’s culture minister declares the work the “the greatest account of our generation.” On a national radio program, Knausgaard will go on to say that he feels he has made a “pact with the devil.”

Last August, a few weeks before Archipelago Press released Don Bartlett’s excellent translation of My Struggle: Book One in North America, the book received the “James Wood treatment.” Writing in The New Yorker, Wood praised the work as “intense and vital,” stating that it contained “what Walter Benjamin called ‘the epic side of truth, wisdom.” The first volume of My Struggle is indeed a rarity in contemporary literature; part memoir, part unhinged bildungsroman, it ploughs through and ultimately transcends both genres with a driving seriousness of intent, delving more deeply into the human experience than anything I’ve read in a long time. Fixated on the shadow Knausgaard’s father cast over his childhood and teenage years, and ending with the thirty year-old Karl Ove confronting the horrible death of that father from alcoholism, the 430 page book alternates between extended, minutely detailed descriptive passages and essayistic meditations on death. The result is a kind of crackling slow-burn, a fearless examination of, as Carlos Fuentes once said of Frida Kahlo: “internal darkness under midday lights.”

This month, My Struggle: Book Two makes its North American debut. If Book One centered on death (in order to downplay potential controversy over Knausgaard’s Hitlerian title, the work was published as To Die in Germany and A Death in the Family in the U.K.) then Book Two is loosely organized around the concept of love (and has already been published across the pond under its subtitle A Man in Love). While it is possible to read Book Two on its own and still get something out of it, to do so would be like opening up Remembrance of Things Past for the first time at Within a Budding Grove. Much of the power of Proust and Knausgaard’s projects comes from their length and breadth, which allows for a gradual accumulation of patterned detail, as specific themes and moments repeat themselves in subtle and not-so-subtle variations. In both works, repetition is key.

My Struggle: Book Two primarily covers 2003-2008, years when Knausgaard left behind his old life and partner in Norway and moved to Stockholm. For readers of Book One, Knausgaard’s escape to Sweden possesses added significance: it was after Karl Ove’s own father moved away from his family that he began the drinking and isolation that fourteen years later would leave him dead. Knausgaard does plenty of drinking in Stockholm, but rather than fall apart, he falls in love – with the poet Linda Bostrom.

bostromLinda Bostrom

Knausgaard imbues these scenes with the nostalgic power of true love glimpsed in retrospect. He vividly captures the feel of early love, the uncertainty and vulnerability at the beginning, when things could still go either way, as well as the ecstatic heights:

The town sparkled around us as we walked home, Linda in the white jacket I had given her as a present that morning, and walking there, hand in hand with her, in the midst of this beautiful and, for me, still foreign town, sent wave after wave of pleasure through me. We were still full of ardor and desire, for our lives had turned, not just on the breath of a passing wind, but fundamentally. We planned to have children. We had no sense of anything awaiting us except happiness.

Over the course of My Struggle: Book Two, Karl Ove and Linda become parents to three children. One of the pleasures of the work is the associative, non-chronological way Knausgaard unfolds his story, shifting in and out of different periods according to the movement of thought and memory. Because of this, Book Two begins with all three children already born and the early stages of infatuation between Karl Ove and Linda a relic of the distant past.

The first thing one notices about My Struggle: Book Two (other than the fact that it is a hefty 146 pages longer than its predecessor) is a decrease in the level of intensity that filled Book One. With the father figure dead and buried, the sense of dread behind each sentence is palpably lessened. E.M. Forster once remarked that “mystery creates a pocket in time.” Book One utilizes the mystery of Knausgaard’s father (why is he such a cruel, tortured man? How exactly will he meet his end?) to mesmerizing effect. Throughout that first volume, wherever young Karl Ove goes, the father’s shadow follows; there is always the sense of movement towards further revelation. Many of the scenes in Book One possess an aura of somnambulant terror, as if anything could occur at any moment, which provides a momentum that propels the reader through some of the lengthier descriptive passages. A roughly 60-page description of young Karl Ove trying to secure alcohol for New Year’s Eve, for example, unfolds in painfully slow fashion beneath the constant apprehension over whether the father will find out what the son is up to. The tension builds until, at the end of Book One, Karl Ove pays a second visit to his father’s corpse (again, repetition). Here, something opens up in him, and he begins to see the intertwining elements of death, life, and time in a different way:

 . . . there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

With this conclusion to My Struggle: Book One, the last two sentences of which rhythmically and thematically echo the final sentences of the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past,[*] the great tension is released. A new point of realization has been reached.

Initially then, Book Two lacks both the momentum and the mystery of Book One. Certainly love can be a mystery, but at the outset of Book Two it seems more like a daily slog, as we are confronted with scenes of Knausgaard’s new family life. Only in the light of what has come before do these scenes gradually accrue a resonant force. The still fearful, still internally isolated Underground Man persona that Knausgaard continues to develop here—picture a 21st century Raskolnikov schlepping a stroller, a diaper bag, and two toddlers up a hill while his wife stands at the top in a foul mood, a third wailing infant in her arms—is understandable precisely because we know what he has come out of. Although the hated father is dead and Karl Ove has escaped to a new country, Knausgaard still struggles to relate his internal and external worlds, and to be around others. Most moving, in these early scenes, is Knausgaard’s depiction of his own quest to be a decent father, as he attempts to raise his young children without duplicating the paternal coldness, cruelty and occasional rage he was treated to during his own upbringing. We come to see that for the adult Karl Ove Knausgaard, love means following through on one’s commitments, regardless of how fucked up one feels inside.

So it goes for 67 pages, with little of what contemporary publishing would call “narrative tension” or “drive.” As with certain sections of Book One, we begin to suspect that the day-in-day-out nature of these scenes, the very mundaneness of their details, is the point; these scenes need to be long for the same reason that the infamous sermon on hell in the third chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man needs to be long: to enact, rather than simply describe the interminable, real-time duration of certain life moments. And yet, after a while, we begin to wonder if this is all Book Two has to offer.

Then, on page 68, Knausgaard returns home from the birthday party of one of his young daughter’s friends. He steps out alone onto the balcony, has a smoke, drinks some stale diet coke:

I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a rule in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me . . . Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.

It is difficult to convey the full force of this passage without also including what preceded it: a forty-plus page description of a middle-class Swedish child’s birthday party, where a Norwegian father remains intensely within himself, unable to connect with the others, even those he likes. This struggle is made more poignant by the fact that we see how Knausgaard’s three-year old daughter Vanya already exhibits these same social tendencies, this same furious need to be accepted by others, coupled with the inability, on a bodily level, to figure out how to join in the other children at play. For Knausgaard and his daughter, a routine social occasion is a source of fear, shame, and longing.

A Few Words About Titles

Given that Hitler’s memoir is often published in North America, even in translation, under its original German title, for some the English “My Struggle” will not have the same resonance it does in Norwegian. The above passage from page 68 of Book Two is the first time we get a direct reference to, and partial explication of, the work’s title. Here, the emphasis is on the struggle to balance being in the world for others versus being in the world for oneself—the struggle to exist, on a moment-to-moment basis. In a recent interview, Knausgaard said that he chose the title Min Kamp on something of a lark. He liked the friction it carried between the daily, personal struggles of the individual and the larger structures of ideology and politics that function in opposition to private life. My Struggle: Book Six reportedly contains an essay that delves further into this issue, focusing on a comparison between Knausgaard and Hitler’s books, but English readers will have to wait a few more years for this.

lyktestolper:Layout 1

If nothing else, Knausgaard’s series does foreground, in immense detail, the struggles of everyday life. By placing this struggle in the background, as the UK version does on its cover, the emphasis becomes reversed. Whether this retitling was done in order to avoid controversy or to more easily market the volume-by-volume content of Knausgaard’s work makes little difference; it interposes a too-large distinction between each book in the sextet, as if there were no significant overlap. The throughline of struggle is downplayed, the totality of the whole sacrificed for an emphasis on each volume as an individual marketable product.

For make no mistake, struggle, in conception and reality, runs through everything Karl Ove does, everything he thinks. Happy or sad, in joy or despair, he suffers apart from the rest, alone. In this, he is a true Underground Man.

Notes From Underground

dosFyodor Dostoyevsky

“All the same, if we take into consideration the conditions that have shaped our society, people like the writer not only may, but must, exist inthat society.”
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The above words (or rather, their Russian equivalent) were written in 1864 as a description the original Underground Man. Dostoevsky’s name appears 16 times in My Struggle: Book Two. Like Karl Ove in My Struggle, that main character of Notes From Underground is also a writer composing a sort of memoir: “I, however, am writing for myself alone, and let me declare once and for all that if I write as if I were addressing an audience, it is only for show and because it makes it easier for me to write. It is a form, nothing else; I shall never have any readers. I have already made that clear . . .” Interestingly, Knausgaard has said in interviews that he too “didn’t believe that anyone would be interested in this writing, because it’s so personal, so private.” This thought set him free at his desk, to write “for myself, by myself.”

As Dostoyevsky writes in a passage that applies equally to My Struggle’s central character, the Underground Man’s dilemma, “lies in his consciousness of his own deformity . . . the tragedy of the underground [is] made up of suffering, self-torture, the consciousness of what is best and the impossibility of attaining it, and above all else the firm belief of these unhappy creatures that everybody else is the same and that consequently it is not worth while trying to reform.”

While the Underground Man feels isolated from the rest of society, he is also a product of it, and perhaps, in the end, not quite so hideously unique as he imagines. Knausgaard realizes that his is as much a problem of perception as anything else, but does not know how to change:

Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck, how stupid I was. I couldn’t find any peace in a café; within a second I had taken in everyone there, and I continued to do so, and every glance that came my way penetrated into my innermost self, jangled about inside me, and every movement I made, even if only flicking through a book, was likewise transmitted outwards to them, as a sign of my stupidity, every movement I made said: “This is an idiot sitting here.” So it was better to walk, for then the looks disappeared one by one, admittedly they were replaced by others, but they never had time to establish themselves, they just glided past, there goes an idiot, there goes an idiot, there goes an idiot.

This paradox of the Underground Man, painfully separate from society, while at the same time yoked to and created by it, is presumably what allows Karl Ove to see himself as outside, different from the rest, and still write “the definitive portrait” of his generation, a work that has resonated so deeply for so many others.

The other reference point for the Underground Man, particularly from a Norwegian perspective, is Knut Hamson’s Hunger. In the course of My Struggle: Book Two, Hamsun’s name is mentioned 11 times. In one scene, a Swedish filmmaker begins jokingly calling Knausgaard “Hamsun,” for his reactionary Norwegian views.

knut-hamsunKnut Hamson

In Hunger, we are again presented with a writer struggling to maintain his dignity in an urban setting. Hamsun’s Underground Man is defined by his extreme refusal to partake in the pleasures of everyday life, to join the crowd by accepting help in the form of food or money. Knausgaard too is interested in refusal. Late in Book Two, Knausgaard’s friend Geir Gullickson informs him that: “Not to strive for a happy life is the provocative thing you can do.” A page or so later, Knausgaard responds: “All I know is that success is not to be trusted. I notice that I get angry just talking about it.”


The prose of Book Two is similar to Book One: the long sentences and paragraphs do not induce anxiety in the way that Thomas Bernhard or László Krasznahorkai’s writing can, but rather project a certain detached calm. A typical Knausgaardian sentence piles independent clause upon independent clause, linking these with comma splices where grammatical convention would seem to call for a period, semicolon or coordinating conjunction. 800 pages into the My Struggle saga, these splices were still tripping me up. I began to wonder if it was a function of the translation; perhaps Norwegian possessed different conventions with regards to sentence structure?

A perusal of Knausgaard’s previous novel, “A Time for Everything,” revealed that the author does indeed know how to “properly” punctuate. A typical passage from that work reads: “Cain felt the gaze of the crowd at his back, but he didn’t turn; in a strange way their exit felt like a victory: it was just the two of them. In a few minutes the festivities would continue, and the wonder would dissipate itself in them.”

47 words in total. The varied punctuation helps to regulate the flow of the two sentences. We stop at the periods. And pause at the semi-colon and colon. Each of the two commas is followed by a coordinating conjunction (but, and). Now, compare this to the writing in My Struggle:

Later that autumn the temperature plummeted, all the water and the canals in Stockholm froze, we walked on the ice from Soder to Stockholm’s Old Town, I hobbled along like the hunchback of Notre Dame, she laughed and took photos of me, I took photos of her, everything was sharp and clear, including my feelings for her.”

One sentence, 57 words: one period, seven commas. My guess is that the run-ons in My Struggle are the result of Knausgaard’s compositional method, and that he decided to leave many of them untouched as a statement about the formal constraints of his project. As he recently told Eleanor Wachtel, length and speed were crucial: “It had to be long, and I had to write very quickly, so I could be ahead of my thoughts all the time.” By consistently eschewing the aesthetics of a properly punctuated sentence, Knausgaard allows data and detail to pile up without the emphasis that more varied punctuation would provide. At one level, the My Struggle books seem to be about getting as much of the world’s content as possible onto the page, rather than arranging this content for artful effect. Knausgaard will sometimes leave a sentence deliberately clunky to enhance this impression. Listen to the repetition of the word “mind” in the final clause here: “The boxer incident, when I hadn’t dared kick in the door, and the boat incident, when I hadn’t dared to ask Arvid to slow down, as well as Linda’s concern about my failure to act, had played on my mind so much that now there was no doubt in my mind.”

Eyes Within a Face

“What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?”
—Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book Two

Which is not to say that there aren’t still beautiful passages and artful effects, but rather that these are not the point of the work. In particular, Knausgaard has a knack for describing eyes, getting at the essential individuality and emotion they convey. Knausgaard is obsessed, in a conflicting way, with how he sees the world and how others see him. It is little wonder, then, that painting is his favourite art (Book One contains a beautiful passage describing the eyes in a late Rembrandt self-portrait), or that the most frightening creature he can imagine, from a childhood dream, is a lizard-like figure without any eyes.

How Knausgaard perceives his own eyes often provides a clue to his relationship with the world. When he first arrives in Stockholm:

I studied myself in the mirror for a few seconds. My face was pale and slightly bloated, hair unkempt and eye . . . yes, my eyes . . . Staring but not in an active, outward-facing fashion, as though they were looking for something, more as if what they saw was drawn into them, as if they sucked everything in.

Since when had I had such eyes?

There is only one scene in Book Two where Knausgaard’s mother is remotely critical of him: after he moves to Stockholm, she lashes out at how he left his wife and then fell in love again so quickly: “I couldn’t see other people,” Knausgaard summarizes, “I was completely blind. I saw only myself everywhere. Your father, she said, he looked straight into people. He saw immediately who they were. You’ve never done that. No, I said. Maybe I haven’t.”

Later, his love for Linda changes the way he sees by bringing him into closer proximity to reality: “Before, I had always been deep inside myself, observing people from there, like from the back of a garden. Linda brought me out, right to the edge of myself, where everything was near and everything seemed stronger.”

Struggle with Form/Struggle as Form

“ . . . I could counter that Dante, for example, had written just fiction, that Cervantes had written just fiction, and that Melville had written just fiction. It was irrefutable that being human would not be the same if these three works had not existed, So why not just write fiction? . . . Good arguments, but that didn’t help, just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me nauseous, I reacted in a physical way.”
—Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book Two

In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, David Shields describes being overtaken by a similar feeling: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” It is worth noting that very few of the writers of recent works of reality-based fiction are as wholeheartedly against the traditional novel in the way that Shields can sometimes appear to be (e.g. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station). It is tempting to add My Struggle to the list of contemporary fiction/nonfiction hybrids, the most epic version yet of the novel-from-life.

But somehow Knausgaard’s work displays a less playful attitude towards the division between fiction and reality, as if he is off working in his own mad dimension that paradoxically feels closer to the real. Though Knausgaard’s series was originally published in Norway and other European countries with the word roman on the cover, in Britain and North America it is more often referred to as an epic memoir. In many ways, My Struggle perfectly enact Birkerts’ definition of the genre. While “this really happened is the baseline contention of the memoir,” Birkerts writes, the true “fascination of the work . . . is in tracking the artistic transformation of the actual via the alchemy of psychological insight, pattern recognition, and lyrical evocation in a contained saga.”

Archipelago has wisely decided to publish My Struggle without a genre label. What ultimately matters is the magnitude of Knausgaard’s investment in his project, the sense that here is a man writing to save himself, writing to survive, writing because these things mean so much to him. Somehow, he is able to make them mean almost as much to us. Like all great art, whatever the genre, one leaves these books with a renewed feeling for what life and art can be.

Birkerts also stresses that it is the juxtaposition of multiple timelines, “the now and the then (the many thens) . . . that creates the quasi-spatial illusion most approximating the sensations of lived experience, of recollection merging into the ongoing business of living.” Knausgaard has taken this technique to new heights, returning again and again to his themes, with new insight:

Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty . . . Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning. My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at that time; on the other hand, I see him as a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.

The overall effect of the first two My Struggle books, despite the seriousness of the subject matter, is both liberating and exhilarating. In any one book, so much has, of necessity, to be pared away. The magnitude of Knausgaard’s project allows him to shine a light on hitherto unknown aspects of being, indulging in immense, 234 page-long digressions into the past. But when we return to the present, it is with a renewed knowledge and understanding of the characters and their situations.

And yet, despite its allegiance to reality, Knausgaard’s art is still an art: it still employs form and illusion. For all its breadth, the writing still only seems to include everything. In reality, it casts its net only over what has come through the author’s mind in the process of writing. Gradually, as Book Two progresses, we move back round to the subjects and questions of Book One: alcoholism, death, paternity. We come to see that death and love are bound up together in myriad ways. But perhaps, with his particular brand of intuitive energy, Knausgaard was setting us up for this all along, right from the very first sentence of Book One:

“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”

—Eric Foley



Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and the winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. His writing can be found online at Numéro Cinq and He lives in Toronto and divides his time between his writing and teaching at Humber College.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
May 062013

David Ferry with iguanaDavid Ferry, Photo by Stephen Ferry

Herewith the definitive interview with David Ferry, winner of the 2012 National Book Award for his collection Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. It’s an interview that will surprise you, teach you and maybe change your life, especially if you are a poet. It is replete with compositional and technical information invested with passion and deep reading. Ferry will say things such as  “In that line, for the first time in the poem,  in the third foot, there’s an anapestic variation, and that felt so much like a kind of a panic in the way it is said, as if the voice saying that the line is experiencing this act that’s happening “Once by the Pacific.”  That way of thinking about lines:  what happens in the lines coming as a surprise to the reader, and coming as a surprise, in a way, to the poem, itself––I knew I wanted to talk about this stuff for the rest of my life…” Our interviewer, Peter Mishler, is the perfect interlocutor, the perfect seeker, curious, engaged, literate.


Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?

I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey.  It’s an upper-middle class suburb near New York City.  My father’s office was in New York City––so that’s my home city, and always has been.  I feel like a New Yorker in some way––and all the more so because my wife grew up on East 92nd Street, and my daughter went to Columbia and my son lives in New York.  I went up to Amherst and Harvard and taught at Wellesley for most of my career and lived in Cambridge for all of my career.  So Boston I guess is my main city, but New York still feels like it.


What poems first caught your attention when you were growing up?

Whitman most of all, in high school: so big-hearted and sexually waked-up and freeing; and the big rhythmical repetitions of those long lines, with so much room in them for variety and syntactical surprise––there’s lots going on inside the lines.  And the nationalism, the sadness in Lilacs Last.  Lots of other stuff, of course, just reading around in an anthology we had, the Oxford Book of American Verse.  The Shakespeare lines encountered in high school classes –-– “books in running brooks, sermons in stones” –-– but I wasn’t in any sense a prodigal reader of poetry, as opposed to other reading.

Nor was I a big time reader, by comparison.  I was a reasonably smart high school kid, and had no idea of becoming a poet. Or becoming anything.  Well, that’s not quite so.  If I had to guess, at that time, I’d have guessed that I’d become a teacher of literature.  These were the classes I liked best in middle school and high school.  But I didn’t get hooked on poetry until I went to Amherst, then got drafted, and returned to Amherst.  It was the teaching of Reuben Brower and C.L.  Barber that did it to me and for me, vocationally.  And, of course, Frost and Stevens.


You mention in another interview that your teaching and writing were shaped by your early reading of specific lines from Frost.  Could you elaborate on why the discovery of that writing was so important to you?

I wrote a particular paper about a Frost poem, which now feels to me, in retrospect, like it was a big vocational experience.  I actually remember saying to myself, inside my head, “This is what I want to do for good and all––teaching––and teaching about how things like this happen inside the lines of poems.”  The poem was Once By the Pacific, which begins:

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.

The thing that really came home to me in those iambic pentameter lines was the way that second line was an iambic pentameter line, but “great” was so strong for the so-called weaker syllable in the first foot, and then “looked” was, too; and what was happening in those waves rising up and about to break was happening in the line itself.  And then another instance in the poem, a little later:

                     The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff

In that line, for the first time in the poem,  in the third foot, there’s an anapestic variation, and that felt so much like a kind of a panic in the way it is said, as if the voice saying that the line is experiencing this act that’s happening “Once by the Pacific.”  That way of thinking about lines:  what happens in the lines coming as a surprise to the reader, and coming as a surprise, in a way, to the poem, itself––I knew I wanted to talk about this stuff for the rest of my life as a teacher.   I wasn’t even thinking about being a poet or I never had that intention, anyway.  At the beginning, I hadn’t started to write any poems.  And as a teacher, I kept thinking at that time about the grammar of Frost’s great essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.”  The grammar of that title in a sense suggests that the figure isn’t something laid down on a poem; the poem makes a figure and the poem is made by what happens––things that are unexpected by the intention at the beginning of the poem and unexpected by the poem itself.


I read somewhere that you had corresponded with Wallace Stevens when you were an undergraduate.  I’m really curious to hear about your exchange.

“Corresponded,” no.  Stevens, along with Frost, were my two biggest experiences, experiences for my listening ear at Amherst.  I wrote my senior thesis about Stevens and I was elated about having done so.  I wrote him a letter asking him about Whitman, even though I knew the answer, because I knew his lines about him.  He wrote back and said something like, “Walt Whitman was the only writer back then whose writing wasn’t a book.”  That is, he was what Stevens called “the latest freed man.”  I wish I had the letter, but I lost it.  I keep hearing all those lines of his that are entranced and entrancing: “Keep you, keep you, I am gone, O keep you as / My memory, is the mother of us all.”


Do you remember when you first started writing poems?

The first poem I ever wrote was “Embarkation to Cythera,” about Watteau’s great painting.   And I can’t remember if before that I’d thought about writing poems or had tried it.  Writing that poem was a lot of fun, trying to work out the lines, and I sent the poem off to the Kenyon Review which I’d been reading a lot––everybody was in those days––because the leading critics of the time wrote often for that magazine, and because I was admiring many of the poems of John Crowe Ransom. And he took the poem.  So I guess I thought I was starting out as a poet because of that poem.  It was also true that at that time I was reading a lot of Pound, and the way he was writing about poems, and I think maybe I was thinking about those things not as a student but as somebody who was getting started writing.


Can you walk me through the process of how you compose a poem?

The process of composing a poem for me comes from writing something in a journal or as lines of poetry, and trying to understand the possibilities of the insides of the lines of that poem.  There’s a poem in Of No Country I Know, called“Of Rhyme.”  That poem tells more of what I think about how a poem gets produced:  ”… the way each step of the way brings in / To play with one another in the game / Considerations hitherto unknown, / New differences discovering the same…”  I don’t mean that I necessarily rhyme––I do in that poem––but starting and finding out how the form is being developed and learning from your attempts to write further inside the poems and seeing them become something with a shape and an identity. I don’t start from a concept or a proposed subject, though of course, because of things I’ve been concerned with in my mind or my situation, the poem as it develops does usually show that it has––the language of the poem has––a subject or a conceptual concern, and it’s likely to have relationships with other poems I’ve been working on, the translations I’ve been working, say, or things that have been happening to me.


AR Ammons has those great lines “I look for the forms/things want to come as.”

That’s a wonderful pair of lines, and I love the language of it: “to come as”––the unwilled nature of it, leaving it up to the poem as it finds its way to having a form.  Ammons wrote mainly in a free verse, I guess, and, at least in recent years, and maybe always, I write mainly in iambic pentameter, so I wasn’t leaving the form up to what he calls in that poem “black wells of possibility.”  I don’t know whether Ammons would automatically exclude metrical poems, which might seem to him to impose on the poem forms the poem didn’t want to come as, but I regard metrical schemes as explorative, trying to find out what form, the completed poem, things want to come as.


So you are highly attentive to the line when you are composing a poem.

That, you might say, is all that I’m conscious of.  That’s who I am: somebody who writes lines of verse, mainly in familiar iambic metrical schemes.  Writing in a fixed meter––iambic pentameter mainly––with a highly conscious sense of the line ending, defines your experience of the line and defines your sense of the degrees of varying pressure on the weak and strong syllables and their relationship to each other.  The way that those things happen in relation to the basic iambic pentameter music of the line is something that you observe when you’re writing the line and taking some pleasure in doing it, but it also means that there are times when you want to manipulate that line inside itself to make it sound even better.  So that modifies the way I was just talking about how so much that happens in the poem is a surprise to the writer.  A surprise? Yes and no.  In a way, that’s all the writing verse means, to me: attention to what happens inside the lines and to the line-endings and the consequences of the line-endings.


The iambic pentameter in your work is masterful.  How did you get so good with this?

I’m too shy to say how I got “so good” at iambic pentameter, but it is true that I have a lot of experience writing in that meter.  But I’m not a meter freak. I don’t have a police badge.  I write free verse poems. But for me the meter I use most often is iambic pentameter, a line long enough to make room for many syntactical events, many different pressures of strong and weak.  And its so natural.  You call it “masterful” but the fragments my poems begin from are often prospective iambic pentameter lines, because that meter is so natural.  We speak mainly in iambs and anapests, occasional trochees.   You just said, “How did you get so good with this.”  The first two syllables are trochaic (How did), the rest are iambic (you get so good with this).  Natural, mainly iambic speech.  The same is true in verse, except that the pentameter sets the music going, and governs it, and the regularity of that is part of the pleasure.   The iambic pentameter music is playing all the while, and within that regularity we hear all the variations, the subtle differences of pressure and tone, and the activities of grammar, syntax and emotion, that make our speech so rich.


I want to know more of the particulars about how you make a poem.  Do you write by hand? 

I don’t write by hand at all.  And almost never did.  I write stuff down on the computer or sometimes in a journal.  I might have some expression that I’ve written down, and I go back to it and read it and see if something happens. And I think.


Do you share your drafts with anyone?

I work and send drafts back and forth with a number of people.  Boston is a wonderful working environment in that sense.  I have lots of dear friends whom I do that with, especially in my work as a translator because I show passages to my Latinist mentors, classicists, and so on.  Even with my wife, Anne, though I guess I didn’t very often show the very beginnings of what I was doing.  I think I showed scraps to her when I thought something was beginning to develop, but sometimes only when something was pretty far along.


There are some significant gaps between the collections that you’ve published.  Is there an aesthetic reason for this slowness?

I guess an aesthetic reason is in my poem to William Moran called “Brunswick, Maine, Early Winter, 2000.” I quote a wonderful quote that he sent to me from Nietzsche:

“It is a connoisseurship of the word;
Philology is that venerable art
That asks one thing above all other things:
Read slowly, slowly.  It is a goldsmith’s art,
Looking before and after, cautiously;
Considering; reconsidering;
Studying with delicate eyes and fingers.
It does not easily get anything done.”

It’s the same thing as if he’d said “write slowly” because writing is a form of reading.  Not only is one’s reading going into the writing, but the way you read your experience as you’re trying to write it down, and more particularly as you’re reading your own language in the lines as your developing.  That’s a slow business because it takes a lot of considering, reconsidering, altering, re-altering.  I don’t know how to make it faster, at all.


I think of Marianne Moore’s work with quotation when I read your poems––and I know you like her work.  What do you admire about it?

I think it’s the incredible skill with which she invents forms, often syllabics.  She’s the only consistently good writer of syllabics that I know of in the sense of the organization of whole poems.  And she invents forms in which she includes, like she says in her poem “Poetry,” anything, including prose.  She brilliantly gets away with that.  She incorporates other material in the poems with amazingly, scandalously, with wonderful success; incorporating them and making a form that will include taking along prose sentences from somewhere else, making it a part of a new poem that is also making a new form––it’s just an amazing example.


Would you cite her as an influence?

I haven’t thought of it exactly that way.   In the poem for Bill Moran I just mentioned,I quote from Nietzsche because he had sent that passage to me, and part of our relationship was the excited way that we talked about reading.  Bill was a great Babylonist at Harvard.  I shared with him so many of the values that were implied in that quotation.  It became very personal to the poem that I should get that in because it describes not only a way of thinking about reading and writing that I think is profoundly true, but it is also extremely personal and expressive of my relationship to him and to his work and to his wife.

My collection Bewilderment also includes an extended quotation from Goethe in the poem “The Intention of Things.”  I had translated some poems of Goethe’s, and I happened to come upon this particular quotation.  It was so helpful in what it did for what that poem was trying to say.  And the pleasure of trying to make that extended sentence work in the metered lines, as I hope it does, without really changing a word of the quotation was part of the pleasure.


You mentioned reading Pound at the time when you started thinking of yourself as a poet. You must have also been interested in him as a translator then?

I was very interested in his translations, yes, but I had very few translations that early on.   There is only one translation in my first book, On the Way to the Island: Ronsard’s sonnet that begins “Quand vous serez bien vieille.”  And the next book, Strangers, was published twenty-three years later.  And I was thinking of myself very much so as a poet during those years, though I was writing a poem a year, or at the most two or three.  But in the second book there are three translations, and then the next book Dwelling Places is almost half-and-half poems and translations, and then I really began to give myself that way.  But mainly I did not have a big time ambition to be “a translator.”  I happened to be finding poems in other languages that were related to some of the situations I was writing poems about in that period of my life.


How did your career in translation develop after this?

I have in Dwelling Places, and my two subsequent books, poems that are about marginal people, street people in distressed and distressing conditions or situations, and I found or was directed to some wonderful poems that I translated:  Rilke’s “Song of the Drunkard” and his “Song of the Dwarf”; Baudelaire’s “Blind People”; a really marvelous 13th century poem I call “When We Were Children.”  Such poems and the poems “of my own” that I was writing about such situations, fed each other.   In the end I was surprised that such a high percentage of Dwelling Places was half poems and half translations.  But I really felt, and still feel, that these translations are also poems of my own, because of the use I’ve made of them, what they became in my book, and because I wrote the lines in English, my lines became readings of those lines.  The activity of writing those lines was not different in kind from writing lines in English, though the foreign texts supplied more data and data arranged more coherently than the undeveloped and often scrappy data of experience with which poems of my own began and which had less assistance in their development.

The new poems in my next book, Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems, also had a high percentage of translations related to my own poems, often about such situations. And also, around the time of Dwelling Places I began to be a translator (or something like it) in another sense.  Bill Moran, whom I mentioned earlier, assigned me his word-for-word translation of several passages from the Gilgamesh epic, to versify.  I did this and got hooked and, under his guidance, working from other scholarly word-for-word translations, made a verse poem of the Gilgamesh material. People liked it a lot, and I loved it.     And then I really did want to translate big time and I got into the Odes of Horace under the guidance of Donald Carne-Ross, a great classicist at Boston University.   Then I had the ambition to translate all of Horace which I haven’t finished yet.  I translated all the Epistles and I am working on the Satires of Horace.  I’m not a classicist or Latinist but I’ve been working under the guidance of several mentors at Harvard, especially Wendell Clausen and Richard Thomas and with lots of help from others, including Michael Putnam.  The Horace work led to my translating the Eclogues of Virgil and, several years ago, the Georgics of Virgil.  Now I’m at work on the Aeneid.  Huge, huge experiences, line by line.


What are your thoughts on modernized translations––translations that incorporate a contemporary idiom, etc. into an older poem?

I don’t have many thoughts about this, because I don’t read much in other verse translations. I gather that there are translations which egregiously want to sound up to date. I don’t have such a motive.  But you can’t avoid incorporating a contemporary idiom into your translation, because your translation is speaking English, and your English inevitably uses such idioms, without wanting too aggressively to sound “modern.”  Of course there are places where, in my opinion, to get the tone right and characterize the feeling right, you have to take emergency action.  For example, in my translation of Rilke’s “Song of the Drunkard,” the drunkard, in a bar room scene recounts his experience of drinking and says, “Ich Narr,” “I Fool” or “I’m a fool.”  I can’t hear in “I’m a fool,” the force of the self-disgust which I hear in “Ich Narr”, the very sound of it, but I do hear an equivalent when I translate it as “Asshole!,” and I think of that as a literal translation, true to the tone of self-disgust that the poem demands. But that’s not part of a general motive to “modernize.” It’s always an issue, though.  You want your language to be alive but you don’t want it to cheapen things by being too ambitiously up to date.


Is there an ethics of translation that you believe in?

I think the responsibility of the translator is to convey as much as possible his passionate and close reading of the meanings of the lines that he is translating, and (as much as it is possible for him in his language) to register his understanding of the sense, the tonalities of the original, the tone of voice; and to understand as much as possible about the implications of the particular figures of speech because he is using another language.  And in my opinion, it’s not a part of the responsibility to reproduce––in most cases––as exactly as possible the meters of the translations, the demands of the two languages being so different.  My translations of the Epistles, the Eclogues, the Georgics, and (what I’ve done so far) the Aeneid are all in iambic pentameter, which is a capacious line––a lot can happen inside of it, as is true of dactylic hexameter, the prevailing cadence in the Latin text.


Right now you are translating the Aeneid.  I remember reading the Robert Fitzgerald translation in high school.  Is there something new about your translation that you want to point out that I might want to revisit?

I’ve only read a few passages of Fitzgerald, and I see why they’re admirable.  What’s new about my translation is that it’s mine, all of it, my reading of the great original, and the lines have never been written quite that way before.  This is true of all translations, good bad, and indifferent. True also of all “original” poems which are so often, maybe always, like translations of earlier poems. That’s how we keep alive.


Perhaps you will be able to say more when you are finished with the entire poem?

The question implies that I’d know with some confidence what the poem is “about,” what the encapsulated summary meaning of it is; for example, “a triumphalist celebration of the establishment of Rome.”  Certainly there’s that in it.  But to say that radically simplifies the poem, thins it out, and so does every other summary reading, behaving like take-home pay.  I don’t know what’s “new” in my reading of the poem, which is my translation of it. Maybe what comes up in my translation so far comes up in all the others. I’m sure it does, though I haven’t read them much.  How do bodies hurt when they’re atrociously violated; how do wives die; how vulnerable all cultures are and how it’s their fault and not; how the gods don’t get it and we don’t get it about the gods; how sons die.  I think summarizing tends to kill the experience of reading the lines one after another.  And what I think the poem is really about is the lines one after another––the experience that he gives to the reader and to the translator.  There are many summary things one could say, but I don’t want to say them with any confidence.  In my reading of these poems, though, I keep responding to the signs of vulnerability––individual and cultural––the tears of things.  But that’s not all.

How do you convey these small discoveries to the reader?

It is the ambition of every little writer to be as good a reader as possible, as a translator reading the great text and reading his own developing experience of writing the lines.  All you can do is to try to do as well as you can; and as you’re drafting a translation of it, find things that surprise you about what’s turning up in your own language, and then ask yourself if you are anywhere close to representing some of the effects of the original.  And the answer is always, “No, of course not.”  Every talk I’ve ever given on translation has been titled “What I Couldn’t Get” or “Getting it Wrong.”  What I really like in my translation are also clear instances of what I didn’t get in the translation.  But they came in the effort of getting it as right as possible.


Do you ever look at other translations when you are translating?

Occasionally I go to other translations when I am particularly puzzled by some narrative event, and occasionally I check myself out in order to get scared by how good the translation is, or to sneer at it in a superior manner––and both of those are mean-spirited kinds of experiences, so I don’t look very often.  I have read in Dryden’s Aeneid.  It is great.  But it is in the 17th century idiom which is so different so I am not really affected by it or threatened by it.  I’m told, and from what I’ve read it’s true, his emphasis is more admiringly imperialistic than what I think I am reading in the Aeneid.


How much of your reading of Virgil is colored by your own experience?

There’s no question that Virgil––he says so many times––is celebrating the regime, and that he is very close to the Emperor, as Horace is too.  And in this “Cowboys and Indians” war, he is certainly on the side of the “Cowboys.”  But he’s so full of eloquent distress about the vulnerability of the “Indians,” so to speak, and the precariousness of it all for everybody and the wrong motives everybody’s acting out of all the time along with the right motives.  I think of that famous passage in Book One, “the tears of things”––“lacrimae rerum.”  You keep seeing Virgil lamenting the cause of being human, and how to maintain a culture, and that the tears of things are everywhere.  But stating that this is what the Aeneid is about kills your experience of the lines.  You do learn something, but you keep on learning it in the condition of your sentences.  I mean, in the ways we’re “writing” when we’re talking right now are full of indecisions, and changes of stress and emotion and self-puzzlement are going on all the time.  And for me, that’s what’s so very alive in everybody’s writing.  But Virgil is so good at that.  I’m so struck by how big-hearted he is and how he sees everybody’s trouble.  Experiencing that in the sentences of the poem is just wonderful.

I’d love to know more about how your translations converse with your own poems.

The biggest event since my last selected poems Of No Country I Know––the biggest, worst, event for me and my family––was the death of my wife.  It is perfectly true that when she became ill, it was at the time I was translating the Georgics of Virgil, and when I came to Virgil’s account of Orpheus and Eurydice, the relation of that poem to some of the ways that I was writing that had to do with that event in my life were very, very direct and were directly referred to in that poem.  Virgil’s Orpheus and Eurydice is referenced in the poem “Lake Water,” and quoted at the end of the poem about my father called “Resemblance.”

And in other ways, there is a very conscious relationship.  There is a poem called “That Now are Wild and Do Not Remember”and its title comes from the Wyatt poem I was talking about earlier.  And it talks about that poem as if it were a sexual and romantic bereavement, in a sense.  And that poem also uses a passage from Book Six of the Aeneid––about the unburied dead seeking across the river.  I don’t want to say that those connections were planned in any sense, but I just sporadically kept a kind of journal; those connections emerged, and it’s no surprise.  When I was working on Bewilderment I was writing poems that related to earlier poems of my own, just because it’s me.  I am the same person who was writing those poems, and they relate to these events in my life in this period––and among those events was the death of my wife, but also the fact that my experience is full of translating Horace and Virgil.  So it isn’t exactly an intention to use the one kind of material for the other, but the poems find out that they have had that intention.


I noticed that you re-included two of the poems from your first collection in Bewilderment.  Why?

I included “At a Bar” because I like it a lot.  And because I had several other bar room poems, because I wanted to include the great Horace “Ode to Varus” which is a kind of barroom poem, and because it sort of helps to make a relation between the poems in Bewilderment and some of the poems in Of No Country I Know and Going Places about people in distress. And there are lines in “At a Bar” like “What is my name and nature?” which are very much like lines that I’ve found myself writing in much more recent poems.  “What is your name that I can call you by?” and so on, so it’s a poem I wanted to include.  Barroom situations are good for singing the blues.

I have another book that has just been published in England by the Waywiser Press and it’s almost a complete poems, On This Side of the River.  In that book I didn’t just want to arrange material chronologically from my first book to the latest one, but rather put poems together by their affinity to one another.  And so it’s no surprise that in this other book which I was bringing out at the same time, I was doing quite a lot of putting poems written in 1960 and before with poems written in the 1980s and 1990s and 2012, so it’s not a surprise that I did that in Bewilderment as well.


When you were looking back on earlier work did you notice that there are particular things that you’ve tried to move away from over the years?

I’ve left out some poems from my first book, usually because they showed signs of trying to be charming, in a period sort of way.  And revised others a bit. What else is new?  I’ve kept everything else, and if that’s wrong it’s not for me to judge.


Were you and your wife artistic collaborators?

She gave me the title for all of my books.  She wrote several lines of mine.  For example there is a poem of mine in Of No Country I Know called “Rereading Old Writing.”  She wrote the line “Something not to be understood.”  She was a terrific example for me about how to read poems.   We read poems together very intensively––my poems and other people’s poems.  Her writing, for example, in  her last book, By Design: Intention in Poetry, published by Stanford after her death about the differences between Sydney’s way of rhyming in his sonnets and Shakespeare’s is just astonishing. She teaches everybody how to read, how the writer, or, you could say, the poem itself makes the telling decisions.

She worked in one part of our house in Cambridge on the 3rd floor, and I worked in a big study on the second floor in the back.  And I’d bring a poem upstairs, and we would come up with a solution. In that sense it was a working relationship.


Did your wife see any of the poems from Bewilderment?

That book is post-1999, and she died in 2006.  I think she knew all of my translations of the Georgics which included the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that book was published in 2005.  By that time she would not have known the last stages of the work in that book, and she certainly would not know of the use I made of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the poems about her.    I am not sure if she knew any of the passages from the Aeneid that I put in Bewilderment.  There are some other poems like “Willoughby Spit” that she certainly knew.

Before she died we were editing the wonderful collection of her essays, By Design,and she participated in the editing up to a point, so it was partial.  But it was certainly a big part of our relationship that we worked together.  That was not all there was to it, but it was terrific.  She was an amazing teacher.


You have other artists in the family?

I do.  My son is a wonderful photojournalist and an artist.  My daughter writes books and she’s an extremely good anthropologist, and they are both wonderful readers of poetry.  My father was a good organist and moonlighted in the Depression as a pianist, and I learned to play the piano because he played the piano.  We thought at one time of doing a family website called The Cottage Industry––we’re not all poets, but we’re all writers.  It’s terrific.  My daughter and my son, as we speak, have been in Columbia, where he’s been mainly working in the last three years, collaborating on a story or maybe a little book about the gold rush in Columbia.  He’s done a lot of photographing there, and she’s just been down there doing her anthropological work.  Both of their first books were about mining in Latin America.  And so there they are making something beautiful out of it.  And there’s a photograph by my son on the cover of Bewilderment.  Terrific.


I’m thinking about the title of this collection.  Can you talk more about how mystery, misunderstanding, or the inability to know has played a role in your work? 

It turns out in my writing, witnessedin the title of this book, that I keep finding out things about myself that I’m surprised at and that I can’t come to fixed conclusions about––that I live in this state of bewilderment. You do too.  I discovered that something like that keeps coming up in my poems.  It is not that I start out with some kind of subject matter or some intention to write on a topic.  I let them write themselves.  I’ve got a poem of one-liners at the beginning of Bewilderment that I made sure, when it was published, was four words and not three: “Playing with My Self.” It’s what our language does all the time.  I think every writer’s most recent book is some variant of that.  And I don’t know whether I’m trying to find out more about myself.  I don’t know if I’ve gotten anywhere in finding out more about myself.  I don’t think I’ve got any further in that regard than when I wrote those lines.


What are the big mysteries for you?  What are the things you continue to be baffled or confused by?

I think I’m just like everybody else, including you, I’m sure.  I’m sort of baffled a lot.  And I don’t have any expectation that there are going to be answers to what I’m baffled about.  It’s like that poem in this last book called “Ancestral Lines”:  my father says, “‘He called the piece Warum?’” He didn’t know, Schumann didn’t know, my father didn’t know.  And I say in that poem “What are the wild waves saying? I don’t know.”  But bewilderment isn’t my ‘subject.’  It isn’t a topic; the word just seems appropriate for things that keep coming up in the poems.


Is reading other poets a way of finding comfort?

I read other poems for what I find in them, for the experience of reading them.  I get a lot in the experience of reading poems that I think are wonderful, but I’m not sure that comfort is a word that would describe it.


I ask because if we find ourselves baffled or bewildered often, is writing or reading a place where one can seek comfort?

I don’t find that there is a therapeutic value in stuff that I read.  And the better the stuff that I read the less that it delivers in a sort of one-on-one way, because it seems so full of conflicting attitudes, so it’s just itself.  And in the act of reading when you read, say, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych––all that pain––it’s such a pleasure, and so painful.  Now I am beginning to sound sort of fancy.  I don’t mean to sound highfalutin about this stuff.  You just get sort of troubled by what the lines are saying and I guess there is something that is sort of comforting because somebody else said them.  But there is also such a pleasure that the lines are taking in themselves.  Wordsworth said that the main thing that poetry does is to give pleasure.  Some of the poems in Bewilderment are expressions of grief to be sure but there is also the exuberance of the writing that I think everyone experiences who is a writer.

I’m sure you know in your own writing that there’s a sense, even when you are writing about something intensely painful, there is terrific pleasure in the act of writing.  I do think it’s therapeutic as long as one doesn’t think it provides easy answers to taking away the pain.  A poem about a real life painful situation is therapeutic because it actually intensifies the pain by confronting it directly, but talks about it by, so to speak, singing about it, and therefore the pain is presented to oneself and to others as a kind of pleasure, not happy pleasure, but often a lamenting pleasure, often very dark, but transformed into art.  And then it also somehow makes connections in song, with all the songs that have been sung about bereavement and death in the past. This is true for good and bad poems, but it becomes exaltedly true in the great bereavement songs of the past, in liturgy, in folk music, country music, Bob Dylan, Henry King’s great “Exequy” for his wife.  There’s comfort for the writer in that, but it’s the comfort of proving an alternative value.  But it doesn’t really substitute for or compensate for the raw experience of somebody’s illness and death.


Was there a poem in Bewilderment where you had that experience of lamenting pleasure?

That’s everybody’s experience–people talking about themselves or writing poems about their situations.  There is a pleasure in trying to make the feelings articulate that is always there, whether the poems are good or bad.  But when you feel in a particular poem that you value the way you did it, as I do in Bewilderment, there’s that experience of pleasure in writing.

When I go back to Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” he talks in many ways about how your own language brings surprises to you.  It doesn’t answer any questions that you have, but it is about the experience of getting it said.  And it’s the experience of watching what’s happening in the lines as the experience of the sounds and rhythms and the experience of emotions and knowledge that’s gained.  Of course, there’s the knowledge that you didn’t know you had, and that the poem line by line is sort of finding out itself.


Frost says that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”  What you are saying, I think, is the kind of wisdom he is talking about.

I think I’m not even sure whether he ought to have said “wisdom” there, because it confuses people about what that essay is really saying.  I don’t think he is saying that the poem delivers big time comfort, as if you’d gone to the top of mountaintop and said, “What is life?” and there is some sage up there, and the sage says, “Life is a river” or something like that.  Frost means that we end up knowing something more in a particular poem, or in a particular sentence that one says to one another in conversation, by the articulation of it––by the rhythm, stress and emphasis of what is said.

And to return to the Aeneid, the experience of working on that poem is the terrific pleasure of writing iambic pentameter lines and trying to get it right; it’s the experience itself of the activity of writing.  There are big things to learn from that great poem in the line by line activity––things I can give of myself as a writer of lines, and not as a thinker about larger concepts.

—David Ferry & Peter Mishler


David Ferry is the Sophie Chantal Hart Professor Emeritus of English at Wellesley College and also teaches at Suffolk University.  In 2011, he received the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for his lifetime accomplishments.  In 2012, he won the National Book Award for Bewilderment: New Poems and TranslationsOn This Side of the River: Selected Poems has recently been published by The Waywiser Press.  He is currently at work on a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Peter Mishler

Peter Mishler was educated at Emerson College and Syracuse University.  He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at a high school in the Syracuse area.  His poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, LIT, New Ohio Review, Numéro Cinq, and Open Letters Monthly among other journals.

May 052013

Desktop16Anne Loecher & Lorine Niedecker

Anne Loecher shines a floodlight on the obscure and all but forgotten midwest poet Lorine Niedecker whose life, poetry and poetics are a surprise to me:  where you might least expect it (the periodically flooded Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin), a resolute soul emerges. I love her word “condensery” that describes the exact and terse language of her poems. I am exhilarated by the adventurousness that led her to blast out of Blackhawk Island to New York and the arms (and poetics) of Louis Zukofsky. But her subsequent abortion and the return to Blackhawk Island are sad to read about. The poems, forged in the fire, are extraordinary.



Lorine Niedecker is, in the estimation of many prominent poets and scholars, a major poet. However, even today, 42 years after her death,  Niedecker still is not widely read.  In fact, she has been called “the world’s greatest unknown poet.” Only recently has her work begun to attract an expanding readership—which is still modest at best.

As with other examples of under-read or forgotten poets, this oversight sparks the question of why—or why not—and begs an inquiry into the merits of Niedecker’s work, her times, our times,  and the complexity of her poetics.

Ironically, it is possible that Niedecker’s slow-growing readership owes much to the singularity and particularity of her poetics.  That the relative smallness of her readership is attributable to a misperceived “smallness” of her poetics. For to follow the development of Niedecker’s poetics is to find its tracks and traces in silences, in smallnesses, in pauses and paucities.  The voice of Niedecker that evolved and emerged is not an obvious one; its presence can be detected in reflections;  the reflections in the omnipresent waters surrounding and often consuming the environs where she lived, in rivers and flood waters and lakes of her small Wisconsin town and the Upper Midwest.  Her poetics can be followed in the nearly invisible traces of minerals these waters carried to the sea, and in the glacial progress of natural history and evolution – so quietly slow as to be barely discernible.  To find Niedecker’s influence and legacy in such places is to realize that a clamoring, obstreperous  appreciation would be implausible—and inappropriate.

As the poet and scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis has noted, Niedecker  “was published only by small presses. She is barely anthologized. She made no ‘literary career.’”[1]  Having spent her life in rural isolation, far from the urban meccas of poetry and the publishing world’s male-dominated precincts, Lorine Niedecker’s poetry emerged in relative isolation. Additionally, in her lifetime, much of her poetry was radical—if subtly and cunningly so. Niedecker’s feminism was decades ahead of its time, and likely fell on deaf ears, often. The same could be said for her deftly wielded lines decrying other social injustices, her criticism of consumerism and other embedded aspects of mid-twentieth-century American life and culture. Some couldn’t see or hear her for her subtleties; some who could preferred not to look or listen too closely.

Lorine Niedecker was born in 1903 in the tiny and insular community of Blackhawk Island , near the town of Fort Atkinson in rural Wisconsin. She lived in this area nearly all her life, with a few brief periods in New York and Milwaukee.


Blackhawk Island is actually a peninsula, bounded by the Rock River and Lake Koshkonong. The  low-lying Niedecker family property where Lorine was raised flooded every spring, waters rising into  the  Niedecker’s and neighbor’s homes, contributing to their  constant struggles and hardships. While Niedecker’s father had some level of income as provided by tenants to whom he rented his properties, the family was by no means well off, or even comfortable.  Niedecker’s life was fraught with hardship and struggle for subsistence. It is valuable to look at one of her earlier poems, dealing with the issue of subsistence, for what it also conveys about her own place within such paucity:

My Friend Tree[2]

Well, spring overflows the land,
floods floor, pump, wash machine
of the woman moored to this low shore by deafness.

Good-bye to lilacs by the door
and all I planted for the eye.
If I could hear—too much talk in the world,
too much wind washing, washing,
good black dirt away.

Her hair is high.
Big blind ears.

I’ve wasted my whole life in water.
My man’s got nothing but leaky boats.
My daughter, writer, sits and floats.

The poem honors, in a distant way, the memory of Niedecker’s mother, who was deaf and essentially abandoned by her husband during his lengthy affair with a neighbor.

“Well”—the first word in the poem, serves as both a reference to the wellspring that feeds the homestead and the frequent floods, nurturing the family and devastating it at the same time.

The mother is moored to the low shore, which suggests a constant threat of drowning—not only the possibility of drowning in the water, but the repeated drowning in the drudgery of her daily work, pumping the water out of her flooded home, washing the clothes which the silt keeps soaking and reclaiming.

Beauty without practicality is dismissed, as if a ridiculous and indulgent luxury—as the lilacs the speaker’s mother planted are taken away by the constant, leaching waters. Ultimately, even what is necessary to life is leached away, as the “good black dirt” needed for crop growing, indeed the very land they stand on, is erased by wind and water in this constant fluid extraction and reclamation.

granitepailNiedecker breaks in with her own voice in the short second stanza—a daughter’s distant though observant note that her mother is perhaps even freakish in her isolation. Her deafness is imagined as a blindness, too, and the image presented is of a creature inhabiting this solitary place, not quite human in appearance, but with “big blind ears” like a rabbit and with an elaborate head of hair. Her mother is like an island, cut off by her deafness, cut away from the land that is washing out from under her, separated from the simple enjoyment of beauty with the disappearance of the lilacs.

In the mundus of Niedecker, deafness and blindness have a profoundly adverse meaning. They are not only the inability to see, hear—but also to perceive, to be aware, to be sensitive and attendant to. In short, the mother is  cut off from life.

When we arrive at the final stanza, the mother again speaking, we have an astonishing and utterly unembellished image of the mother, washing away, almost dissolving into a liquid existence, nothing stable, nothing solid. Even the boats her husband may have provided, as he provided little or no comfort or love, these boats are leaking and doomed to rot and sink. Only Lorine has found a way to float. Her writing may even suggest a sitting on water, or at least a manner of finding some ground and grounding; her floating—that is, her writing—is her survival. Love is a luxury, as disparate from the lives of those in the poem as if it were fantasy; it is not part of the fabric of these lives. If there is any beauty that survives, it is to be found in the dissolved particles in the flood waters.


Niedecker’s first collection, New Goose, also has been suggested in some circles as the source of criticism that has mistakenly marked the poet as concerned with only small or low subject matter, with trivialities that are not the subject matter of major poets. That narrow view, attributable largely, one thinks, to the male-dominated poetry world of mid-century America, and its cultural prejudices—refers to Niedecker’s revisiting of the Mother Goose rhymes in this volume. Even a quick read reveals the size and girth of the work, which is anything but the small, cloying and miniaturish.

“New Goose” speaks clearly to the cause of the betrayed laborers of the Depression era, whom Niedecker watched fail and starve – the farmers, who feed and nurture us, and who are all but invisible to those they feed.  If feeding and nurturing is women’s work, she asks us to consider the men who have given their lives to it only to have their labors lost, shunned, and devalued. The link to women’s work is subtlety present: the diminishment, devaluation and erasure of the work of raising living things on this earth. Again, Niedecker is asking us to look more closely, to see the small,  the unseen and unheard.

New Goose [3]

For sun and moon and radio
farmers pay dearly;
their natural resource: turn
the world off early.


Hop press
……….and conveyor for a hearse,
Newall Carpenter Senior’s
……….two patented works.

Kilbourne. Eighteen sixty-eight.
Twelve hundred women and boys hopped.
When the market raced down to a dime a pound
from sixty-five cents, planters who’d staked
all they had, stopped.

Duplessis also comments on Niedecker’s  “…unexpected turns and word choices…(expressing) surprise found in the small, the trivial, the barely noticed.”[4] To Duplessis, this was Niedecker’s carefully plotted strategy for entering the canon under the name  “Anon,” alongside the numerous and century-spanning works that are unattributed but not unimportant.

newgooseThe New Goose collection specifically seeks to enter and reconsider this anonymous landscape, first in terms of the nursery rhyme’s ineradicable place in culture, folk culture; asserting folk culture’s importance and endurance in American culture, and also, an important assertion of the female, the Mother figure in Mother Goose, who has survived, reemerged and re-arisen in this first collection as a “New Goose.” A variant on the phoenix, if you will! These complex elements are those of a strong, assertive voice, and not a meek, resigning and retreating one. “Anon” is a potent potion.

It is entirely possible, Duplessis believes, that this was not a mode of retreat into actual anonymity for Niedecker, but instead another facet of her poetics of silences, her visibility in reflections.

Gilbert Sorrentino worries that Niedecker has been and will continue to be trivialized for her “unsophisticated, rural” subject matter, writing: “The reductive judgment of Niedecker has settled comfortably in, and it is woeful for me to recall all the dim remarks I’ve heard about homely and honest Lorine and her wonderful poems that emerge, shining, from her harsh and lonely life ‘on the river.’”[5]

In 1928, Niedecker married Frank Hartwig, who had been an employee of her father’s. She worked as a library assistant in the Fort Atkinson Public Library, where she was first exposed to the Imagist poets—Ezra Pound, H.D. and Amy Lowell. Niedecker published two poems that year, which demonstrated her interest in the Imagists.

Two years later, in 1930 after the onset of the Great Depression, Niedecker and Hartwig lost their jobs and moved back to Blackhawk Island from their Fort Atkinson apartment, to live with Lorine’s parents. That same year, Lorine and Frank separated permanently, eventually divorcing.

In 1931, Niedecker encountered the Objectivist movement in poetry, through the works of poet Louis Zukofsky she discovered in an issue of Poetry magazine. This was the start of Niedecker’s important and enduring relationship with Objectivism, and of her lengthy and complex personal relationship with Zukofsky.

The poet Louis Zukofsky.

The poet Louis Zukofsky.

Upon discovering the Objectivists, Niedecker wrote that she had been in search of just such a poetics for some time. In a review of a Zukofsky craft book, Niedecker praised the new poetic movement, quoting Zukovsky’s checklist of attributes:  “(use of) the exact word…in the right order, with the right cadence, with a definite aim in view;… song, one of the mainsprings of poetry …” and “(the inclusion of) an emotional object, close to the people and their experiences…”[6]

While Niedecker would often state that she felt a strong alignment with the Surrealist poets in addition to the Objectivists, she continues to be associated almost exclusively with the Objectivists. Zukofsky quickly became her mentor, and then her lover. Niedecker moved from Blackhawk Island to New York to be with him and soon afterward became pregnant by him. Zukofsky insisted she abort the twins she was carrying. She obeyed him in this, as she also did with his instructions to focus rigidly on Objectivism in her poetry. The abortion, which she did not want, was an immediate and lifelong regret, a profound and deeply affecting loss. Her long and strict adherence to Objectivist modes would become a source of regret somewhat later.

“As an Objectivist,  (Niedecker) strove for precision and concision—for an expression of the thing itself.  Objectivism, marked by clarity of image and word-tone, thinking with things as they exist, and directing them along a line of melody, economy of presentation, the poetic rendering of current speech.”[7]

However, as Niedecker scholar Jenny Penberthy has noted in her essay “A Little Too Little,” Niedecker may not be so easily defined.

Penberthy writes: “Niedecker had an ambivalent connection to Objectivism. She certainly read and was excited by the original Objectivist statements but she did not regard herself as an Objectivist.”[8] Niedecker often referred to her own work as Surrealist. In a letter from to a close friend from Blackhawk Island, excerpted by Penberthy, Niedecker writes, revealingly: “…Objects, objects. Why are people, artists above all, so terrifically afraid of themselves? Thank god for the Surrealist tendency running side by side with objectivism….”[9]

Objectivism appealed to Niedecker for its austerity, its lack of ornamentation, for its compression, its “extraordinary precision in (its) use of sound,”[10] as the critic Peter Middleton describes for its lack of excess, to which Niedecker adhered throughout her ongoing poetic development.

Penberthy winnows out those overlapping Objectivist and Surrealist modes which likely attracted Niedecker to Zukofsky’s Objectivist influence: “Objectivism gave priority to the non-referential, material qualities of the word; it also valued a ‘non-expressive’ poetry, rejecting sentimentality—which is a manner of excess.” Niedecker’s chief attraction to Objectivism, as Penberthy sees it, is to abstraction. In a letter to Zukofsky, Niedecker asserts this, writing: “there must be an art . . . somewhere, somehow entirely precious, abstract, dehumanized, and intense because of these [qualities].”[11]

If Niedecker had a lesser commitment to Objectivism than is still widely believed, it is worth considering why she adhered to its methods and mandates to the extent she did. Rachel Blau DuPlessis in her essay “Sounding Process” sees Niedecker’s  Objectivist allegiance partly owing to the power dynamic between Zukofsky as mentor and former lover, but also as an almost practical matter for Niedecker who may have—quite consciously—grasped what Objectivism could provide for her own, singular, developing poetics.

That  “…evoking objectivist practice gave Niedecker a frame for, a way of controlling, what she experienced as excess in herself…”[12] The drive for concision, tightness and control was always in evidence.

In her later poems, Niedecker merged the lack of sentimentality and excess, the “sincerity and force” she valued in Objectivism with the “muddle and floaty vagaries”[13]that were her abstract and Surrealist interests  as she wrote to Poetry magazine’s founder Harriet Monroe in 1933; a point she made again as late as 1968 in a letter to Clayton Eshleman, publisher of her late poems.

Famously, Niedecker wrote to Eshleman, in explanation of her movement beyond the strict confines of Objectivism:  “I figured after 40 years of more or less precise writing, I could afford to let go…I know that my cry all these years has been: into—into—and under—close your eyes and let the music carry you—and what have I done!—cut—cut—too many words!”[14]

Niedecker had a word for it: condensery. The pared down, elemental language, an emotional power driven by accuracy, precision, and lack of emotionalism or sentimentality. Adjectives and even articles are often omitted from Niedeckers’ short poems, the majority of which are untitled. Additionally, her lens focused on that “low” subject matter—the everyday, the quotidian. The rocks in the riverbed on the shores of Blackhawk Island, the stove, the wash bucket, the scrubbing of floors. How small all of this may seem:  condensed language and form, modest scope and lack of the grandiose in style or subject, the frequent silences, the brevity, even the lack of titles—the quiet and small scale of her work have almost certainly played a role in the enduring quiet and smallness of her reputation.

Scholar Elizabeth Wills, in the introduction of her book Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, asserts that the perception of Niedecker as working in isolation ignores her constant written dialogues with other writers, as well as her dialogue with contemporary and historical persons and events, which her later poetry especially addresses in depth and often.[15]

Additionally, she argues that  Niedecker’s physical isolation was not necessarily a disconnection or a desired hermeticsm or invisibility. Rather, it was an essential part of her methodology to study and consider her realm, in order to cultivate her poetic voice. It was essential to the intensification of her focus, her moving in ever closer to hear and see, and to write about the small scale with the greatest subtlety and nuance.

As the critic Gilbert Sorrentino writes—to misinterpret Niedecker’s physical seclusion as isolationist, and as “sacrificially counter-literary”[16] is mistaken and culturally chauvinistic. One could also argue that to read her “low subject matter,” addressing  the scrubbing of floors and the like, as purely domestic and quotidian rather than as a deeper and larger address of feminist and labor issues  is to miss Niedecker’s place on a larger stage.[17] And then there is the matter of much of Niedecker’s middle and later poetry directly addressing such global political issues as the Bay of Pigs—and her taking a firm position on Marxism, in her many poems expressing her moral objection to property and “ownership.”

DuPlessis writes of Niedecker: “She may seem to seek  a minority, a littleness, a miniature scale almost unthinkable, especially for a female writer who can be culturally coded as minor no matter what genre she chooses, but especially if she chooses tiny-looking and folk forms.”[18]  The smallness, among other things, references Niedecker’s long fascination with haiku, another concise form.

Regarding Niedecker’s small scale in subject matter, critic Karl Young sees it not as a choice to become small to invisible, but rather to find something great, in that which is frequently overlooked. Young writes: “What matters for her is life as lived, a continuity full of surprises and changes, paradoxically full of loss, and simultaneously able to find satisfaction in what might appear as trivia.”[19]

The poet and critic Anne Waldman likens Niedecker’s silences to what Critic Gordana P. Krinkovic noted about John Cage’s silences, in which “silence is not just the absence of talk. It is very much listening to what else is going on. ..”[20]

In her essay “Property, Poverty, Poetry: Lorine Niedecker’s Quiet Revelations,” critic Marie-Christine Lemardeley considers the poet’s  silences  to be  “poetics of reticence, i.e. an interest less in the image formed in the mind, than in the sounds of silence, in the words and spaces between the words.”[21]

There is a telling line from one of Niedecker’s later poems, “Paen to Place”: “and silence/ which if intense/ makes sound”[22]

As the critic Jane Augustine writes in her essay on this poem, “Silence, intensified, becomes loud/brilliant.”[23] We are given to consider Niedecker’s silences, her condensery, her miniaturism to have a perhaps very different intention than that of small scope, quaintness, or even regionalism.


The discussion of Niedecker’s limited readership during her life must consider the context of sexual politics during her lifetime. Certainly, the power dynamics of her relationship with her mentor Zukofsky, an important gatekeeper to the greater literary world beyond Blackhawk Island, provokes debate.  Niedecker’s subject matter of domestic work, not to mention her direct address of marriage, of brides as property, and her indictment of modern domesticity, connected to soulless consumerism and an amorality that enabled the Cold War—presents a strong feminist/humanist stance that undoubtedly played a role in the development of her powerful poetic voice, but likely kept a broader readership away.

It is important to look closely at Niedecker’s strong reaction to the misogyny and sexism of her times. For when we examine the Niedecker poems that don’t just suggest this subject, but loudly assail it, we are hearing a railing against the social injustice of sexism and also, a deeply personal outcry that is her concern that she be read and heard as a poet; that she “float” and not drown in the larger literary landscape.

I rose from marsh mud[24]

I rose from marsh mud
algae, equisetum, willows,
sweet green, noisy
birds and frogs

to see her wed in the rich
rich silence of the church,
the little white slave-girl
in her diamond fronds.

In aisle and arch
the satin secret collects.
United for life to serve
silver. Possessed.

If we look at this poem, while also taking into consideration Niedecker’s poems about her mother and the wearing and dissolving properties of water, we have a powerful indictment of sexism—of marriage, in fact—that Niedecker views as not dissimilar to  the leaching waters of her physical environs.  It is the voice of the silenced wife/bride/female/daughter that has gone unheard, that Niedecker asks us to lean in close to hear. The quieted, suppressed and submerged are speaking in Niedecker’s radically feminist works.

The speaker has been able to survive, to ‘rise from’ the drowning landscape of mud and algae, and in this naturalized though sodden and possibly nearly-drowned state, casts an eye on the fate of one assumed to be more fortunate than the speaker—the woman chosen by a man to be a bride.

The speaker has a view into the local church, in which “rich silence” ironically, as we understand Niedecker’s lexicon, indicates a silencing, a loss of voice and lost hope for posterity. Additionally, “rich” is circumspect, and also intended ironically here. The bride’s “diamond fronds” both suggest an overly elaborate, dubious decoration, as well as an “unnaturalized” nature.  Can the embellishment of diamonds make fronds more beautiful, more worthy, or more valuable? Given the tone of the speaker’s voice, we think not.

tandgThe church, rather than a place of purity—as would be befitting a wedding, if the wedding were indeed holy and pure—is insted a place where “satin secret collects.” This unembellished image is vivid, though strikingly simple, and its subtext is absolutely clear: the satin, suggesting the fabric of bride’s dresses and clergy’s vestments, is in fact sullied with some suspicious residue, which collects, secretly, perhaps in its folds, therefore not immediately visible or obvious. All the more pernicious for being hidden. What is hidden is not invisible; what is hidden, implicit but still present, is important. We must listen in closely to what is nearly inaudible beneath the silences.

The poem’s final two lines equate the bride’s new marriage to a life sentence—though, with dark humor, Niedecker links the ‘serving’ of that sentence with the silver service, that common nuptial gift. The effect of the dark humor is to escalate the sting, the rage, the burn of the indictment. A bride is a “white slave-girl” which is to invoke her sexual servitude as well. A bride in her jeweled whiteness in the supposed sanctuary of a church is far less fortunate than the mud-soaked and nearly drowned speaker. At least the speaker retains her nature; she is poor and wretched, but no slave. She will “float” where the bride will certainly sink…as Niedecker’s mother did.

A picture of that bride’s domestic servitude and the cycle of domestic enslavement is presented in this  short untitled poem from The Granite Pail:[25]

Old Mother turns blue and from us,
……….“Don’t let my head drop to the earth.
I’m blind and deaf.” Death from the heart.
……….a thimble in her purse.

“It’s a long day since last night.
……….Give me space. I need
floors. Wash the floors, Lorine!—
……….wash clothes! Weed!”

The mother, blind and deaf, is recognizable as Lorine’s own mother, debilitated not only by physical handicaps but also by marriage, loneliness and abandonment.  She fears she will die suddenly and soon, from loss of love and loneliness.  The thimble in her purse recalls a human heart in her chest; however this “heart” is slim, hollow, metallic, a meager domestic scrap to fend off piercing needles and pins. The mother needs floors; previously, Niedecker depicted the washing away of floors in the floods, resulting in a bottomlessness, a rootlessness, a constant risk of drowning. The mother’s admonishment to Lorine is not to avoid marriage but instead to tend to her floors, her chores, weeds… those things that are washed until worn thin, and the weeds that overtake the beauty of the carefully planted flowers in her garden. That her mother would offer these words as survival tactics for her daughter, depicts the near impossibility of escape from this life, these lives, one generation after another, of despair, of being washed away and flushed out.

As an even more dramatic depiction of Niedecker’s view of sexism as a gross injustice, she invokes Mary Shelley, author of the important Gothic novel Frankenstein, who nonetheless was dwarfed by her husband, the poet Percy Bysse Shelley, and known first and foremost as his wife; her great work subordinated and at risk of disappearance. From the New Goose collection:[26]

Who was Mary Shelley?
What was her name
Before she married?

She eloped with this Shelley
She rode a donkey
Till the donkey had to be carried.

In addition to Mary’s almost invisible stature as compared to her husband’s, she is aligned with the Virgin Mary, riding a donkey, and in a devastating and ugly turn, is so poorly regarded that once the donkey tires, it is Mary who must carry it. Presumably Percy is comfortably astride some grand horse.

If the author of Frankenstein is so meanly treated by posterity, what might Niedecker expect for herself? Decades ahead of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, Niedecker’s feminism arose from the enforced silencing of women writers before her—including those who, unlike Mary Shelley, were silenced finally.

Niedecker’s feminism finds its place as asserting a voice and visibility for the unseen and unheard women of her age, place and culture.

This synthesis of two modes, Objectivism and Surrealism, which were utterly incompatible in the eyes of Zukofsky,  was to become Niedecker’s  entry into her own  reflective/reflectionist poetics—“a fusion of objectivist and surrealist tendencies,” as DuPlessis describes it.[27]

We begin to see emergences, as Niedecker removes from, or expands upon, strict Objectivist tenets, incorporating the environment, an anti-consumerist stance, a continuing respect for the laborer which emerges with increasing force in themes of social justice in her work, the many voiceless and unseen to which she gives voice and visibility.

Drawing from Objectivist, Surrealist and other influences, Niedecker came to refer to her work as “Reflectionist.”  If we look at this poem from “From This Condensery,” we see the reflection that Niedecker has come to consider, the reflection of her mother’s life, the possibility of this reflection as her own, in a portrait the speaker views:

My life is hung up[28]

My life is hung up
in the flood

a wave-blurred

Don’t fall in love
with this face—
……….it no longer exists
……………… water
…………………………we cannot fish

The final three lines, can be read, like most all of Niedecker’s lines, in multiple ways.  The face no longer exists, because it has been washed away. The face no longer exists, because we are reading this poem after Niedecker’s passing. The face no longer exists in water; it is no longer reflected in water because the corporeal self passes. In water we cannot fish—we cannot fish after we have passed.  In water, we cannot fish; once we are of the water, we can no longer fish.

The poem also references Niedecker’s attendance to the great importance of the small and the small scale, as it is the contemplation of the fish, even the human face, that leads to the consideration of the great and the profound, much as the small rivers lead out into the ocean. The corporeal self is immersed, subsumed and ultimately dissolves out into the greater corpus of life force and being.


Following a further distancing from Zukofsky in the early 1960’s, attributed to “increasing tensions between them concerning power and career.”[29]  Niedecker began defining her poetics in terms that included but reached further and further beyond the strict confines of Objectivism.

In 1967, she wrote “Much taken up with how to define a way of writing poetry which is not Imagist nor Objectivist fundamentally nor Surrealism alone. ..I loosely call it ‘reflections’… reflective. .. The basis is direct and clear – what has been seen or heard – but something gets in, overlays all that to make a state of consciousness… The visual form is there in the background and the words convey what the visual form gives off after it’s felt in the mind… And (there is) awareness of everything influencing everything…”[30] This Reflectivism clearly necessitates the closest possible observation to even the smallest details.

DuPlessis explains Niedecker’s emerging Reflectivism as “…a term that suggests both receptivity—the mirroring of an image or light—and an active mulling over what is seen, for reflective also means meditative or pensive.”[31]

When we look at Niedecker’s late, long poem, “Paen to Place,” we can identify the emergence of Reflectivism.

“Paean to Place” begins with the inscription “And the place was water.”

From “Paean to Place” [32]

I was the solitary plover
a pencil
……….for a wingbone
From the secret notes
I must tilt

upon the pressure
execute and adjust
……….in us sea-air rhythm

‘We live by the urgent wave
of the verse’

As Jane Augustine writes of this passage “…the literal description of (Niedecker’s) childhood…is transmuted…to the image of the plover which becomes, by the process of “reflection,” the poet who keeps the world’s balance, the lake’s image shifting to that of seashore and ocean wave, the landscape thereby enlarged to include the entire globe…”[33] The wing and the bone are conjoined in a single word, which tells of a conjoining of language, corpus, and of an interconnection of species. Similarly, sea and air are joined in the hyphenated “sea-air” to create the rhythm by which all things breathe, adapt, adjust.  And finally, it is the wave, the force, the momentum and urgent message of the verse, of communication, which is like a pulse, which “we live by.”

Niedecker could not have issued a more potent comment about the place of verse in her life. She becomes knowable upon reflection; she becomes visible in reflections of her physical self.

After Niedecker married Al Millen, a housepainter and sometime resident of Blackhawk Island (a marriage which was a curiosity to writer friends as Millen was not a reader of poetry and appeared to share few of her interests), the couple set out on extended trips throughout the upper Midwest.

One such trip to Lake Superior resulted in the poem of that title.  Here is an excerpt:

In every part of every living thing[34]

is stuff that once was rock

In blood the minerals
of the rock

Iron the common element of earth
in rocks and freighters

From the poem’s opening, all earliest, most ancient and most enduring elements are linked, whether they remain in their natural and unaltered state by the lake, or have been forged by human hands, to create trains, for example from iron. This is Niedecker moving forward in a continuing progression to bring the entirety of natural and human history into a cogent whole.

Within the poem’s body, Niedecker goes on to address such historical events, pertinent to the immediate landscape, as the explorations of Marquette and Joliet, and the lives of the Native Americans who inhabited this same land.

Their South Shore journey[35]

Their South Shore journey
……….as if Life’s—
The Chocolate River
……….The Laughing Fish
and The River of the Dead

Passed peaks of volcanic thrust
Hornblende in massed granite
Wave-cut Cambrian rock
painted by soluble mineral oxides
wave-washed and the rain
did their work and a green
running as from copper

Niedecker referred to Lake Superior as the “true source park.”[36] Thus, herein are linked the earliest inhabitants of the land, with the rocks and minerals and also the prehistoric glacial changes that resulted in land thrust up and scoured rocks. Water rushes and moves through all of these; the glaciers, frozen water, created this landscape and the rest of the earth; all that is the home to all life. This marks a dramatic expansion of her vision and poetics: she has broadened her scope, in one sense, to explore the smallnesses in the most enormous—in terms of both place and time.

Critic Douglas Crase also finds a parallel in subject and style here, describing Niedecker’s concision as “(scouring) the sentence as if to sand, the way the glacier scoured the Lake Superior rocks…(for Niedecker), words are a kind of sand. Words are for rearrangement, much as the history of Lake Superior has been the evolutionary rearrangement of its minerals by lava, sea, glacier and human industry…”  Crase notes Niedecker’s choice of the poem’s location as “…Lake Superior where uplift and glacier have exposed the oldest rock on earth…the three billion year old granite.”[37]

Evolution and distillation, an essential connection between the immense and the minute. It is not surprising that another late Niedecker poem took on evolution from its “source.”  Some excerpts from the long, final poem in The Granite Pail, Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, “Darwin”:[38]

Selections from “Darwin”


His holy
…………………………mulled over

not all ‘delirium
………………..of delight’
…………………………as were the forests
……….of Brazil

‘Species are not
………………..(it is like confessing
…………………………a murder)


FitzRoy blinked—
………………..sea-shells on mountain tops!
…………………………The laws of change
……….rode the seas

without the good captain
………………..who could not concede
…………………………land could rise from the sea
……….until—before his eyes

………………..Talcahuana Bay drained out—
…………………………all-water wall
……….up from the ocean


…Studied pigeons
………………..barnacles, earthworms
…………………………Extracted seeds
……….from bird dung

Brought home Drosera—
………………..saw insects trapped
…………………………by its tentacles—the fact
……….that a plant should secrete

an acid acutely akin
……………… the digestive fluid
…………………………of an animal!…



sailed out
………………..of Good Success Bay
…………………………to carcass—

the universe
………………..not built by brute force
…………………………but designed by laws
……….The details left

to the working of chance
………………..‘Let each man hope
…………………………and believe
……….what he can’

In “Darwin,” Niedecker braids all natural and human history, even the question of creation, “the working of chance” and allowing for “each man (to) hope/ and believe/ what he can.’” Water gives rise to life, and seashells appear on mountain tops as the earth evolves across the billions of years.  Glaciers evolve into sea water, sea plants secrete digestive juices that link them to mammals.

Even the lack of punctuation, the absence of any periods at the end of stanzas or at the end of the poem points to this: all is connected; all is of the continuum.


Niedecker died at the age of 67 on December 31, 1970.  She requested that her husband Al Millen burn all of her letters. The letters written by her to others survive.

While a cursory reading of Niedecker’s sense of place suggests a place of isolation if not retreat and removal, it is interesting to consider what critic Richard Caddel has noted and captured as patterns in Niedecker’s work – which posit that her subject of her place, the isolated Blackhawk Island, in fact addressed the very opposite of disconnection, that the intention of this poetry was the opposite of a severance or disappearance. Caddel writes: “…I’m aware that some early approaches to (Niedecker’s) work dealt with her natural surroundings as if her involvement with them was somehow a retreat, an act of escape…nothing could be further from the truth: the interconnectedness of her materials is explicit from the earliest work onwards…”[39]

Anne Waldman writes:  “Niedecker is never passive, dreamy, or other-worldly. She is very much of this world: …she lifts from her reading and study and intuits a view that life does not end with the death of the body…”[40]

Niedecker, in her close observations, explored the spaces and the pauses, the connections and  possibilities  between lines and sounds, and what was revealed in the reflections in the water.

Niedecker’s vision and poetics encircles, embraces and celebrates the small and the minute, the nearly invisible who and which, under her artful scrutiny, are proven to be the essential carriers of the enduring life force, gigantic in their purpose.

She is deserving of an audience capable of seeing the enormities within her smallnesses—which is not to say a small audience.

—Anne Loecher


Anne Loecher is a former Madison Avenue Creative Director, now working in nonprofit communications. Having recently earned her MFA in poetry from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she is working on her poetry manuscript, as well as her first screenplay. She lives Vermont with her husband, teenage daughter, dog and cat. Her most recent contribution to Numéro Cinq is an interview with the poet Donald Hall.
Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Lorine Niedecker, The Anonymous: Gender, Class, Genre and Resistances,” Lorine Niedecker, Woman and Poet  (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 113.
  2. Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 15.
  3. Lorine Niedecker,  New Goose(Berkeley: Listening Chamber Press, 2002).
  4. DuPlessis, 118.
  5. Gilbert Sorrentino, “Misconstruing Lorine Niedecker,” Lorine Niedecker, Woman and Poet  (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 287.
  6. Lorine Niedecker, “A Review of Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry,” (Madison, Wisconsin:  Capital Times, 12/18/1948) Books of Today section.
  7. Blythe Woolston,,7/1/2011
  8. Jenny Penberthy, “A Little Too Little: Re-reading Lorine Niedecker”…/jplittle.html
  9. Ibid, Penberthy.
  10. Peter Middleton, “The British Niedecker,” Lorine Niedecker, Woman and Poet  (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 247.
  11. Ibid, Penberthy.
  12. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Sounding Process,” Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008) 156.
  13. Ibid, DuPlessis.
  14. Ibid, DuPlessis, 158.
  15. Elizabeth Willis, Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008) xiv.
  16. Ibid, Sorrentino, 287.
  17. Ibid, Willis, xvii.
  18. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Lorine Niedecker, the Anonymous,” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 114.
  19. Karl Young, “Notes and an Appreciation to Lorine Niedecker’s Paen to Place,”
  20. Anne Waldman, “‘Who’ Is Sounding?: Gaps, Silence, Song in the Writing of Lorine Niedecker,”, 221.
  21. Marie-Christine Lemardeley, “Property, Poverty, Poetry: Lorine Niedecker’s Quiet Revelations,”
  22. Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, the Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 70.
  23. Jane Augustine, “What’s Wrong with Marriage: Lorine Niedecker’s Struggle with Gender Roles” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 139.
  24. Lorine Niedecker,  “I Rose From Marsh Mud,” (New York: New Directions in Prose & Poetry, Volume 11, 1949) 302.
  25. Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 4.
  26. Lorine Niedecker, From This Condensery: The Complete Writings of Lorine Niedecker, (Highland, NC: Jargon Society/Inland Book Company, 1985) 106.
  27. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Sounding Process”,  Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008) 158.
  28. Lorine Niedecker, From This Condensery: The Complete Writings of Lorine Niedecker, (Highland, NC: Jargon Society/Inland Book Company, 1985) 109.
  29. Ibid, DuPlessis, 152.
  30. Ibid, DuPlessis, 153.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 73.
  33. Jane Augustine, “What’s Wrong with Marriage: Lorine Niedecker’s Struggle with Gender Roles” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 139.
  34. Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 58.
  35. Ibid, 61.
  36. Douglas Crase, “Niedecker and the Evolutional Sublime,” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 337.
  37. Ibid, 339.
  38. Lorine Niedecker, The Granite Pail, the Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 108.
  39. Richard Caddel, “Consider: Lorine Niedecker and Her Environment,” Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1996) 281 – 282.
  40. Anne Waldman, “Who Is Sounding? Awakened View, Gaps, Silence, Cage, Niedecker”, Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008) 210.
May 042013


We forget beauty; the age inspires that. Things are things, cool and sleek. Stylish is what the market aims for. It’s a throwaway world. Leonard Bellanca is an old friend from Greenfield, New York, a furnituremaker, an artist, a man who tilts against windmills with names like Ikea and Walmart. He builds beautiful things that are also useful, a pleasure to use, things that have symmetry and motion, that draw the eye like a painting and will last till someone sticks them in a museum. He works out of traditions that don’t just date back to 2010. It’s a pleasure to put his work before your eyes.


Notes on Making Furniture

What continues to hold my interest in making furniture is the relationship between the prosaic and the poetic, the utility and the beauty, the craft and the art. A sweetly fitted drawer that is a pleasure to use, is as lovely as the reflection of light from a polished surface. Both are necessary, and they complement and depend on each other. Of course I love the  material, its usefulness, its beauty and odor. And I know where it comes from. I also know and understand what has to happen to the tree in order to provide me with that material. But wood is very forgiving, and now the work begins.

My work is influenced by history – in particular the American Federal period – but it is not historical.  I am not interested in reproducing pieces, but rather in borrowing elements from them: an elegant curve, the taper of a leg, refined proportion, decorative details that lend contrast and interest. So in borrowing and combining, and with careful study, the work becomes something that is at once modern and traditional. This sense of old and new also defines my methods of making furniture. I rely on machines to do what they do well: milling, cutting, rough shaping, and otherwise preparing stock, but virtually everything else — joinery, fitting, final shaping, detailing, finishing- is accomplished at the bench with hand tools, and hands, and eyes, using techniques and tools that haven’t changed much in the last few centuries.

A favorite form of mine is the work table, which in its various manifestations, evolved through the first half of the 19th century as a small table or stand, usually with drawers or compartments and designed primarily to accommodate ladies’ activities: sewing and needle work, writing, serving guests.  Stylistically, the form ranged from the practical austerity of the Shakers, to the  very delicate, elegant, and detailed pieces typical of urban workshops.

Work Table (2007), made of cherry and bird’s eye maple with various inlays, draws on this rich history. The overall form consists of a tall skirt with five deep drawers supported by richly figured double-tapered legs, banded with holly and ebony at the transition of the leg to the foot. The four small drawers are veneered with figured maple and cock-beaded; the central drawer has an inlaid panel of  figured maple outlined with ebony and holly string inlay, and is also cock-beaded.

I think this piece is successful because of its proportion and small scale, the symmetry of the drawers, and the pleasing effect of what is essentially a  box on legs, but what  strikes me even now is the movement in the piece. The grain of the square legs seems to  spiral upward, while the dashed inlay on the center drawer goes around, even as the red  cherry and pale maple are advancing and receding. I can’t say that these effects were  entirely planned, but somehow that relationship that I spoke of previously, the utility  and the beauty, the craft and the art, comes alive, informed by history and accomplished through long practice.

—Leonard Bellanca

1 bellanca work table 1

Work Table, 2007, cherry, bird’s eye maple, ebony, holly, white oak, 30″ high x 24″ wide x 16″ deep

2 bellanca work table detail1

Work Table, detail

Leonard Bellanca

Pair of End Tables, 2008, walnut, bird’s eye maple, ebony, holly, poplar, 29″ high x 19″ wide x 15″ deep

Leonard Bellanca

End Tables, detail

5 bellanca chest on stand-001

Chest on Stand,  2004, walnut, cherry, white oak, 48″ high x 26″ wide x 14″ deep

6 bellanca chest on stand detail-001

Chest on Stand, detail

7 Bellanca bench

Upholstered Bench (one of a pair), 2003, mahogany, 18″ high x 36″ wide x 20″ deep

8 bellanca benches drwg I

Upholstered Bench drawing, 2003, graphite on vellum

9 bellanca Chest of Drawers-001

Chest of Drawers, 2003, cherry, maple, bird’s eye maple, white pine, 38″ high x 34″ wide x 17″ deep





—Leonard Bellanca


Leonard Bellanca is a studio furnituremaker working in Greenfield Center, New York. Since 1996 he has been designing and making furniture using traditional methods, materials, and finishes. While earning a degree in Architectural Studies from The University of the Arts, he studied furnituremaking with Michael Hurwitz and Peter Pierobon. As an intern at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bellanca assisted in the removal and relocation of important architectural woodwork made by Wharton Esherick.  After graduating, he apprenticed with a professional cabinetmaker, working primarily on the restoration of 18th and 19th century American antique furniture. In 2004, Bellanca designed and built the house and shop where he now lives and works. He was a 2007 and 2008 Guest Artist of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association, and his work has been exhibited in various regional shows and galleries.

May 032013


Donald  Quist just moved to Bangkok, oh, a few months ago after graduating with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, making a new home and giving NC a chance to add a fascinating new city/country our growing list of What It’s Like Living Here essays. These essays have been part of the NC package from the beginning, adding a wonderfully human and personal aspect to what the magazine offers (which is, well, human and personal anyway). Take time to look through the whole list and then think about where you live, how beautiful it can be just stepping out your door.



Start at Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn)

Climb the large stone steps to the center tower. Careful. The stairs from the second landing are steep. The rock is smooth and it’s easy to slip with sweating hands. There is a single metal rail, rusted red, wrapped in rope. It offers some grip. Pull yourself onto the next level. There are more steps but the incline is too dangerous for visitors. Large strips of pink tarp hug the base of the tower like a castle moat. It prevents you from trying to go any higher.



Look up. The temple prang is a cone tapering to the sky, a tower covered in thousands of seashells and pieces of colored porcelain. There is a row of clay warriors, their shinning eyes and armor made from tiny tiles. The spire seems to rest on their backs and arms. Circle around the base, clockwise, stopping four times to trace the designs on ceramic flowers with your thumb. They feel like warm dinner plates. Imagine the hands that built these flowers turning into dust. 

Look over the monastery from 150 feet. Watch the monks stroll the temple grounds. Their orange robes are bright against the grey footpaths and green shrubs. Listen. Somewhere monks are chanting. Their voices pour from horn loudspeakers posted throughout the complex. It’s clearer at this height. Listen. It’s a steady tone and rhythm, a stream of soft vowels. It’s gapless. Their words are a river. You’re swimming without water. Had you noticed it before? 


 Take the Ferry

The east side of Wat Arun runs along the Chao Phraya. There is a dock where you can catch a long-tail boat into the city. The boat rocks against the gentle current. The breeze off the water smells like salt and iron and dirt. Breathe it in. The river is dense and strong. It is a pillar. On the approaching shore, in the shadow of high-rises, are mossy forts and remnants of river trading posts. There is the Grand Palace spackled with flakes of gold, glittering. 

Imagine the Palace last night, covered in lights to commemorate Loi Krathong. All over the city there is singing and music, and fireworks bursting like cannon fire. Sky lanterns rise into the night like blooms of flying jellyfish. Thousands walk down to the river. Imagine you follow them, caught in the wave of a new kind of intimacy. Imagine. You feel their sweat on your naked arms. Together, under the Rama VIII Bridge, you light candles and make wishes and sail them down stream on flowery crowns of banana leaves and coconut husks. You notice a group of boys a few meters south, wading through the muddy water. They are fishing krathongs from the river, blowing-out the candles and selling them to others waiting on the shore. Pray to the river goddess that your real hopes will float. 


 Head East

Follow the floodwater lines running along the bottom of buildings. Sidestep garbage bags and puddles from dripping A/C window units above the street. The air is heavy, like a dank basement. It carries an angry rot. Get lost in the buzzing of motorbikes and auto-rickshaws. 

Take a right, now, onto an unnamed soi. It is too narrow for a car. The small road is lined with morning street-food vendors tucked under rows of evergreen patio umbrellas. They sell porridge and pastries, soup and dim sum. 

Nod to people as you pass. Smile. They smile back. 


Make a left on the next street. Follow the webs of telephone wire past a dozen convenience stores. The buildings share a similar architecture. Squat balconies with fat columns, decorative moldings and cornices like a Roman basilica. Patches of black mold stain the paint and facades. 


Cross a short bridge arching over a canal. Hua Lamphong Railway Station is on the horizon.

Take the Subway at Hua Lamphong

Walk around the front entrance to find an escalator leading down to a long tunnel, trapping the humidity from the city above. The walls are sweating. The high ceiling echoes a hundred sandals slapping the floor. The tunnel ends at a ticket counter. Purchase a fare to Thanon Sukhumvit and then take two more sets of escalators, down, down, to the Metropolitan Rapid Transit platform. 


The train is arriving. It rolls to a stop, lining-up with the yellow directional arrows painted on the lip of the platform. There is a loud hiss as the doors spring open. A blast of cold air slaps your forehead as you push your way on. It fills quickly. Pinned by a mass of people against the back wall of the passenger car, you can barely lift your arms. 


Exit at Sukhumvit (Terminal 21 Mall)

The stairs lead up from the subway to the ground-level entrance of a shopping complex designed like an airport terminal. The women at the info desk are dressed like flight attendants. The escalators are decorated like departure gates. Each floor is themed with a global city: Paris, Tokyo, London, Istanbul, San Francisco and Hollywood. You are in Rome. There are pillars, arches, faux frescoes and marble angels looking down on shoppers. 


English is everywhere, and whether it is a spa promotion or a sale on high-heels, for a moment you are literate again. You understand more than bits and pieces of passing conversations. Two young men walk by wearing tank tops and folded bandana headbands. One of the boys has camouflage cargo pants, while the other has neon pink short-shorts. They are having an argument over which street market is bigger, JJ or Chatuchak. Don’t point out that JJ Market and Chatuchak Market are the same. Do not interject that many places in the city have more than one name in English, and the J sound and the Ch often get confused. Keep it to yourself. Knowing makes you feel like less of a tourist.  

Head West 

At the bottom of the stairs exiting Terminal 21 there is a man with one arm and no legs lying on his belly. He shakes the change in his paper cup. The back of his t-shirt reads, “I LOVE THE KING.” Give him 20 baht, and then turn right. 

The hotels and office buildings block the sun. The tracks of the BTS Skytrain cast a shadow over the six lanes of traffic. It gives the impression of a stormy overcast. The Skytrain rumbles like thunder as it passes above. 

Ignore the thumping club music from the already open go-go bars.  Ignore the peddlers calling out to you. You may not know where you’re headed, or what you’re looking for, but you know it is something larger than a trinket or souvenir. It is something deeper than a watch, bong or bootleg DVD. 

Thanon Sukhumvit turns into Thanon Phloen Chit. There is construction everywhere. Crews of laborers in hardhats and flip-flops are raising new luxury condominiums from the rubble of old luxury condominiums. Above the chorus of jackhammers and drills are the staccato blasts of car horns. The traffic crawls forward as motorists honk in frustration. The exhaust fumes mix with the smell of street vendors grilling pork. Layers of black dust hug the street. It’s harder to breathe. You taste smoke in the air. Somewhere people are chanting. It’s coming from a gated square, ahead on the right.


Erawan Shrine

Watch the believers light incense. They circle the shrine clockwise laying wreaths of yellow flowers, bowing to the four faces of the Hindu god, Brahma. Some are on their knees, their eyes squeezed tight in prayer. A few feet away, shielded from the sun by an open gazebo, a female dance troupe sways to a chorus of Thai folk songs. They wear towering headpieces and traditional dresses with shimmering layers that wrap around them and drape over their shoulders. Their faith makes them impervious to the heat. 

Scan the crowded square for another statue. Look for a depiction similar to the one at Wat Arun, protruding from the temple prang—Indra, the lord of heaven, riding Erawan, an elephant with three heads. 


But there is no giant white elephant of the clouds, or his master. There is no Erawan at Erawan Shrine. Only Brahma. 

You may never know why. There may always be some facet of this city that eludes your understanding, even its name. Is it Bangkok or Thonburi Si Mahasamut or Rattanakosin or Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit or just Krung Thep Maha Nakhon for short? Was the city named for its flowers or for its treasures gracing the ocean? The City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.

Move closer. Look. Listen. Follow the current circling the Shrine. Press your palms together and bow to something beyond your comprehension. Bow, in respect for what you don’t know. 


—Donald Quist
 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Donald Quist earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His creative work has appeared in several print and online journals, including Hunger Mountain and The Adroit Journal. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand.  
May 022013

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Herewith is a story by Simon Fruelund translated by K. E. Semmel.

K. E. Semmel is an old friend and former colleague from my days at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He is not only a dedicated and talented fiction writer in his own right, but a hard working and skilled translator as well, having translated and published four books of Scandinavian fiction in the last five years, including two books by Simon Fruelund, Karin Fossum’s The Caller, and Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One. (He’s wrapping up a fifth book this summer.) K. E. Semmel also serves as the Development and Communications Manager at Collegiate Directions, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to helping low-income children attend four-year college. I have spent many Sunday afternoons with him and his family, watching our sons play, drinking Belgian ales, talking books, and trying to love baseball as much as he does, so it is with pleasure that I bring to Numéro Cinq one of his translations.

Simon Fruelund is the author five books of which two are available in English: his novel Civil Twilight (published by Spout Hill Press) and a soon-to-be released collection of short fiction titled Milk and Other Stories (Santa Fe Writer’s Project). Alan Cheuse, book critic for National Public Radio, recently wrote about Fruelund’s work:  “[he] is a master of the short form, importing some designs from our own Raymond Carver, applying them to the interstices of the European everyday, and making them his own.”

“Albatross” is typical of Simon Fruelund’s style. A sparse, subdued story about two brothers, one of whom sets fire to his father’s rye field. With unassuming details and carefully fine-tuned images, “Albatross” is the type of story that sneaks up on you, and I found myself thinking for days after first reading it about the boy/arsonist perched atop the silo watching the adults scramble to put out his fire and harvest their grain. As K. E. Semmel has written: in Fruelund’s work “truths and experiences are intimated” in “quiet, inconspicuous way[s].” “Albatross” will appear in Milk and Other Stories.

—Jason DeYoung


My brother sat on the couch reading a magazine. I aimed at him with my lighter pistol and pulled the trigger. The flame rose straight up, almost five inches high, but he didn’t react.


I tossed the lighter at him over the coffee table. He dropped the magazine and threw himself toward the lighter in order to save the couch and curtains and wall-to-wall carpet. He couldn’t find it and started pulling the pillows down on the floor.

—Jeppe, you dick. Where’d it go? You’ll burn the house down.

The lighter lay on the floor right at his feet. I stood and walked over. The flame had gone out as soon as I’d let go.

—Here, I said and handed it to him.

—You’re an idiot, he said, refusing the lighter.

I stuffed the lighter in my pocket and left the room. I put on my boots and jacket and walked through the empty stalls and out the other side. We’d not been outdoors for two days. The afternoon sky was clear and blue, and I tromped toward our neighbor’s place. Svend the Hen was scorching his field; he’d lit rows of straw on the opposite side, and the fire now ran in parallel tracks over the crest of a hill. He was busy plowing a security barrier so the fire wouldn’t leap over onto our field, which hadn’t been harvested yet. He brought the tractor to a halt and opened the cab door.

—Get in.

I grabbed the handrail inside the door and hoisted myself up.  Svend the Hen had his shotgun across his thigh, the barrel snapped open and draped over his leg. I sat on the wheel guard, and the tractor started with a jerk. Svend the Hen’s short silver hair poked out of the corner of a green cap. He didn’t say anything. He plowed another row along the barrier to our field.

—So, he said.

I could see how the effort of talking stretched his cheeks, how his lips twitched in the attempt, and how he sat chewing on what he would say. As if he had to put his tongue and lips in order first. As we reached the end of the row, he turned the tractor and began a third row.

—So…They’re on vacation or what?

—Yeah, I said.

—What about the other hen?

—He’s at home.

—Well, well, then.

He always called us hens—maybe because he didn’t have any kids of his own. Some said he fucked his cows, but I had never believed it.

—Well then, he said again after a minute.

He smiled for an instant. Not because he liked to, but more because he couldn’t help himself, I think. Or maybe because he was proud that he’d managed to get his tongue in the right position in his mouth, moved his lips and all that. His teeth didn’t look too good, and you couldn’t mistake the smell. Maybe everything’s going rotten in there, I thought. He turned the tractor up near the shrubbery and drove with the plow raised in the direction of the fire. He took two bullets from a box on the front window and stuck them in the shotgun, still with one hand on the steering wheel. As we reached the first burning column, he turned the tractor so we were driving along the front. He opened the door and asked me to steer. The air was heavy with black dust, and it was hot as hell. We’d almost reached the end of the field before anything happened. He aimed and fired in almost the same instant. I barely registered what had happened.

—God damn, he mumbled.

I saw a hare leaping away.

—God damn, I said.

At that moment I saw another hare. Svend the Hen fired and this time he got it. The hare rolled a somersault, then lay completely still. He stopped the tractor and opened the door on my side, and with a nod of the head let me know what he wanted me to do. I hopped down and ran over to pick up the hare. I grabbed its legs and swung it around high over my head. The flames came closer; it was a wall of heat moving in my direction. I ran back to the tractor and tossed the hare to him.

—Get in, he said.

I shook my head.

—I gotta go, I said.

He closed the door, touched his fingers to his cap, and a moment later he was off in a cloud of black smoke.

I looked around for a place where I could get through the fire. I found an opening then made a running start and leaped through. When I came out on the other side, my face felt stiff and my hair smelled charred.

The ground was black and scorched.

At the end of the field, I found a smoldering chunk of a tree. It was a branch from an oak that stood near the border of our land. I picked up the cold end and went toward our side. Near the track separating the two fields, I stopped and looked around. The rye should’ve been harvested a long time ago; in many places the stalks lay horizontal to the ground. Ours was the only field, as far as I could see, that didn’t have stubble, or wasn’t already plowed up. I stood there a moment considering the pros and cons. They can kiss my ass, I thought. Then I threw the branch as far as I could into the field.

I hiked across Svend the Hen’s field. I headed down through the bog, followed the railroad tracks a short distance, and then walked through a small stand of spruce.

I’d reached the main road when I heard the first fire truck. It drove toward me at high speed, and a moment later the second one followed. I could see the firemen putting on their gear. I tramped along the road meeting one car after another—curiosity-seekers following the fire trucks, I think.  I also saw someone on a bicycle. I could hear the sirens approaching from every direction.

Along the way I passed a large white farm, and I saw a man and a woman hastily getting their children inside a car. After a few hundred feet, I passed a Dutch barn stuffed with hay, and half a mile later came to a wide field of barley that hadn’t been harvested.

Before long, I could see the first houses in what passed for the area’s biggest town. Towering up over all the houses was a grain silo. And I could see the brownstone school building with its white windows.

Just as I got to town, the local cop drove toward me in his blue Volvo. I waved at him and he waved back, and then he was already long past me.

I crossed the road, and soon stood in front of a broad chain-link gate. Three trucks were parked in the lot, but there was nobody around. I clambered over the gate and walked toward the silo. Small piles of grain lay here and there, and the smell was sweet and good. I put my hand on the outer wall; it felt warm. I went around the silo and found a door behind the building. With a hard jerk, I got the door open and went inside. I stood in a pretty narrow shaft; on the wall were a number of shiny steel stairs, and far above, I noticed a small circle of blue light, which I guessed was the sky.

I started crawling. It was really hot inside the shaft, and when I reached the halfway point, I had to stop and take my jacket off. I tied it around my waist, but that only made crawling more difficult, so I let it fall. I continued up; the higher I got, the warmer it was.

When I finally crawled onto the roof, I was soaked through with sweat. I pulled my shirt over my head and looked toward the south.  I could see a huge black cloud of smoke; under it, an orange glow. I couldn’t see the flames. In the foreground, I could see a combine that’d now begun to harvest the field I’d just passed.

I looked at the parking lot below; the three trucks were slightly staggered and resembled toys on display. The houses in the town were unusually close, but they still seemed small. Patio furniture filled the square yards, but there were no people. Furthest away was the train station, and I could see the red train waiting for the regional train.

I turned toward the north and saw a blue glare, which I knew was the sea. Then I turned toward the south and looked at the red glow.

Soon after, I sat down. I flicked my lighter and watched the flame. I fell into a trance and sat that way for a long time. At some point I realized I was freezing. I stood and put on my shirt, but it was cold and damp. I stared toward the south: As far as I could see the flames were burning out.

I moved to the hatch and started crawling back down.

I headed back the same way I’d come. Outside the town limits, I passed the cop. I waved, and he waved back politely. I passed the barley field and greeted the farmhand, who leaned up against the grain wagon smoking. I passed the Dutch barn where two boys shot at a target with a bow. There were lights in the stalls at the big farm, and I could hear the sound of a transistor radio through the open door.

I followed the main road and walked through the little stand of spruce, followed the railroad tracks, and walked through the bog.

It had grown dark by the time I finally made it home. At a distance I could see the light in the living room. I shuffled forward through a thick layer of gray ash. The fire had burned up most of the field; it hadn’t been brought under control until about 150 feet from the house.

When I walked inside, my brother sat on the couch watching television. He looked up.

—Where have you been? he said. There was a fire in the fields.

—I know that, I said.

I looked at the screen. I could see a big white bird lying on a nest: an albatross.

—There were a lot of people here. The cop was here, too. He was over talking to Svend the Hen. He seemed to think it was his fault.

I walked into the kitchen and poured a bowl of cornflakes. When I got back, my brother had changed the channel to some kind of quiz show; from a few notes you were supposed to guess the name of a song or a piece of music. I sat down in the seat opposite him.

They played a few bars of a song.

—“Strangers in the Night”! my brother called out.

We waited for the answer.

—You see, he said.

I pulled the lighter from my pocket, and this time I didn’t flick it—I just tossed it over to him.

—Catch! I said.

He flicked it and saw that the flame was only an inch high. He looked at me and then set it down on the coffee table.

—They say he fucks his cows.

—Yeah, I said and watched the screen.

They played a few bars of a new tune.

—Can’t we watch the show with the albatrosses? I said.


For a long time, without saying a word, we watched the program about the enormous birds. The narrator said they could fly up to a 600 miles a day. They sailed on the wind almost without moving their wings. We saw how they dived after fish, and we saw an albatross egg that was the size of a honey melon.

At some point, my brother turned his head and looked at me. I didn’t look at him, but I could feel his gaze; he watched me for a pretty long time. Then he turned his attention back to the screen.

—Promise you’ll never do that again, he said under his breath.

—Simon Fruelund



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Simon Fruelund is the author of five books, among them Milk and Other Stories, Civil Twilight, and Panamericana. His work has been translated into Italian, Swedish, and English, and his short stories have appeared in a number of magazines across the U.S, including World Literature Today, Redivider, and Absinthe. For nine years Fruelund worked as an editor at Denmark’s largest publishing house, Gyldendal, but is now writing full time.



K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. His translations include Karin Fossum’s The Caller and Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One. He has received multiple translation grants from the Danish Arts Council to support his translation of Simon Fruelund’s fiction.

Also available Civil Twilight

civil twilight



May 012013

Nabokov collage

This is the hard lesson of Lolita; it is a monument to an awful existential truth: simply to be alive, in the face of the whole history of human suffering, requires a kind of insane fortitude. Lolita reminds us that while soldiers were dying in European trenches, Monet was painting lilies in his garden; that horror and beauty are cosynchronous; that for every fine sentiment, every sweet emotion, someone else pays in blood, and eventually we all get presented with the check. —Bruce Stone

KubrickLolita2From the Stanley Kubrick film Lolita.


On March 19, the literary marketplace welcomed a new title by the young Vladimir Nabokov, who hasn’t been greatly inconvenienced by his death in 1977. The Tragedy of Mister Morn, a verse drama written in Berlin in 1924 and never published during Nabokov’s lifetime, reads as a kind of retread of Othello, set among the Bolsheviks: the plot points to Leninism, but the artifice is all Shakespeare, and the play’s release is timely on both counts. Six days earlier (a near eclipse of Morn’s arrival), the Erarta Museum in St. Petersburg, then hosting a performance based on Nabokov’s Lolita, absorbed the latest attack by the Orthodox Cossacks, a band of Russian conservatives that has been campaigning against Nabokov, denouncing his masterwork, since the start of the new year. Among the more serious incursions, a theater producer was beaten in January, but perhaps the most emblematic gesture was the lobbing of a vodka bottle through a window of the Nabokov museum: tucked inside the bottle, a note condemned Nabokov as a pedophile and warned of the imminence of God’s wrath.

Viewed as domestic terrorism (even Cossacks have dreams), these acts seem comparatively tame, even quaint. As a more benign kind of vandalism (tell that to the producer), they make their point clearly enough, I suppose. But as literary criticism, they are an utter travesty, an intellectual obscenity that should make the Cossacks and their kin themselves the object of public and lasting derision (pillories and tomatoes or, at minimum, raspberries). A half century has passed since Lolita’s publication, yet here we are again—it seems inevitable—with the literal-minded and the simpletons, the well-meaning zealots and zombie mooncalves breaking out torches and pitchforks, vodka bottles and spray paint, to decry Lolita as the work of the devil. Twenty-five years ago, in her appraisal of the novel, Erica Jong found this noise over its propriety exasperating, so maybe now more than ever, the only fit response to the Cossack charge is to ignore it, at most to repay the protesters with a bottle of one’s own, bearing just the terse rebuttal, “It’s art, stupid.” To do anything more, to defend Nabokov and his work more fully and forcefully, would be to concede that either needs defending in the first place.

And one would think that the Cossack claim could be made only by someone who hasn’t read the book. After all, unless you abuse the text pretty seriously (beat it within an inch of its life), it’s not possible to construe Humbert Humbert’s pathology as a behavioral recommendation. In this regard, his case is no different from that of multitudes of literary characters. Consider, for comparison, Brigadier Pudding in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, who, for the sake of sexual arousal, eats the excrement of the book’s femme fatale as she is producing it (do the math for yourselves here). That the novel contains this character doesn’t mean that readers, or his creator, find this behavior appetizing. Unfortunately, the semi-literate Cossacks are not alone in their sentiments about Lolita, not the only hostiles in the field. In fact, their cause often finds support even from the ranks of Nabokov’s fans. In the 2009 BBC documentary How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, journalist and literary pilgrim Stephen Smith promises to resolve the title question, which he poses more bluntly at the outset: “was [Lolita] a morality tale or the fantasies of a dirty old man? [his grammar]” On the whole, the documentary feels like a superficial traipse through Nabokov’s life and work, a mercenary stoking of this combustible subject. But one vignette particularly rankles: Smith interviews Martin Amis, perhaps the most famous champion of Nabokov’s work, and here, as Amis glosses the prevalence of pedophilia in the Nabokovian catalog—which, indeed, spans (vestigially) from the very early stories to The Original of Laura, the unfinished last novel, published posthumously—his view of Nabokov bends sinister. He flatly concludes that this recurrent theme “distorts the corpus,” cropping up so frequently as to be an admission of guilt.

Scholars too, from time to time, have tried to paint Nabokov in these same colors, casting him as the pervy uncle in the house of literature. In 1990, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Brandon Centerwall attempted to deduce from the fiction that Nabokov himself was a victim of molestation, and subsequently a “closet pedophile.” The article is a textbook example of the biographical fallacy, a case study in bad reading (call it what it is, a masterpiece of stupidity), yet this line of attack was taken up once again in 2005, inflated to book length, by an Australian critic who elected to self-publish her treatise when the university presses balked. The book appears to be a work of character defamation masquerading as scholarship (a wonderfully scathing review, by Sarah Holland Batt, is available online), but should these academic insults seem a little dated and recherché, consider this incidental disclosure, the novel’s cameo appearance, in a New Yorker feature, from January of this year, on the treatment protocol for pedophiles. One of the men interviewed for the piece, who had as yet hurt no one, kept a secret list of child-pornographic art works, among which he numbered something called Lolita, which is hilarious, though he might have been referring to a film version. (I wonder if he has seen Hard Candy). The man had also jotted some notes to justify his erotic appetites—“Strictly speaking a girl between 13 and 17 is not a child”—and Cossacks will notice how these seem eerily akin to the pleas of Nabokov’s Humbert. No, the derogation of Nabokov and his Lolita is a doggedly persistent refrain, a vampire meme in the cultural memory.

Lately, I’ve been thinking that it might be necessary to entertain these charges against the writer—for the sake of argument, as a logical exercise—if only to shred them the more completely. It’s not just the prevalence or persistence of these attacks that compels me. Let me explain. In his very readable book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton argues that the French writer’s masterpiece can subtly alter the reader’s own habits of cognition and perception. I take it for granted, as a given, that the same is true of Nabokov’s work: with its radiant precision, its richly patterned surfaces, its rampant serendipity, its rhapsodic and pulverizing prose, his fiction warps the mind in a most salutary way. In a thoughtful exchange on Slate, James Wood and Richard Lamb testify to the fact as they both complain of infection by Nabokov’s jeweled style. On a more tangible level, Nabokov’s work as a naturalist—his love for botanical things and butterflies which infuses his fiction—routinely inspires readers (not just me) to take up taxonomy, birdwatching, say, or tree identification: see Lila Zanganeh’s whimsical but skimpy hagiography The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness (2011), in which she reports that she too has found this element of Nabokov’s fiction contagious.

While Zanganeh chronicles a bit preciously her personal enamoration with Nabokov, David Kleinberg-Levin, a philosopher emeritus at Northwestern, advances more or less the same exalted argument; he attributes to the Nabokovian catalogue the full measure of the joy inherent in his own book’s title—Redeeming Words and the Promise of Happiness: A Critical Theory Approach to Wallace Stevens and Vladimir Nabokov (2012). (Clearly, the news hasn’t been all bad for Nabokov in the last few years.) Essentially, Kleinberg-Levin highlights two distinctive features of Nabokov’s fiction: its animated lexical surface (the prosody, cryptograms, puns and metamorphic words) and its narrative vanishing acts (in which worlds like a mad king’s Zemblan homeland are painted in lurid colors only to be razed, exposed as phantasmal and illusive, in which a Dreamer can stumble onto the set of Morn and remind the actors of their unreality). These features, for Kleinberg-Levin, evoke the awesome, originary power of language itself, its power to birth human consciousness, an experience conducive to, or synonymous with, happiness. Although his book is dense with reference and coiled academic prose, Kleinberg-Levin writes feelingly about the subject and is nearly convincing (I know he’s right, as is Zanganeh; I’m just not sure that there’s any rational way to argue the why). But here’s the rub: if sensible people are willing to ascribe a benevolent influence to Nabokov’s work, is it possible to dismiss out of hand, without a hearing, those concerns of the Cossacks and the demonizers that Lolita’s impact might be pernicious? That is, if books can be salutary, can they not also be toxic?

In his 1958 laudatory review of the book, Lionel Trilling inadvertently supplies the Cossack cause with this deadly ammunition; he writes that “in the course of reading the novel, we […] come virtually to condone the violation it presents.” The only outrage the work provokes, for Trilling, comes after the fact, when we recognize “we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” Trilling is mistaken in this conclusion, which is more a personal reaction than a reasoned response, but for Cossacks, I think it’s all the same anyway. That is, the Cossack argument makes no moral distinction between the author and his audience. The writer’s guilt is visited upon readers, museum curators, even by-standing sympathizers—everyone is smeared with the same graffitist’s brush—so it’s hard to know if influence, per se, counts among the novel’s offenses. Scholars like Centerwall, on the contrary, seem willing to allow that Nabokov’s moral hygiene isn’t necessarily identical to the reader’s, but if we grant to Cossacks this concern over influence—the novel’s ability to leave readers enlightened or benighted—it’s the Cossack position that seems the more dangerous of the two. For those of us who know better, this confusion of culpability actually has its advantages. It stands to reason, then, that if we can exonerate the reader, we have vindicated the author, or vice versa. But in the interest of coherent logic and simple commonsense, we might also distinguish between and treat separately these twin poles of accusation, to try to put the matter to rest. At the same time, I realize that this might be an impossible project: not that the controversy can’t be resolved, but that maybe it shouldn’t be resolved. Maybe Lolita is the shard of glass forever embedded in the flesh, the blade that never loses its edge, the trail of hot coals that perpetually smolders: maybe, when we reread it, as we must, we should feel the cut, let it scald, as if for the first time.


The Art of Self-Defense

After Lolita’s publication, Nabokov himself spent a good deal of time responding to the trumped-up charges against him, with inconsistent results. The interview transcripts assembled in Strong Opinions appear to be unassailable, pitch-perfect rejoinders to critics and demonizers. However, television seems to have been a less hospitable medium. In a 1958 interview for the CBC—last year, 3 Quarks Daily ran clips of the footage—Nabokov and the telegenic Trilling joined forces to discuss Lolita’s shocking content, and in that conversation, Trilling identifies perhaps the most scandalous thing about the novel: that it invites us to believe that Humbert’s love for his nymphet is authentic, that by the book’s end, it transcends the category of child rape. When Humbert meets Lolita for the last time, she is married (at seventeen), pregnant, a nymphet no more, and trying sensibly to shift for herself and her husband in their hard-luck life. Of the encounter, Humbert writes,

You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half- throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty- lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine. … [E]ven if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn—even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice.

Trilling might be on to something here, but the book proves more equivocal. Besides the disconcerting adjectives preceding that “delta,” a long-running debate among Nabokov scholars is whether the book’s last nine chapters, including the final meeting with Lolita and the murder of Claire Quilty, ever really happen beyond Humbert’s imagination. More importantly for the moment, Nabokov’s own remarks in that interview might fuel the ire of his antagonists. He mentions, for example, that he and his Humbert differ in many things besides their views of little girls; particularly, he mentions Humbert’s inability to distinguish a hawkmoth from a hummingbird. You don’t have to be a Cossack to hear something tone-deaf in this comparison, a jarring collision of the incendiary (pedophilia) and the urbane (ornithology). As a result, viewers might find themselves trying to interpret the writer’s body language, which is by any measure ungainly as he slouches and slides on an unaccommodating sofa. Jasper Rees, in his review of Smith’s BBC documentary, does this too: although he seems largely to suggest that the charges against Nabokov are bogus, the controversy a non-starter, he ends his article by picking again at the scab of the debate with this sketch of the writer: “Asked by an interviewer if he’d ever known a girl like Lolita, the old man’s lizard eyes flickered, and just for a second the body language spoke as eloquently as anything Nabokov ever wrote in his adoptive tongue.”

These allegations also prompted Nabokov to respond, away from the cameras, in the more composed forum of this Russian-language poem from 1959 (the translation is Nabokov’s own):

What is the evil deed I have committed?
Seducer, criminal—is this the word
for me who set the entire world a-dreaming
of my poor little girl?

Oh, I know well that I am feared by people:
They burn the likes of me for wizard wiles
and as of poison in a hollow smaragd
of my art die.

Amusing, though, that at the last indention,
despite proofreaders and my age’s ban,
a Russian branch’s shadow shall be playing
upon the marble of my hand.

At first glance, the poem too makes for a poor defense of the writer’s character (smaragd?!). An unusually attentive Cossack might seize upon the fact that Nabokov can’t bring himself to use the more accurate “pedophile” as the relevant aspersion, and in the last stanza, again he seems to put on equal footing the weighty matter of censorship with the trivial matter of proofreading (which is the point, at least in part: I wonder if the word doesn’t also contain a pun, alluding to readers who seek in literature a kind of proof, a bedrock of actionable belief). However, upon reflection, the poem does in fact do more to clear Nabokov’s name than it first appears. In refusing to countenance directly the charges against him, in evading the subject (and the horror) of real-world pedophilia, he reveals that his only concern is his literary legacy, which will carry the day in the end (those last two lines envision a marble statue of Nabokov in the Russia from which he was exiled). That Nabokov can find his predicament “amusing,” that he figures his lifespan and historical progress in terms of typographical conventions (the “last indention” in the story of his legacy): this is suggestive of a callousness, an aesthete’s flint-heartedness, a narcissism so frosty that the writer can convert his flesh-and-blood hand without anguish into marble. But on some level, this very heartlessness is not a failing but a requirement if the artist is to create a work, any work, in which characters are made to suffer and perpetrate cruelty.

In his Afterword to the novel, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which has accompanied every edition since 1958, Nabokov offers his most thorough response to his critics, successfully deflecting those charges that Humbert’s obsession is traceable to the writer. He notes the differences between his Lolita and the conventions of pornography (child or otherwise): “in pornographic novels action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.” Although this eminently sensible and widely available text has done little to quell the controversy, it points the way forward. Yes, to find the best defense of the novel, and the fullest exoneration of its author, we have to turn to the work itself, the story of its genesis and the skill in its artistry.


The Fine Art of Edification

Stephen Smith tries to do exactly this, consult the book to vindicate the writer, in his documentary (though he too is hamstrung by the medium). Referring back to his title question—morality tale or pervert’s fantasy—in the end, Smith comes down firmly on the side of the former reading, endorsing the book’s moral vision. He points to Humbert’s acknowledgement of his own crime, his theft of Lolita’s childhood, his gross violation of her body and her life, an access of conscience that blossoms toward the end of the tale:

Unless it can proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

Essentially, Humbert acknowledges the evil of pedophilia for what it is.

While Smith is right on some level—the book does powerfully indict Humbert for his crime—his conclusion rests too heavily on Humbert’s eleventh-hour repentance. In this regard, Smith would appear to share the view of John Ray, Jr., a fictional psychopathologist who pens the Foreword to Humbert’s manuscript confession. In that Foreword, Ray characterizes Humbert’s story as a “tragic tale tending unswervingly toward a moral apotheosis,” just as Smith does, but Ray, in my reading, is a pedantic clown, an incompetent alienist more prone to titillation perhaps than any of Nabokov’s real-world readers (he refers to men who “enjoy yearly, in one way or another,” exactly the crime that Humbert commits: that choice of verb and the cruel euphemism for rape that follows are unnerving). Further, Nabokov portrays Ray as unusually blinkered in that, on the point of Humbert’s redemption—that moment of his moral transfiguration, staged atop an allegorical hill from which he can deduce the extent of his crime—the text is, again, uncooperative. Though the scene arrives only on the novel’s penultimate page, Humbert’s presumed “apotheosis” actually takes place before he reunites with Lolita, and before he tracks to his lair and kills Quilty, the playwright and pornographer with whom Lolita makes her escape from Humbert. That is to say, the “apotheosis” doesn’t exactly cause him to desist (and, yes, murder appears to be the less objectionable of Humbert’s offenses).

Instead of relying on the authenticity of Humbert’s professed repentance, we should look elsewhere to catch the novel’s antipathy for his crimes, which indeed is inscribed much more thoroughly and pervasively in the text. The book reveals most clearly that the nympholept’s paradise is painted in the colors of hell flames, from first to last; in fact, Humbert’s manuscript confession is more a record of the frustration and cauterization of his desires than a chronicle of their satisfaction. In one example, Humbert rents a new home in voyeuristic proximity to a school yard, but immediately, some construction workers arrive and start building a wall which they leave forever unfinished only after they have completely obstructed Humbert’s view. Elsewhere, he offers a passing sketch of his criminal lust in which Lolita is completely uninvolved, picking her nose and reading the newspaper, while Humbert clings desperately to his fantasy of tenderness, his invented image of the dream girl. It might be in the portrait of Quilty, Humbert’s nemesis, that we catch the most scathing indictment of the sexual predator. In Quilty we see the leering and lecherous monster, as Humbert describes him poolside, “his naval [sic] pulsating, his hirsute thighs dripping with bright droplets, his tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting with vigor where his great fat bullybag was pulled up and back like a padded shield over his reversed beasthood.” The irony here is that Quilty’s beastliness is the very image of Humbert’s own evil; Humbert observes not his adversary and enemy, but his double, and notably then, it is this figure that Humbert destroys (if only metaphorically) in the novel’s last chapters.

The grotesque description of Quilty should make clear another point about Lolita: the mode and mood of the book is parody. In its blood and bones, the novel is a lampooning of any number of literary subgenres: the confession, the psychological case study, the murder-mystery, the doppelganger tale, even the fairy tale. As a result, neither Humbert nor Quilty offers a naturalistic portrait of a pedophile—these are parodies of pedophiles, unusually animated, expressive and convincing caricatures but still caricatures, their monstrosity and their manipulative charms (such as they are) intensified and distorted, to comic effect. No, to catch the real-life portrait of the pedophile, to isolate the type, I think we would have to consider Jerry Sandusky, the shambling dufus, a creepy lummox with an overbite incapable of formulating the extent of his own evil. Readers are welcome to quibble here, pointing to hyperliterate pedophiles in the historical record, but Humbert is a blow-up bogeyman, a balloon-animal of a pedophile that everywhere leaks air. When he makes his explicit defense of pedophilia as a cultural practice, readers can’t miss the irony that undercuts his pleas and renders the entire effort self-defeating and incriminating. While cataloging the historical prevalence of pedophilia, for example, he refers to the sexual mores in “East Indian provinces,” saying “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight and nobody minds.” Those last three words are crucial, charged with a blistering irony; to state that “nobody minds” is to offer a coded acknowledgement that something transgressive, patently wrong is at issue, and the trite colloquialism of the phrase, its chummy tone, is entirely incompatible with the heinousness of the subject. Humbert’s purported self-defense is routinely punctured with this kind of recrimination—and the net effect is hilarious, morbidly, unforgivably hilarious, maybe, but all the more sublime for being so.

The comedy itself in Lolita speaks volumes in defense of the author. See Humbert’s ludicrous description of his perceived competition for Lo’s affection, “two gangling, golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhea.” See how his extravagant ogling of the girl inspires the outburst, “oh, that I were a lady writer who could have her pose naked in a naked light!,” which is immediately undercut by authorial laceration, “But instead, I am lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile.” Again, I’m no expert in criminal psychology, but it seems to me that an actual pedophile would be incapable of making his avatar such a buffoon, his lust such a sadomasochistic farce. For Nabokov, laughter, rather than rage or righteous indignation, appears to offer the best defense against monsters and tyrants. As he wrote in arguably his best short story, “‘That in Aleppo Once…’” (1943), in reference to the Nazi horrorshow that claimed the life of his own brother, “with all her many black sins, Germany was still bound to remain forever and ever the laughingstock of the world.” This mature insight finds expression as well in the early Tragedy of Mister Morn, whose philosopher-king succumbs to belly-laughs even while trading punches with a rival.

This isn’t to say that Humbert’s narration isn’t often poignant, or that the novel lacks gravitas. Humbert is a skilled poet of his own pain, converting his agonies into art, and Nabokov allows him to express something of the purported rapture and the corresponding regret that inhere in his crime. After a run-in with Quilty inflames his jealousy, Humbert describes how he “ushered [Lolita] into a little alley half-smothered in fragrant shrubs, with flowers like smoke, and was about to break into ripe sobs and plead with her imperturbed dream in the most abject manner for clarification, no matter how meretricious, of the slow awfulness enveloping” him. Beyond this local and misdirected experience of rue, elsewhere, he records the “smothered memories” that emerge as “limbless monsters of pain,” “icebergs in paradise” in which his lust is interwoven with “shame and despair.” The beauty of Humbert’s lament might best be captured in this passage, in which he contemplates his fatal error: “it struck me that, quite possibly, […] behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.” True, Nabokov has the gall to render the concrete particulars that vivify Humbert’s lust—the portrait less a high-fidelity recording than a Warhol lithograph, garish and overexposed—but he does ensure that Humbert is tortured, deservedly, for his crime. If readers experience a measure of empathy for Humbert, it’s only because Nabokov allows us to see him as both villain and pathetic victim of his own delusions. (In this last, the Cossacks share Humbert’s predicament as surely as anyone who is led into violence by the force of belief—not a bad summary of the human condition).

Not surprisingly, Nabokov himself offers the most apt assessment of Humbert’s character in the Foreword to one of his earlier novels, Despair; he compares the two comparable narrators and concludes, “there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year, but Hell shall never parole Hermann.” Yet, even if it’s clear that Nabokov himself is on the side of the angels in Lolita, this way of framing the debate, at its root, seems to me potentially self-defeating. After all, the novel itself anticipates this need for moral vindication. To that end, Nabokov outsources to John Ray, Jr., the task of representing the moralist defense: Ray’s Foreword ends with the admonition that Humbert’s tale “warns of dangerous trends” and that the book’s “ethical impact” trumps its “literary worth.” Coming as they do from the myopic Ray, these assurances are doubtful, best viewed with suspicion. To defend Lolita by invoking the didactic function and ethical purpose of literature is to commit the same Cossack mistake in the opposite direction. Art isn’t a service industry for the glorification of conventional wisdom or received ideas: art is an aggravation, an explosive device strapped to the I-beams of culture, a cattle-prod for our existential complacency. In its content, art can be transgressive, revolutionary, but perhaps the greater insurrection resides within the very precondition of art: namely, that it exists for the sake of artistry, that it defines itself according to this cultural non-value, beyond the dictates of the marketplace or the agendas of advertisers and propagandists. The pursuit of artistry, the experimentation and innovation housed within the word novel, is by definition a subversion of the social contract, a forged-in-steel, plated-in-gold fuck-you to the notion of utilitarian enterprise. (Some writers are able to convert this posture, paradoxically, impossibly, into a decent living.)

As I see it, the real subject of Lolita, its proper theme, is not immorality, but immortality. And perhaps this in itself is an affront to Cossacks, who would insist that the writer prosecute their own outrage at the crime, rather than see it subsumed within something so precious and grand as temporality. But Humbert’s pursuit of nymphets, his longing to reside on that “intangible island of entranced time,” appears to be a crazed instantiation of a larger existential crisis. Repeatedly throughout the book, Humbert inserts parentheses into his text in which he addresses the supporting cast: to a doctor who treats Lolita, “(hi, Ilse, you were a dear, uninquisitive soul and you touched my dove very gently)”; to Rita, the women with whom H takes up after Lolita escapes, “(hi, Rita—wherever you are, drunk or hungoverish, hi!)”; and most tellingly, to Jean Farlow, who shares a tender moment with the newly bereaved Humbert in Ramsdale, then dies shortly after of cancer, “(Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time-space or plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parenthesis included).” All of these apostrophes are redolent of the tomb, given that we know from Ray’s Foreword that Humbert, like Lolita, has died prior to the book’s publication. Those chummy and penitent salutations emanate as if from beyond the grave, and Nabokov wants us to feel the fact, to make the spectral dimension palpable (the word for this is haunting).

The novel’s pervasive concern with temporality is captured most succinctly in Humbert’s description of his metaphysics, which is part and parcel of the novel’s artistry: he cites his academic paper “Mimir and Memory” (Humbert the scholar), in which he posits a “theory of perceptual time” that resembles the human circulatory system and bridges the poles of the past and the future (call it a fluid and equivocal time-space continuum). This circulatory system analogy applies equally to the method of the book, its imagistic reflux in which motifs proliferate madly. For one minor example, little remarked upon, consider Humbert’s arrival at the Haze house in Ramsdale, where he meets Lolita for the first time. As he prepares to tour the house, a potential lodger, he spots, in the foyer, “an old gray tennis ball” of dubious provenance. Lolita doesn’t take up tennis, as far as we know, until after she takes up with (or is taken up by) Humbert, so how do we account for the presence of the ball in the foyer? It’s as if Humbert’s memory is inscribing the earlier scene with the later event—or vice versa: perhaps the entire tennis sequence, a highlight of Humbert and Lo’s travels (precipitating a rendezvous with Quilty, among other things), is itself a spontaneous invention, a metastasis of this incongruous detail that Humbert notices in Ramsdale. (Think Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, the devil who invents his far-out tale from the details close at hand—yes, Nabokov deserves a credit for this gambit too). This artistic method makes it almost impossible to separate the fact from the fantasy in Humbert’s confession—which crucially undercuts any moral takeaway obviously. Further, the interweaving of temporal layers, this mixing of times or tenses, is itself a confounding of linear narrative (in life or literature), a means of forging a realm immune to the passage of time, an art synonymous with eternity and immortality. (Morn captures the sentiment with the excellent phrase “large books that smell of time.”)

In a 1989 article, a seventeen-page conniption of sorts, Trevor McNeely argues that every attempt to take an aesthetic view of the novel is an evasion, a “basically nihilistic position of ignoring, and therefore condoning, pedophilia.” For McNeely, the book is a grand hoax perpetrated on readers, the author a reprehensible fraud. In Cossack terms, Nabokov isn’t the pedophile; rather, the evil of the novel is that he makes readers complicit in the crime: “Lolita’s critics swallow Nabokov’s bait, and come to believe, or pretend to believe, that the pedophilia and sexual slavery it depicts actually do not matter.” The most troubling thing about McNeely’s paper is that Studies in the Novel bothered to print it; yet, even an eloquent and temporally distant Cossack is welcome to a hearing. What McNeely fails, or chooses not, to grasp is that the novel’s treatment of pedophilia is, by definition, philosophical and aesthetic, rather than practical. He makes a simple category error. Nabokov portrays the subject as filtered through the prism of art to exploit neither readers nor victims of the crime, but the aesthetic possibilities of the material. To that end, Humbert’s obsession is figured as a crisis of the artistic imagination, which loosens the boundaries between fact and fiction, unmoors time from its anchor: nymphets and their mythical island don’t exist, but Humbert deceives himself into believing that they do—and this is the recipe for tragedy.

The other tragedy, Mister Morn, helps to clarify the point. In the play, the Leninist revolution is figured in the character of Tremens, a kind of prophet of death. He articulates his ideals abstractly, in archetypal images: “But why do we/ always want to grow, to climb uphill/ from one to a thousand, when the downward path–/from one to zero—is faster and sweeter? Life/ itself is the example—it rushes headlong/ into ash, it destroys everything in its way:/ first it gnaws through the umbilical cord….” Clearly, Tremens doesn’t debate the merits of particular Five-Year-Plans or even calculated purges. The revolutionary speechmaking, the offhand executions: those are relegated to the subtext. Elsewhere, Tremens links his philosophy of death, the tenets of revolution, directly to the play’s other prominent plot thread, love: “the soul/ must fear death as a maiden fears love.” The two concepts are positioned on a continuum of sorts, the one experience (death) figured as a corollary of the other (love). Does the observation of these techniques and relationships place a reader on the side of Tremens, condoning the tragedy that follows? It’s art, stupid.

Surprisingly, though, McNeely’s preposterous argument might contain a grain of truth. He suggests that Lolita is Nabokov’s vengeance on critics of every stripe: “the Freudians, the New Critics, the Existentialists, the Structuralists, and all their bastard progeny,” any interpreter who experiences “terror of the void of unmeaning.” McNeely draws the wrong conclusion, but there might be something in the observation. Nabokov’s fiction is strangely resistant, in my experience, to traditional critical approaches, even those that the author doesn’t explicitly subvert. In the case of Lolita, New Criticism, with its emphasis on structural paradox, works reasonably well. With this interpretive apparatus, we can acknowledge and cope with the troubling fact that Humbert’s Proustian quest, his pursuit of artistic immortality, also manifests in his lechery. The former, a New Critic would say, isn’t a means of ennobling the latter; the triumph of Humbert’s art doesn’t excuse the travesty of love that he perpetrates on Lolita. Instead, Nabokov’s novel composes a charged paradox of these contradictory impulses, resulting in an interpretive stalemate: Humbert’s contest with time, his triumph over mortality, might well be bogus, both aesthetically and philosophically. (Or perhaps even a sinner is allowed to finger the keys to the kingdom of heaven.) Maybe it is wicked of Nabokov to recuse himself on this sorest point, but such silence, for New Critics, is the very language of art (Keats heard it on his urn). As Humbert frames it, claiming to quote an old poet: “The moral sense in mortals is the duty/ We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.”


The Edifice of Artifice

What the New Critical reading suggests is that it isn’t quite possible or advisable to salvage a wholesome moral vision from Nabokov’s Lolita; every avenue ends in a cul-de-sac. Even so, the perception of the paradox seems almost beside the point, inadequate somehow to the effect of the novel. Maybe, to best appraise the vision of Lolita, we have to access the amoral provinces of Formalist poetics, because in the intricate patterning of the text, its scintillating architecture, we begin to see the novel’s clearest vindication, and perhaps the most common talking point, with good cause, among the novel’s proponents. Simply put, the prose in Lolita is a marvel, a blow-your-hair-back, stand-up-and-shout performance with few equals in the annals of world literature. Consider this passage, an evocation of the American landscape as Humbert and his ward travel aimlessly cross-country, dissimulating a road trip:

Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would come a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.

Nick Mount, in a lecture on YouTube, cites this passage as an attempt to inscribe nymphet-omania into the landscape, but I offer it merely as a sample of Humbert’s prose at its most majestic.

Of the human comedy, Nabokov is an equally sharp observer, a merciless recorder of mortal folly, with a Boschian bent: when Humbert’s first wife, Valeria, announces that she’s leaving him for another man, that other man turns out to be the driver of the cab that the couple is traveling in. This cab driver, Maximovich, then chauffeurs the pair back home, where he helps Valeria to pack up her things (Humbert claims to be dying the whole while of “hate and boredom”). When Valeria and her beau have gone, Humbert describes what follows:

Clumsily playing my part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet water; they had not, but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar [Maximovich], after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon.

Immediately after, Humbert chalks up the outrage to an excess of politeness: probably Maximovich didn’t want to call attention to the shabbiness of Humbert’s apartment, in which both flush and urination would be audible in every room. The nuance of the character portrait here bespeaks an imaginative generosity, a willingness to inhabit, humanely, even peripheral lives; ironically, this is the very point on which Humbert fails with Lolita, and we should notice too that Humbert’s psychological parsing, along with some rummaging in the kitchen, spares him a pummeling from the departed Counselor, who is made of “pig-iron.” However, the rich human portraiture would come to nothing were it not for the peerless phrasing. The seething excess of “spasm of fierce disgust,” the venomous sarcasm and off-kilter, pidgin-inflected verb in “thoroughly easing,” the collision of registers, high and low, in the two types of toilet water, in the promotion of the homely cab driver to Counselor: all of this energy crackles in that “solemn pool of alien urine,” which conveys a coarse bodily function with a rich musicality, a little stilted in context, and it’s that odd formality that ignites the description and makes it sear.

In Nabokov’s sumptuous prose, readers might overlook the liberal admixtures of the mean, the harsh, the cloacal: H contemplates a swimming pool, which he feels lodged in his “thorax,” and his “organs swam in it like excrements in the blue sea water of Nice”; Charlotte Haze’s body, after the accident, “the top of her head a porridge of bones, brains, bronze hair and blood”; his own manuscript, “This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies.” Humbert’s isn’t exactly a decorous, museum English. His voice often betrays something florid in its inflection, something a little overheated, steroidal, wearing too much makeup. His isn’t a tone of high sincerity or grim seriousness, much less is it identical to Nabokov’s own literary voice—see for comparison the baroque and steeled serenity of Speak, Memory! (there’s a family resemblance, but Humbert would be the dissipated, loutish cousin wearing too much toilet water at the reunion). Yet Nabokov gifts him with this line, upon his high-spirited departure from Ramsdale after Charlotte’s death, an example for which the best syntactical descriptor might be catastrophe:

And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.

What’s more, Humbert proves to be a skilled ventriloquist; he masterfully conveys Lolita’s tough-teen idiom (“Doublecrosser!”), as well as her mother’s bullying affection, and his own narration veers from a no-nonsense gruffness to the genuinely moving timbre of his contrition. Humbert’s tale is a monologue, but the effect is symphonic, the orchestra including both pipe organ and kazoo, yet the larger point here is simply this: virtuosic prose shimmers on EVERY PAGE of the novel. To find its equal, we have to look to giants like Joyce and Shakespeare. The prose, the artistry, the antimatter of style: this is why good and wise people revere Lolita.

Of course, it might not be wholly possible to separate the work’s style from its content. Because surely the masterful plotting of Lolita—as much a matter of matter as style—the suspenseful, carefully staged exposition of Humbert’s predatory pursuit, the untimely death of Charlotte Haze, the montages of the road trips (deliberately punctuated with pungent set pieces), the elaborate decryption of Quilty’s identity and the culminating murder: surely this contributes to the work’s triumph. Cossacks will start harrumphing again, suggesting that Nabokov might have found something a little too inspiring in the sordid content of the book. Perhaps the book’s scandalous content did in fact galvanize his imagination, did induce him to write a novel more readable, more accessible than ever before. None of his books before or after is so companionably plotted, fluidly paced, as it arcs toward its radiant zenith, despite the subtle sleight-of-hand that everywhere sabotages the chronology. Perhaps the deranged subject matter allowed Nabokov a special dispensation: he could revel more freely not in the heinous crime, but in the threadbare conventions of page-turner fiction (which he tugs at cheerfully). Who knows? Maybe Nabokov sensed that, given the book’s inflammatory subject, the writing had to be perfect. Indeed, the novel is as richly reticulated as a Shakespearean drama, as mad with reference and as ripe with metaphysics as Ulysses, as lyrical and rhapsodic and fluent in the vernacular as Gatsby (but more grotesque, wiser and deeper), as eloquent as anything in Conrad, as polished and timeless as Petrarchan marble. Yet unlike its luminous predecessors, Lolita remains uniquely, scandalously, readable, singularly hospitable to modern sensibilities. While the great works of the past often petrify over time, Lolita lives on, its colors as bright and bruising today as when they were first painted.

There is one simple and, I think, inarguable proof that, in the final reckoning, style, artistry alone has secured for Lolita its place in the pantheon of world literature. This vindication is in some ways an accident of history: to understand how, we have to consider the strange tale of the novel’s genesis, its slouching march toward Bethlehem. However, to alleviate reader fatigue, it seems wise to adjourn here for a brief rest. In the intermission, I invite you to contemplate the following rejected titles for the present article:

The Book in the Brown Paper Wrapper: Why It’s OK to Love Lolita

Nabokov’s Blues: The Tribulations of Lolita

Lolita’s Vampire Problem

The Four-Minute Medium: Why Long Essays Die on the Web

The Hard Lessons of Lolita

Bonfire of the Straw Men!

The Importance of Italics: Why We Love Lolita.


Lolita’s Genesis

In his Afterword to the novel, Nabokov attempts to answer the elementary question that many readers might ask, but that only Cossacks would charge with a special innuendo: what drove him to write such a work in the first place? Nabokov’s answer is typically oblique, but at root, this is a question of the book’s genealogy, that confluence of determinants that sparked the writing of the novel. In his introduction to The Annotated Lolita, Alfred Appel, Jr., sketches the novel’s fitful evolution, but a convenient summary of Lolita’s inception is also available online, in an article by Neil Cornwell. Cornwell tracks the first appearance of the pedophilia motif in Nabokov’s short stories and shows how a minor character in Nabokov’s The Gift pitches the very premise of Lolita as an idea for a book. Cornwell proceeds to cite a number of scholars who have tallied the novel’s literary precursors, including Edith Wharton’s The Children (which features a Humbertian romance) and Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, which concludes with “the barely teenage eponymous heroine propos[ing] co-habitation with her stepfather.” Dostoevsky’s name also crops up at times among the literary forerunners of Lolita; his The Possessed contained a chapter, initially censored, in which the hero confesses to having abused a child. Even more pointedly, Cornwell examines the fishy allegation that Nabokov cribbed the idea for his book from the little-known German writer Heinz von Lichberg, whose short story entitled “Lolita” appeared in 1919. In this case, Nabokov wouldn’t be a pedophile, but a master thief (at best) or a plagiarist (at worst).

In his YouTube lecture, Nick Mount cites the literary forerunners noted by Humbert himself: Dante, Petrarch and, most pertinently, Poe, all of whom suffered from nympholepsy. Other scholars have pointed out that those poetic ancients, Dante and Petrarch, are miscast as perverts, given that the writers were themselves children when they were smitten; similarly, scholars have speculated that Poe’s relationship with his teenaged cousin might have been chaste. While Humbert’s inventory of “classic” pedophiles might be suspect on its face, it might also contain at least one notable omission. Humbert never mentions Alexander Pushkin, sometimes called the Russian Shakespeare, who also fell in love with (and was doomed by) a young-ish girl, their romance flirting with impropriety as it straddles awkwardly the current age of consent. After writing Lolita, Nabokov would go on to translate, epically, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and the poet’s cradle-grazing romance receives a mention in the great story “‘That in Aleppo Once….’”: the narrator says of his own wife, “She was much younger than I—not as much younger as was Nathalie of the lovely bare shoulders and long earrings in relation to swarthy Pushkin; but still there was a sufficient margin for that kind of retrospective romanticism which finds pleasure in imitating the destiny of a unique genius.” To this list, as well, Cornwell adds, on one extreme, Lewis Carrol (whom Nabokov had also translated) and, on the other, the Marquis de Sade. The evidence here is a little erratic, but a clear trend appears to emerge. It’s hard not to think that Nabokov recognized something absurd in the prevalence of this motif (or disease)—as if literary history were a Henry Darger watercolor teeming with daisy chains of eroticized children. In this merging of the ludicrous and the tragic, maybe he found something hospitable to his artistic sensibility.

Cornwell points to another possible precursor of Lolita: he itemizes the numerous precise relationships between Joyce’s Ulysses and Nabokov’s novel, including Leopold Bloom’s unusual interest in his fifteen-year-old daughter’s budding sexuality, as well as the masturbatory encounter with teenaged Gerty McDowell (whose lameness is passed on to Lolita’s Ginny McCoo with her “lagging leg”). Suffice it to say, the novel is an overgrown garden, a Daedalian labyrinth of forking references. In fact, given the likelihood of Joyce’s haunting of the novel, this relationship might shed light on the origins of one of Lolita’s only explicit scenes (John Ray calls them “aphrodisiac”): the infamous sofa scene, the setting of Humbert’s first gratification of his criminal desire in Ramsdale.

Readers will recall how Humbert cagily manipulates the girl to facilitate his orgasm, claiming at the same time to have preserved her innocence: she doesn’t notice a thing, Humbert says (yet when the phone disrupts the proceedings and Lo goes to answer it, she stands with “cheeks aflame, hair awry”: the details of Humbert’s narrative betray him). To that end, to keep the girl distracted, Humbert, in the course of his magician’s “patter,” strikes upon “something nicely mechanical”: “I recited, garbling them slightly, the words of a foolish song that was then popular—O my Carmen, my little Carmen, something, something, those something nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen; I kept repeating this automatic stuff and holding her under its special spell,” he writes. This incantatory device, the repetitious language that undergirds the scene, might point to another Joycean precursor: consider that in “An Encounter,” from Dubliners, Joyce also chronicles a run-in with a child molester, a shabbily dressed man, well-read and yellow-toothed, who has designs on the story’s child narrator. As the characters converse on the green, the talk turns erotic and, as in Humbert’s case, incantatory: “He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. [….] He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.” Although wildly different in tenor, and although Joyce himself spares his boy narrator Lolita’s victimization, the similarity in the characters’ vocal performances is striking.

While allusiveness alone is hardly exculpatory, it does strongly suggest that there is much more contributing to Lolita’s creation than a simple autobiographical impulse. Cossacks, naturally, might balk at this line of reasoning; they might argue that textual genealogy is just another, highbrow attempt to naturalize pedophilia, to make it seem the norm—something analogous to Humbert’s overt pleas in the book. Yet here again, Nabokov’s lacerating irony seems to me unimpeachable: he takes the ominous tenor of Joyce’s story, for example, and turns it into mad farce. The sofa scene is ludicrous in mood and effect: “I kept repeating,” Humbert writes, “chance words after her—barmen, alarmin’, my charmin’, my carmen, ahmen, ahahamen….” No, Humbert is ridiculous in his role of enchanted hunter; Nabokov simply grants him the privilege of hanging himself with his own pen.

Beyond the artificial provinces of literature, the real world also supplied the writer with no shortage of material. First, there is the actual crime of Frank Lasalle, mentioned by Humbert in Lolita, and tracked down by scholars; in 1948, Lasalle abducted thirteen-year-old Sally Horner and traveled with her cross-country for over a year, just as Humbert does with his captive. Then, there is the case of Professor Henry Lanz, Nabokov’s colleague during his brief stint at Stanford in 1941 and possible model for both Gaston Godin, the chess-playing pederast in Beardsley, and maybe Humbert himself; in the words of Leland de la Durantaye, Lanz “married his wife in London when she was fourteen” and “allegedly revealed to Nabokov the wild array of his pedophile adventures.” In the same vein, Cornwell notes Nabokov’s close reading of Havelock Ellis’ famous case history, “The Confession of Victor X,” whose Russian narrator “develops from precociously over-sexed adolescent debauchery […,] through a lengthy period of abstinence in Italy, which finally degenerates into paedophilia, voyeurism and masturbatory obsession amid Neapolitan child prostitution.” Cornwell even cites Nabokov’s reaction to the confession, in a letter to Edmund Wilson, who had introduced him to Ellis’ work:

I enjoyed the Russian’s love-life hugely. It is wonderfully funny. As a boy, he seems to have been quite extraordinarily lucky in coming across girls with unusually rapid and rich reactions. The end is rather bathetic.

Determined skeptics, of course, may still accuse Nabokov of dissimulation, but this response is, obviously, a far cry from the commiseration of a fellow sufferer. In a larger sense, it’s clear that the precipitants of Lolita were, well, legion.

While Cornwell considers multi-media influences on Nabokov’s art, he doesn’t mention Fritz Lang’s M (1931), a classic work of German Expressionist cinema. The film, also available (amazingly) on YouTube, centers on the crimes of a child murderer (played by Peter Lorre), and it ends with Lorre tracked down by vigilantes who quickly rig up a kangaroo court to try the criminal on the spot. The scene is breathtaking in its emotional intensity, marked by monstrous shifts in tone: Lorre will be shrieking his defense, pleading for his life (as Humbert does), only to be interrupted by the devastating civility of his self-appointed attorney. The crowd of “jurors” will veer rapidly from murderous clamoring to sit-com laughter. The movie, most tellingly, ends with a bereaved mother staring balefully into space, imploring the audience to be more attentive guardians of their children. This is the same plea with which John Ray, Jr., ends his fictional Foreword: “Lolita should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” (Note how Ray’s words seem subtly critical of Lolita as the representative of her generation.) M would be worth mentioning here, if only because it offers a succinct glimpse of the emotional extremes that typify Nabokov’s work from the same period. But the movie is equally interesting, in its content and conclusion, as another potential precursor of Lolita.

Lang’s M also takes us back, conveniently and necessarily, to the Berlin of the ‘30s, where Nabokov lived until 1937, when the Nazis hurried him out of the country. Before he left for America, Nabokov resided for a brief period in Paris (until the Nazis, again, came calling), and it was there that he experienced “the first little throb,” as he calls it, of the work that would become Lolita. The resultant manuscript, a story of 50-some pages, was called The Enchanter (published posthumously, as a book, in 1986). Written in Russian and set in France, the story contains the central premise of the later Lolita, a pedophile’s pursuit and capture of his twelve-year-old victim, by means of his doomed marriage with her mother. It remains more or less exactly faithful to the plot and method of Lolita, through the hotel scene (Lolita’s Enchanted Hunters) in which the characters’ bed down together for the first time. At this point, The Enchanter abruptly concludes, while Lolita plunges on, across the country, settling in Beardsley, taking flight again, and culminating in the chase and murder of Quilty. In his Afterword to the text, Dmitri Nabokov, the writer’s son and translator, claims that the early story is a distinct work, an independent creation, but I can’t see it as anything but a first, failed draft of the iconic novel. One detail might suffice to show just how closely the two books are related; a flower show interferes with the hotel accommodations of both Humbert Humbert and the unnamed agonist of The Enchanter.

This story, The Enchanter, as it happens, is the indisputable proof that Lolita’s rightful fame has nothing to do with titillation, that readers and fans of Nabokov’s fiction are not condoning, much less celebrating Humbert’s crime. And here’s why: although The Enchanter takes up the same demented content as Lolita, almost no one reads it, and no one, to my knowledge, reveres it. In “The Enchanter and the Beauties of Sleeping,” Susan Elizabeth Sweeney gives the text perhaps more attention than it warrants, tracking the fairy-tale motifs that Nabokov exploits (the Red Riding Hood references are impossible to miss). But my impression is that very few readers even know that The Enchanter exists—this, despite Stephen Smith’s dutiful documentary, and despite the fact that Lolita’s Wikipedia page contains in its fine print a reference to the work (watch for its Russian-language title Volshebnik—which looks strangely like an anagram for Bolshevik, to boot). Apropos of the plagiarism scandal, Cornwell and others have noted how difficult it is to prove a negative, an absence of knowledge, so all I can offer by way of evidence for The Enchanter’s obscurity is this: that New Yorker-interviewed pedophile doesn’t include the title of The Enchanter among his secret stash. If Cossacks were right, if Nabokov’s fans were criminals, The Enchanter would also be a household name. It isn’t (though Lila Zanganeh’s book title, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, seems increasingly audacious.).

Nor should it be. In one of fate’s many ironies, this book, which incontrovertibly exonerates readers, at the same time makes it hardest to vindicate the writer. The plot, per the text’s length, is paper-thin, its course excruciatingly linear, its focus painfully myopic and claustrophobic, everything about it wooden and under-aired. For all its traumatic content, it might be a little boring. Nabokov’s brilliance does at times rouse itself long enough to cast a bleary eye on the proceedings, before lapsing again into dormancy. For example, as the agonist contemplates the act of consummating his sham marriage to his Brobdingnagian bride, we’re privy to the black comedy of her anatomy: “it was perfectly clear that he (little Gulliver) would be physically unable to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones, the repulsively listing conformation of her ponderous pelvis, not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin and the as yet undisclosed miracles of surgery… here his imagination was left hanging on barbed wire.” But Erica Jong offers a capsule summary of the relation between the story and the novel: “The difference between [the texts] is the difference between a postcard from Venice and a Turner painting of the same scene.”

The Enchanter is interesting primarily for what it isn’t. It contains in utero some of the basic material and tactics that make Lolita incomparable: a passing reference to Hourglass Lake, where Humbert considers murdering Charlotte (“some seaside sand useful only as food for an hourglass”); an ur-Quilty in The Enchanter’s hotel; a prefatory attempt by the agonist to rationalize and philosophize, like Humbert, his obsession. Importantly, the story also prefigures Lolita’s tactic of lampooning and, in a moral sense, condemning the agonist’s schemes. After the untimely death of his ailing wife (in hospital, a nicety that also survives as a ruse in Lolita), the man takes a train to collect his stepdaughter; while in transit, he fantasizes about the night to come, his gradual assault on the girl’s virginity in the “tightest and pinkest sense,” and the text incorporates and confirms the reader’s response in the character of a woman who shares the train compartment: “The lady who had been sitting across from him for some reason suddenly got up and went into another compartment.” The silence of that “for some reason” speaks volumes: even through the blinders of third-person-limited narration, the text manages to convey that the agonist has visibly aroused himself, and caused the woman to bolt.

But perhaps what The Enchanter lacks, even more than Humbert’s comic self-laceration, even more than the novel’s three-dimensional world, is a greater allotment of this authorial intervention. The story’s conclusion is especially difficult to read, as Nabokov appears to ride the current of the narrative beyond the boundaries of good taste. The agonist finds himself, at last, in the hotel room with his prey; believing the girl to be asleep, he begins to weave his spell over her body, availing himself of his “magic wand” (thus, the title), which appears to be a euphemism for his penis. Yes, it’s almost too silly even to be creepy. Belatedly, the character recognizes that the girl has in fact been awake for a while and is screaming at the top of her lungs. The story rushes to its end, then, with the agonist fleeing the scene, seeking a convenient suicide, only to be struck down in the street by an obliging truck. Strangely, at this moment, the style veers directly into stream-of-consciousness narration, as the agonist welcomes his violent end (for my part, I prefer the third-person-indirect phrase that precedes this turn, “this instantaneous cinema of dismemberment”).

Nabokov must have recognized the failure in the sequence—else, he would never have rewritten it as he did. Humbert, in The Enchanted Hunters hotel, passes the whole night suffering from insomnia and dyspepsia, and the morning tryst is a masterpiece of understatement: “by six-fifteen, we were technically lovers.” Yet, something of the edge, the creepiness, of The Enchanter survives in Lolita, in the very hotel scene which features one sentence that will challenge the stomach of any reader. It describes Humbert’s anticipatory image of the girl, and depicts her anatomy starkly, unflinchingly:

Naked, except for one sock and her charm bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed where my philter had felled her—so I foreglimpsed her; a velvet hair ribbon was still clutched in her hand; her honey-brown body, with the white negative image of a rudimentary swimsuit patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breastbuds; in the rosy lamplight, a little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock.

There have been times when I have asked myself what the novel would lose if one were simply to strike this sentence from the page. Basically, in such moments, I have contemplated censorship of a kind. Why would Nabokov write such a sentence in the first place? Or similarly, why dramatize with such heat and precision the sexual escapades of Humbert and Annabel, when both were Lolita’s age? Humbert writes of Annabel, “whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful,” and the lyricism of the line rings so true that the sentence strikes with the force of memory. At such moments, it almost becomes possible to sympathize, somewhat, with the Cossack position. But before we leap into that intellectual abyss, we have to realize that in this, in many things, Nabokov was smarter, wiser, braver, than any of us. Without such passages, I’ve concluded, it might be possible to read the novel without feeling sufficiently repulsed.

Such moments bring to the surface the horror that bubbles steadily in the margins of Humbert’s tale; it skitters across the frame of the page, never far from view, seeping in from the edges, muted and ghastly in its attenuation. In the wake of the events at The Enchanted Hunters, for example, Humbert pauses to describe the mural that he might have painted for the hotel, had the proprieters “lost [their] minds”:

There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callipygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been camp activities…. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.

The mural supplies a loose corollary, a hieratic version of Humbert’s confession. And if you can read that “wincing child” and not feel lanced by grief, you should either have your conscience checked or learn to become a better reader. The method is oblique, but the result is a wound.

My sense is that, if Nabokov had written only The Enchanter, the Cossacks might have a better case against him. But then again, if Nabokov had never gone on to write Lolita, there wouldn’t be any museums to vandalize. And because Nabokov did write Lolita, we can’t indict him for the limitations and failings of an early draft whose publication he considered (in 1959), but never approved. To put this simply, the evidence of The Enchanter serves to exonerate both the author and his readers. It’s doubtful that an actual pedophile would be capable of artistic (rather than pornographic) revision; it’s certain that readers would be indifferent to anything but an artistic triumph.

Lolita’s achievement is of such an order that it precipitates and compels every kind of artistic response, from imitation to inspiration to competition to homage to a desperate lunging at the maestro’s coattails. See again Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, his magnum opus, with its ship of lost souls whose bacchanals might make Sade blush; the shipboard set piece concludes with a pedophiliac tryst considerably more erotic than anything in Lolita. (If memory serves, this scene ends with the male participant, the book’s protagonist, Rocket Man, passing through the wormhole of his own urethra.)  Yet Cossacks will likely excuse Pynchon from their auto-da-fé, partly because such depravities are walled off behind a fortress of impenetrable prose, and they will leave alone, thankfully, Gary Shteyngart with his wave to Lolita in one of the best American stories of the new century, “Shylock on the Neva”; Shteyngart’s gangster narrator spies a young girl at a museum and flashes his “standard Will-you-sell-your-body-for-Deutschemarks? smile. […] Not yet, her black eyes [tell him].” Nor will the Cossacks touch their torches to the digital record of the Oscar-lauded American Beauty (another Kevin Spacey sighting) with its unsubtle, rose-encrusted reprise of Nabokov’s novel. Lolita even intrudes on the latest book by the turncoat Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo; the novel begins with the fifteen-year-old male protagonist prosecuting an incestuous relationship with his Humbert-aged grandmother. No, perhaps the only unforgivable thing about Lolita, the thing that makes it uniquely susceptible to attack, is that Nabokov managed to turn a tragedy into a trope.

Cossacks might try, but surely not every instance of literary child abuse can be traced back to Nabokov; only among writers of a certain stylistic cast is the ancestry clear (they write prose that bioluminesces and stings like a Portuguese man’o’war). In any case, contrary to Cossack opinion, the proliferation of Lolita’s flammable premise is neither trivializing nor sinister. Rather, in evoking Nabokov’s achievement, writers not only honor the best of the tradition, they consent to shoulder in their own ways the novel’s grim burden: to confront the very worst that humanity has to offer, and to wring from that misery something beautiful: to stare into the blackest pit and find (forge) the sun. This is the hard lesson of Lolita; it is a monument to an awful existential truth: simply to be alive, in the face of the whole history of human suffering, requires a kind of insane fortitude. Lolita reminds us that while soldiers were dying in European trenches, Monet was painting lilies in his garden; that horror and beauty are cosynchronous; that for every fine sentiment, every sweet emotion, someone else pays in blood, and eventually we all get presented with the check. The world is thick with atrocity, past and present; Lolita shows us that, from such material, within and out of it, we might wrest some measure of transcendence. The novel casts its gaze on the monstrous, but also the mythical, the banal, the comic, the poetic, even the tender (with an asterisk), and fashions a kind of harmony from the discordant and myriad particulars. A sob of despair becomes a song of hallelujah. Though perhaps beyond morality in the narrow sense, the novel’s project, this artistic patrimony, is at its root affirmative and redemptive.

The Cossack storm—a light shower, really—will soon blow over, if it hasn’t already. The circus can always be relied upon to leave town. Although it would be wrong to compare too closely the offenses of Cossacks with those of actual pedophiles, they do have this in common: both, in the end, are acts of sterility, the one perhaps trivial, the other savage. Nabokov’s novel, on the contrary, and fit testimony to its genius, is blessedly, maybe endlessly, generative.

— Bruce Stone


Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a collection of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Numéro Cinq and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.


May 212012

I met Emily Pulfer-Terino on the jet to Chicago for the AWP Conference last, a comical, sleepy morning meeting made somewhat impossible by my grumpy desire not to talk to ANYONE. Later, at the conference, we re-met with CONTEXT and it came out that she is a poet. Actually, a lovely poet who teaches at a girls’ private school in Massachusetts and has to do amusing things like chaperone dances. Emily Pulfer-Terino can build a beautiful line. Watch the verbs and verbals. Everything is moving, shifting, pelting, fraying in these poems.

this heaving air, the sound of air inborn
as effort. And what washes up, limp, inside-
out, jellyfish, empty skate, cartilage

Meditate upon the gorgeous concision of these lines. Think about the powerful rhetoric of lists and series and the dense concreteness of the words. Watch the way the grammar and drama of the sentences surges beyond the line to the next and the next.



The Vineyard

November wind persuades the dunes
You’ve brought me to. Dunes thin and swell.
Near, gray trees strain. Your friends
build houses and couple here;

I prefer mountains. But your heart
pelts against your ribs. You trudge
at wind and turn, grinning
over your shoulder at me. Constant here,

this heaving air, the sound of air inborn
as effort. And what washes up, limp, inside-
out, jellyfish, empty skate, cartilage
fraying. And there’s your dog,

who into the pluming water follows tossed planks,
again pleased and flapping, again,
salted by seaspume. Even in this
constant reshaping of ground by wind, of wave

by wind, with these cold shocks
of beachwinter numbing the skin,
how isolate each breathing thing must be.
Scents of wet wood, aged fish wed

these drowsy ions. I hate it here.
The way you clasp against this afternoon
into me, our two breaths chalking one,
your face a mortifying pink.



Yarrow, she says, wading through the weeds
beside the mountain road, will purify the blood.

Gathering plants to make tinctures and balms,
serious and thinner now, my friend is learning

how to heal. Red clover lowers fever, quiets
frantic nerves. Stinging nettle soothes the skin,

the pain of aging joints. Saint John’s wart, common
yellow flower, homely as a pillowcase, soothes the pain

of life itself. Well, pain has made a pagan of my friend.
At twenty-two, she has already learned to celebrate

death: friends, her father. Alone in her sugar shack home
up here, grown sinewy and stern, she studies the natural world

as if the names of living things, repeated, were a spell to undo loss.
She gives me what she gathers—hawthorn blossom, elder,

comfrey—to seal in jars with stones and alcohol. We’re pulled over
here forever. The sun, once heavy gold with heat, is growing tired

over us, pale white light of evening setting in. Soon, she’ll stop
and we’ll start to enjoy what we always do together: at her place,

sepia sounds of guitar steeping from the record player, outside,
lake water steadying slowly under lowered sun. And we enjoy

the wine she makes: dandelion, lemon mint. Tasting of flowers
and of fire. Strong wine, and good, it puts us under fast.

 — Emily Pulfer-Terino


Emily Pulfer-Terino grew up in Western Massachusetts, where she lives and teaches English at Miss Hall’s School, a boarding school for girls. She holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. More of her work is published or forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, The Louisville Review, The Alembic, Oberon, and other journals and anthologies.


May 182012

Vanessa Blakeslee

The Terrace

You live off the six-lane U.S. State Road 17-92 which cuts through Orlando and one of the city’s major arteries. Even though your building is close to the road, you are not bothered by the traffic; you can barely detect the whoosh of passing cars. This may be because these buildings—the oldest condominium complex in Orange County, erected in  the 1950s—are two stories of concrete block, hurricane-proof. You know because you’ve ridden out at least a Category Two here, and plenty of tropical storms.

The buildings retain retro detailing in the porch latticework and New England-inspired names—Gladstone, Kingston, Exeter—which hardly fit the shrubs flowering fire-orange petals, geckos flitting up your porch screens, the lemon tree outside your bedroom which bears fruit in the winter. The complex is notoriously well-kept by the landscapers who descend on Wednesdays, clipping hedges and parading down the sidewalks wielding leaf-blowers like jet-packs, calling to each other in Spanish and Creole, or another Caribbean patois, you’re not sure which. Most of your neighbors have lived here for years. Many are elderly, and a good number are snowbirds—Canadians and Northern retirees who arrive in October and leave around April, with the heat’s descent. But a good number of young couples and singles have moved in recently. You have lived here a decade, and with each passing year, find it more difficult to imagine ever leaving.

 The Birds


Sometimes when you are climbing in or out of your jeep, the water birds catch your eye. Herons, pelicans, ibis, and others hunt in the stream behind your building, some so tall they would likely reach your shoulder. You try and sneak up on them, but can get no closer than a dozen feet before they scamper away awkwardly on legs like bent chopsticks, or take flight. Even though the birds are a fixture, they fascinate you. Perhaps it’s the elegant, precise way they hunt in the rushing water as their long beaks hover, then strike, in the weeds. Or perhaps it’s the sheer size of some of them, the uncanny way they can sense one’s approach even as they stare in the opposite direction. They are simultaneously graceful yet goofy, like jabberwockies. Sometimes you find giant white splatters on the jeep’s hood and windshield, dotted with seeds, which ignite a string of under-the-breath curses from your lips because of course you have somewhere to go and cannot stop to get the car washed. But you find it difficult to stay mad at them.

The Room of Your Own 

Your office is in the back room which doubles for storage and laundry. While the washer spins and groans in the closet behind you, you peck away on your laptop. So far you have written only nonfiction here, but you are between novels anyway. The vestiges of your most recent project, research for your first novel, are still fixed on your desk—Blood and Capital, America’s Other War, Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia—ominous-sounding titles you would never have predicted yourself reading a few years ago, but that your creative pursuits led you to discover. Literary journals have found their way here, including the final issue of The Southern Review published under the editorship of your friend and mentor, Jeanne Leiby, who died swiftly, shockingly, in a car accident last April. The issues don’t belong on your desk, but you don’t know where else to put them; sometimes you find yourself picking up those with forwards by Jeannie and reading them, some comfort to feel that she is there, yet, within those pages. So every time you replace the issues in their spot, knowing one day soon you will have to clear the desk, make room for new projects, but not wanting to yet. For now, they stay.

Lake Lily Park

You meet someone, a music teacher, at the bar next door. He tells you he’s playing the violin the following night in the park across the street. You decide to check it out.

It’s a balmy February evening, enough for a light jacket or sweater, but as you enter the park’s south side, you pass dog walkers in flip flops and t-shirts, a lone jogger in shorts. Above the lamp-lit brick walk, the Spanish moss dangles from the oaks like lace. This side of the park is vacant, but gradually you round the horseshoe path past the playground alive with children, and the din of music and chatter grows louder. In the daytime you can gaze down among the lily pads in the shallows and spot turtles and fish, but tonight Lake Lily looms dark except for the illuminated fountain in the middle, and the full moon rising in the misty clouds above. A young man steps to the lake’s shore, snaps a photo with his Smartphone. You think of doing the same but don’t. You have never been a fan of stepping out of a magical moment to try and capture it.

Rounding the bend to the far end of the lake is the “food truck round-up,” a modern-day caravan minus gypsies and fortune tellers. Uneven lines form at the truck windows; couples, families, and teenagers stream to the crowded picnic tables with fish tacos and cupcakes. In the center, under a white tent, a new age band strums ambient music—guitar, tambourine, violin, no vocals to disrupt the conversation or mood.

You run into a neighbor and his foreign exchange student, Vika, from the Ukraine, a high school sophomore in glasses who smiles a lot over her burger and fries. She displays a firm grasp of conversational English, and even though you are sitting right beside the band she laughs at the jokes between you and your neighbor, strains to hear your questions but answers them without hesitation. She says it’s thirty below zero back home, that Eastern Europe is experiencing the coldest temperatures on record. She likes American high school because it’s easier. In Ukraine, she studied sixteen subjects a week.

As you rise and say goodbye, you glance at the music teacher—he’s on violin, nods in return, but a restlessness stirs within you. Perhaps it is the ambient music, which alternates between uplifting and melancholy, as now, matching the cozy din of the residents milling about the brightly lit trucks, young and old, married and divorced. You leave and walk around the lake, but there is no escaping this feeling of having one foot in an old chapter that is closing, and another in the new, opening up; you have been in this love-limbo before, this splitting of self. You are almost, once again, single.

The Dance Studio

You bustle into the studio at nine-thirty, water bottle in hand and dance bag bulging with your tambourine and gypsy skirt. Lively Indian music stops and starts from the class in medias res, and when they file out at ten, skin glistening and faces flushed, they talk of costumes for the upcoming show—wrong sizes ordered, jewelry to be borrowed, sewing to be done. They are the professional Belly dance class; many of them have been dancing for years, grew up taking ballet and jazz. Some dance at various themed restaurants in Orlando, for Disney and Universal Studios. You had one semester of ballet, but somehow you are here. At twenty-seven, you discovered your gift for dance, and now, like writing, can’t imagine giving it up.

Tonight, your troupe practices tambourine first—a rollicking number with spins and changing line formations. You split: one half of the group performs for the other half, who sits along the mirror and scribbles critique on scraps of paper. Then one by one, you fire off feedback (“The push backs are getting lost, make them bigger” and “Keep energy in the arms! No chicken wings”). When your turn comes to the galloping music, your coin earrings flick against your neck. Your timing is good. All you need is to slip fully into the dream on stage, and you will be great. The same rules for fiction apply to dance: forget the self, and the art shines through.          

Then you run through the Persian routine. The green velvet and gold-trimmed costumes have arrived, Renaissance style with bell sleeves, complete with gold tiaras and veils. You look like queens, or at least ladies-in-waiting. This dance is sweet, graceful, totally unlike the other. Just after eleven, you finish. Before exiting, you remove your checkbook to pay for the costume. Your stomach squeezes as you write the amount. What is the cost of fantasy? Are you living the life of a Winter Park housewife as someone close to you recently claimed, the bourgeoisie woman in her prime, claiming she’s an artist? Should you stop all of this, and focus on paying the rent?

You should, argues the logos mind. But how can you? The stronger half of your brain, the half that is toned and strong from crafting critical essays, thirty stories, and a novel these past five years, is as sculpted and agile as your limbs as they carry you to your dented, shit-splattered jeep in the night. That brain and body, blood pulsing with adrenaline and spirit as you sweep through the barren streets, wails no, you cannot stop. To stop is death.

You pull into the complex, park in front of the lemon tree. Climbing from the jeep, you are grateful for the spotlight illuminating the lot vacant of persons, or birds—where do they go at night, the spindly-legged hunters of the stream? Through the trees, laughter and loud voices escape from the bar next door. The scent of night-blooming jasmine trails after you, up the sidewalk; the Canadian couple, down for vacation, sit outside the unit beside yours, smoking, cradling glasses of red wine. You are back at the condo, alone.

—Vanessa Blakeslee


Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction has been published in The Southern Review, The Good Men Project, Ascent, and The Drum, among many others, and her short story “Shadow Boxes” won the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and recently was one of twelve writers selected by Margaret Atwood for her 2012 Key West Literary Seminar workshop, “The Time Machine Doorway.” Vanessa’s nonfiction and reviews have been featured or are forthcoming at Numéro CinqThe Paris Review Daily, The New Republic, KR Online, and The Millions, to name a few. In addition to writing, she’s a professional dancer with the Orlando Bellydance Performance Company in the troupe Gypsy Sa’har. Find her online at and at the Burrow Press Review blog, where’s she’s the resident “Shimmying Writer.”