Dec 162015

Temujin Doran via Telluride Festival


In these last days of the year, as we near the longest night, Temujin Doran’s short film “Sum” comes to help us take stock of our time, our brief time here.

“Sum” asks what would happen if the afterlife is a place where “you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.” On the most surface level, this organizes a life into a spreadsheet of time and emphasis: five months of reading magazines on a toilet, twenty seven hours of pain, thirty years of sleeping. It invites first a reflection on whether the narrative’s list matches one’s own life and, in the grand math of it, how much more time is spent cutting one’s finger nails (six days) than experiencing pure joy (fourteen minutes).


An adaptation of a very short story by neuroscientist David Eagleman, the film features all the text of the short story while it visually presents the experiences Eagleman’s story lists and, for the more abstract experiences on the list, interprets them. Boredom, longing, heartbreak, more abstract states of experience could have been expressed via direct facial expressions perhaps, but here Doran nicely finds more tenuous, less literal visuals.


Here, too, Doran draws in recurring images of statues, the human form but preserved, evoking time and the desire to endure, find what is not just fleeting in our experiences, these statues raising the more quiet question of what will an ephemeral life made up of these fleeting experiences add up to.


We are prepared to interpret, to flirt with signification in our viewing, via how the film opens (and later closes): a mural of ocean waves filling the frame, an impressionistic, slow seething canvas that prepares us to watch the montages that follow associatively, engage more emotionally, seeking the connections between the images.

The story is the title story in Eagleman’s collection of “forty tales from the afterlife,” a collection that Metro UK argued “is as much an object of desire as an actual book.” Though I would add that it is, too, a desiring subject, reading each of us back as objects of desire. Both story and film provoke us to wonder about our time, how it might be organized thematically, how much time would be spent doing each thing.


This emotional engagement and the film’s montage visual structure reminds me of Godfrey Reggio’s essay films (The Qatsi Trilogy) and his desire to engage the viewer in something more than spectacle. As he puts it, “There is the possibility if you do come to this film [Koyaanisqatsi] you’ll have an experience, rather than telling you a story . . . I think Einstein said that ‘fish will be the last to know water.’ My film is premised on the idea, the tragic feeling, that humans will be the last to know Technology.”

For Doran’s film and Eagleman’s story, this peculiar sum of things is a chance for we fishes to know the time we drink, and if we let it this is an aching reflection, one that offers us the chance to appreciate that we get these brief moments one by one free of the excel sheet.

SUM cover

— R. W. Gray


Dec 152015
Genese Grill

Photo by Rebecca Mack


And this is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee and the impressions of the actual world shall feel like summer rain, copious, but not troublesome, to thy invulnerable essence. Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods and rivers thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess that wherein others are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! Sea-lord! Air-lord!

—Emerson, “The Poet”


I am a gift to the finders; for I lose everything, as if I had holes in all my pockets or the most slippery skin in the world. Perhaps it is because, as much as I adore things, there is some unexamined impulse in me that suspects, even like that much-maligned Descartes, that none of this is real (mundus est fabula — the world is a fable). From a more reasonable standpoint — and I imagine that this is probably a prime reason for the traditional prejudice against matter — I can see that the physical world, while real, certainly isn’t permanent. Everything beneath the moon will fade and rot and pass away, a reality which must have induced those who could not bear such alteration to create an elaborate defense of that which supposedly lasts, i.e., spirit or soul. If body and spirit were separate, the special pleading went, then the death of the body might not mean the death of the soul. Yet, it seems more likely nowadays, considering that all of us are carrying the material of ancient stars in our bodies, that it is the physical that survives our fleeting mortal particularities — in the form of cells, particles, star dust — not, in fact, some numinous individual soul or self. But as long as we are alive, we cling to our particular collections of matter and call them self, individuality, agency; this clinging takes the form of concern, creative energy, and love, and the continual challenge of attempting to make sense of impermanence, loss and change.

Without being inclined then to reject the reality of the physical world, feeling still the reverberating tingling of certain real knocks, burns, and falls as well as the lingering pleasure of a caress, a taste, a visual and aural harmony, let us say that, in my perceived cosmos, the physical has weight, sensation, texture, temperature, and quality — and that this physicality is something to be celebrated and enjoyed as much as suffered — and at the same time these physical characteristics and sensations are telling us, imparting to us, something, something about life, about how to make meaning, about something I will call spirit — a term expanded for me by a consciousness of the German word Geist, which encompasses definitions including mind, feeling, culture, the intellectual, as well as that more numinous realm usually associated with our English word “spirit.” The physical world impresses upon or influences the mind as sensory apparatus; but the particular mind, colored by its particular cast and propensities, by its physical (genetic, biological) and its possibly less explainable characteristics (i.e., temperament, will, imagination, desire) filters and chooses the way in which that given world is seen, read, understood. To admit to having a soft spot for this thing called spirit seems to suggest a disparagement of matter, but I would not want to associate myself with a society of anti-sensualist prudes, nor would I willingly affiliate myself with any ideology that sought to escape the mortal, beautiful, and awesome reality of the natural world, its reason-defying beauties and its sorrow-inducing fading, its horrors and its delights; and yet, I find myself often tempted, as I imagine you do, too, to drift away into an imaginary dream amidst the often mind-numbing reality of the everyday. And I also find myself asking the question of what it is that makes all of this materiality so meaningful.

I also know from experience that there is great liberation to be gained by throwing off the shackles of what often amount to imaginary material needs. By giving up certain things that many people see as necessary for survival, one reaps a harvest of hours, a bounty of time that might otherwise have been spent working for money. It seems worthwhile to relinquish certain physical conveniences or even creature comforts in exchange for the incalculable luxury of reflection, of sufficient margins wherein aesthetic experience, philosophizing, poeticizing can reverberate. While many may feel that they have to work five or seven days a week to insure their material security or may choose consciously to trade their days and nights for an uninhibited cash flow, a larger lodging, an expensive telecommunications device, a bottle of fine bourbon, I can play a queenly pauper blessed with an open day. An uninhibited flow of moments, sensations, and synthesis of physical and spiritual beauties, the infinite riches of nature and culture which belong, by right, to anyone who loves them, makes of them a priority, and makes room for them. While it is well argued that one’s primary physical needs must be satisfied before one can indulge in higher spiritual reveries (“First comes the feeding, then comes morality” —Brecht), I am not the first one to suggest that our current assessment of how much one really “needs” to consume or stuff one’s face or garage with is exceedingly out of proportion with the development of our moral, ethical, intellectual or aesthetic sensibilities and inner resources. The choice to value time, reflection, and culture over consumerism may not necessarily preclude prioritizing materiality, since the free experience of nature, for example, is — strictly speaking — no less material than a new coat (nature is matter); and yet, there is a way in which the experience of nature or of art or of love (physical love included), of anything that ought not be quantified, used, or bought and sold, is thought of, correctly or not, as spirit’s part.


While Thoreau argued that it might be better to sleep in a railroad box and thereby keep his days and nights free to dream, Théophile Gautier asserted in his preface to that great aesthetic novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin, that while a coffin would, indeed, be enough space for a man to “literally live,” to observe nothing but the strictest economy in such things were to turn all of Paris into a virtual Père Lachaise, i.e., a cemetery, where the supposedly living were doing little more than literally existing. Thoreau conversely sees a liberation in a coffin-sized box, noting that many of his countrymen living in larger, more comfortable houses bury the better part of themselves long before death (presumably under obligations, possessions, work). But Gautier, who complicates the equation by asserting that he would rather go without shoes than without poems, and that he would sell his breeches for jam, if necessary, was far from really having to consider the possibility that a railroad box might be the best means to afford the opportunity to make and experience poems — an experience unattainable by one of the more over-stuffed and prohibitively comfortable bourgeois he mocks for their utilitarian economies.

And the complexification is instructive, for the logic has far too often been reduced to a dualism pitting material things against spiritual experiences. Here, instead, we see that there are material things that are more or less “spiritual,” i.e., less or more utilitarian and prosaic than other material things. Material things that make us dream, that inspire and stimulate the mind, in other words, are to be preferred over those that drag us into the gutter or into the stock exchange. Wilde, who wished that he — a human being presumably made of a mixture of spiritual and physical stuff — might live up to his blue and white china, suggests as much. The work of art, albeit in this case made of a refined species of mud, is deemed the loftier substance, perhaps even because it has no needs at all. The aesthetes, had they paid Thoreau a visit in his little cabin (he did not, after all, ever really try living in that railroad box), would probably have found it quite charming. In short, together they ask us to consider what it is we need to feed our souls as well as our bodies. And we may conclude that the things some call luxuries are necessities to others, and vice versa. Each one of us must discover what we most need, and what we are most willing to sacrifice in order to attain and sustain it, while simultaneously sacrificing as little as possible of other things that feed us, in all ways.

I would, then, rather than disparage matter in favor of spirit, or spirit in favor of matter, embrace physicality while celebrating the imagination, and stress that, at best, the most freely non-compromised spirit may play with the structures and arrangements of the physical world, proving the immediate creative potential of the human mind to act upon and alter the “real” and already-established world with its utopian imaginings.

The mind, of course, is part of the physical world, and yet some of its functions seem unexplainable from a purely mechanistic perspective. Seeing, for example, is, strictly speaking, a physical activity; but our perception and understanding of what we see seems to be dependent upon preconceptions and learned ideas about space and extension. Further, when we take in something seen through the eyes and it enters our minds, its physicality is transformed into non-physical ideas and images which we seem to carry with us and possess, without owning or holding the seen things. The beauty of the physical world is material. And the sense organs we use to behold it and process it are physical. But when we move what we see from the world into our minds (both physical), what is seen becomes somehow spiritual, i.e., imaginary, remembered, thought. This is all rather impossibly dizzying, which is one of the reasons we usually do not even bother to think about it. At the same time, it is exciting that mere ideas can induce physical vertigo. And we should think about it, even at the risk of swooning, for our conclusions about the relationship between matter and spirit are deeply relevant to our relationship with meaning-making and, as such, to our sense of our roles and responsibilities in the world.

deaconTerrence Deacon

The brain scientist Terrence Deacon, in his book Incomplete Nature, writes that “consciousness doesn’t appear to have clear physical correlates even though it is quite ambiguously associated with having an awake, functioning brain”(6). He argues eloquently that one of the reasons why consciousness had not been located by scientists is that it is not material, in the sense of “stuff,” but rather that consciousness is a process, a dynamic of possibilities, and, what’s more baffling, a consciousness of reduction, taking away, selecting out. Each cell, each neuron continually fights against the force of entropy and chaos in order to maintain its own integrity, and this “autogenesis,” intent upon maintaining self-creation on the cellular and then, exponentially complexified, on the level of personhood, is a sort of agency, will, desire, self. The mind is moved and inspired by this autogenesis to focus on and select out patterns of matter amid a myriad of possibilities, and in turn the mind chooses and emphasizes what it has seen, loved, feared, noticed, which changes in response to the mind’s new ideas and visions of what is really in the world, and then is, again, seen by new minds and altered, ad infinitum. Remarkably, we find a similar description of creative consciousness in Novalis’s fragments from the 1780’s: “What an inexhaustible amount of materials for new individual combinations is lying about! Anyone who has once guessed this secret — needs nothing more than to decide to renounce endless variety and the mere enjoyment of it and to start somewhere — but this decision is at the expense of the free feeling of an infinite world — and demands restriction to a single appearance of it. Ought we perhaps attribute our earthly existence to a similar decision?” The selecting-out necessary for creation by an individual artist (or by any individual perceiving and creating his world) may be similar to the process by which the human brain creates its self or consciousness. And death, as Deacon suggests, would be a return to the original chaos of everything, an infinite world without choices, without selections, without direction. Living, then, is choice-making, delineation, discrimination, blind spots, even a sort of negation of one arrangement in favor of another, which we can call an affirmation if we choose to.

Deacon argues that events or entities which he calls “ententional phenomena” and “absential features” within consciousness, “make a difference in the world…we are surrounded by the physical consequences of people’s ideas and purposes…ententional causality…assumes the immediate influence of something that is not present… and it seems like ‘magic’”(28-31). Or, more poetically, in the words of Heinrich Heine, “The thought wants action, the Word wants to become flesh…and amazing! Man, like the God of the bible only needs to speak his thought and the world is created. There is light or there is darkness, the waters separate from solid land, or wild beasts appear. The world is the signature of the Word. Note this, you proud men of action. You are nothing but the unconscious extensions of the men of thought, who often, in modest silence, have precisely predetermined all of your doings” (On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany).

The objects of the physical world have been rendered as signatures of spirit, as very important symbols, metaphors, and dream-images of some other realm transcendentalists from Plato to Emerson have thought of as “the really real.” This prejudice against matter qua matter has often explained the physical world away as a shallow and airy phantom of a moment’s deluded perception: we ought, so runs the argument, therefore, set our eye and heart on what remains and strive not to be distracted and seduced by the pleasures and desires of this prison house, these clayey lodgings, the body. But the spirit, along with will, desire, agency, choice, love, ethics, has been banished entirely by others for almost completely opposite reasons. These would explain the world as fundamentally lacking in meaning or purpose and our human bodies and their urges as the mere accidental detritus of mechanistic necessities such as the survival of the species. Deacon quotes Richard Dawkins as representative of this view: “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” and then notes that autonomized explanations of the world dispose of the idea of self altogether: “Your body is a chemical machine” and feelings and thoughts are unreal. There is possibly “no one home.” This materialistic worldview paradoxically denigrates the physical just as much as the former. It divests matter — and with it human life, love, suffering, and the experience of beauty — of any trace of meaning.

Responding to a worldview which limits the material world to a spiritless hull, hedonism, an embrace of pleasure for its own sake, is to my mind clearly a better response than the wearing of hair shirts and other excoriations and deprivations of the flesh. For if nothing matters and there is no purpose besides the constant preservation of the species, we may as well enjoy ourselves while here best we can — if we can, indeed, really enjoy meaningless pleasure for long. But indifference and nihilism is more often the consequence of such a perspective, resulting in an impoverished and wasted life. The beauty of the physical world with all its pleasures can really mean very little without a meaning-making and choosing mind to process the thrills and delights of colors, caresses, sounds, tastes, repeating patterns and designs. We tend then, at best, to take in all the phenomena and translate it, add it up to a summary conclusion about the value or purpose of life; in fact, we cannot help but do so.

Science has still not been able to figure out why, if there appears to be no necessary reason for humans to make poems and develop ethics, we still do; thus leaving those who would insist on a mechanistic explanation really unable to fully explain themselves. This latter view tends to explain things like poetry, tender feelings, ethical scruples, or the history of architecture as nothing more than elaborated, evolved mating rituals. Perhaps Deacon’s theory of autogenesis brings us closer to a more acceptable understanding of agency, will, self-generation and selfhood as exponentially complex versions of simple biological processes; the alternative explanation for consciousness, which usually assumes some sort of a priori reason or imbedded purpose for all of this, founders on many fronts, but most practically upon the impossibility of absolute justification of particular assessments of good, bad, beautiful, or true, since an action thought to be the highest form of tribute in one culture may be the basest insult in another. In other words, physical actions and objects are, of course, given meanings by individuals and societies (along with names and associations), which are often not inherently necessary or consistently characteristic. This seems to suggest that anything can be anything and mean anything and the only possible recourse we have for assessment is utility and physical pleasure. But even those criteria are hopelessly variable, since something may be useful to one person in one situation and an annoying obstacle to and in another; and, of course, one man’s pain is another’s pleasure. Which leaves us where?

In simplistic terms, there are those who want to believe that there is meaning and something like a reason or purpose for being here and those who prefer to believe the opposite — and then there is another sort altogether (of which I count myself): this sort of person believes that while there are certain basic natural facts in the universe (gravity, for example), the individual and group mind necessarily do and must and should impart meaning and purpose to what might essentially be meaningless phenomena. If, as seems likely, there is no reason why we are here, it behooves us to create our own reasons, our own desires and goals and necessities, albeit always with a consciousness of our powers to change these as we ourselves, or as the circumstances, change. We are meaning-making and meaning-seeking animals, and this trait (be it biological, evolutionarily useful, or just a random accident) seems to be an unexplainable fact. We cannot help but ascribe meaning and purpose to phenomena, to events, to objects. And while people have come to call this meaning-making a form of mysticism or social construction and impugn it as a conscious and malignant endeavor to hoist the values of the people in power upon others less fortunate, this is itself a social construction — a narrow narrative of the really complicated and chaotic development of mores and beliefs. Such a narrative willfully neglects the possibility and probability of any individual being waking up to a world interpreted by his or her own vision and coloring it in such an irresistible fashion so as to reawaken the whole rest of humanity to see what she sees. Anyone can, and must change the world at every moment. We are doing it now, for better or for worse.

Which is, of course, what art is and does, and why it is so important. The artist takes the shared raw material of the world, its realities and its appearances, its tendency to delude and its momentary revelations of terrible and beautiful truths, and shapes these infinite elements into something new and something necessarily subjective, something that is at once untrue and true. The artist teaches us, at best, that we too can and must do the same.

And while philosophers have often strained to separate the two realms of matter and meaning, some insisting on the “true” reality of one over the other, I am interested not in further polarizing body and mind, matter and idea, reality and art, but, rather, in exploring the ways in which they have occupied different positions in our ethical and aesthetic consciousness depending upon the context. I am concerned that our conceptions of their separateness or synthesis are at the basis of an often unexamined conduct of life, are embedded in our language, resulting in the pervasive conflicting beliefs that on the one hand there is something the matter with matter and on the other that materiality is the only thing that can bring us happiness. Of course, this investigation already presupposes that the way we arrange matter in our minds determines what we see, seemingly privileging mind over matter; but minds — human brains — are matter too, and the objects and elements that the brain arranges are also mostly (if not entirely) from the physical world, as we imagine combinations of things and places and people we have already seen with our eyes or felt or experienced with our bodies. But we also may be capable of conceiving of fresh abstractions based not on the external world, but on some interior structures (called at one time innate ideas; now, perhaps more accurately termed subjective constructions). We see, apparently, only what we believe is possible, and this requires a certain creative observer whose provenance and process may or may not be traceable by modern science. Whether or not there is anything new under the sun may come down to the brain’s ability to conceive of something never before imagined, something that is not just a combination of perceived, seen, felt elements. And if this is possible, we can look for it in the realm of art, a process of creation which, as my friend Alex Gaydos once pointed out to me, is not strictly in service to matter, or to the needs of the moment, but which enables us to transcend whatever temporal reality we are in, which enables us to be somewhere, someone, somehow else. Art — usually a physical object or sensuous experience created out of images or sounds and their arrangements — is inspired at least in part by the realm of matter, even if only as a rejection or deviation from natural laws (consider a sculpture that seems to hang suspended on air), and is simultaneously something that is born of spirit, i.e., feeling and mind, into the physical world. Art, then, is never disengaged from reality or the concerns of social life, but is always inherently and radically participating in guiding and challenging us to see and thus to live in new ways.

This aesthetic experience is inherently related to ethical possibility, as the choices we make to see this and not that, to narrate differing causes and effects for shared experiences, to judge an event, a person, an action, or a society’s mores from radically deviating perspectives seem to suggest that the mind has more say in the matter than a monopoly of mere matter allows. George Berkeley, who famously questioned whether matter existed at all outside of our senses, outside of our mind, notes that the spirit, as agent, is able to excite “ideas in my mind at pleasure and vary and shift the scenes as often as I think fit. It is no more than willing, and straightaway this or that idea arises in my fancy: and by the same power it is obliterated, and makes way for another. This making and unmaking of ideas doth very properly denominate the mind active” (63). But a skepticism about the nature of physical reality, no matter how empowering it is to mind, need not devolve into a skepticism about the very existence of the physical. Yet, Berkeley is quite sound in suggesting that we have no way of ever testing whether reality does exist outside of our senses, because our senses remain our only mode of testing. Still, if we accept that there is a reality outside of ourselves and concede that this reality is not absolutely solid, nor completed, this realization should encourage a more engaged process of existential choice-making, not an attitude of carelessness, whether hedonistic or indifferent.

That the physical world and our constructs of time, space, and necessity may be less certain than they sometimes appear to be, that matter is permeable, both waves and particles, and subject to constant change, does not mean that what we do and how we think is irrelevant, but rather the contrary, since our actions and thoughts are largely responsible for the world we continue to inhabit. Whenever we think we are stuck or that the “real” world has us in a corner, we may experience the powerful force of spirit — this time in the form of will or a consciousness of agency — as possible rescue operations, alternatives, or even simply new ways to experience the perceived bad situation occur to our searching minds. Even the very idea of a God, for which there is no possible natural precedent except perhaps childbirth, is evidence, not of its truth, but of the mind’s ability to imagine something that may not exist. If, in other words, we can imagine and invent something for which there is no a priori necessity or precedent, and arrange our lives and choices around this figment, then mind must play a substantial role in the construction and experience of reality. This is all the more reason to be as aware as possible of our role in creating realities and to see to it that, while we should hold fast to our ideals and priorities, we do not allow ourselves as individuals or societies to petrify into any one particular figment or phantom arrangement as if it were absolutely necessarily one way or another. Probably many of you have often been told that you were being “unrealistic” as to your expectations or hopes for a better world. The only possible answer to such a taunt is to change the very reality which has your interlocutor in its deadly grip.

Medieval theologians often explained the physical world as “God’s Book,” within which we, who grasp abstractions only with difficulty, might better read the ineffable messages of the Divine. While many people today, conversely, assume that symbols are stand-ins for real things, that they “mean” or “equal” something specific and tangible, we do well to reverse this, at least for a moment, to regard and experience the supposedly real things as symbols, or rather heralds of something even more real, something lasting and unmeasurable, as hieroglyphs approaching some silent explanation of what it means to be alive. Starting from the physical, we may proceed to the imaginary, the conceptual, the as-of-yet unconceived. Thus we can see that reading the “meanings” of the physical world need not mean either a disregard for physical reality or a rigid reading of matter. One important difference between the medieval Christian symbol system and ours was well explained by Emerson in his essay, “The Poet,” when he noted that the mystic (he meant in this context the dogmatic mystic) nails every symbol to one meaning, whereas the poet sees multiple meanings in every “sensuous fact.” While a medieval theologian would usually read the decay of the body as a simple forewarning against attachment to the flesh, we need not interpret it as an admonishment to not enjoy what is fleeting. Although the very fleetingness of physical joys, their tendency to alter, fade, and disappear altogether may be precisely that which we call an object lesson, the story’s moral need not be that we should not care for objects at all or that we should denigrate the sensual world. For physical things — skin, colors, tree bark, bread, chocolate, kisses, gold coins, paper money, shoe buckles, filigree, crenellations, gilded books, ponies, eyelashes and fingertips, marbleized frontispieces, photographs, hips and napes of necks, smells and sounds and textures — all simultaneously partake in the spiritual and the physical, are all miraculously self-generating evidence of a teeming life force at play, a universe in love with its own creative energy, with human hands and minds and eyes in its willing service, evidence of a force — we may call it love or simply natural desire — of perpetual making and rejoicing in that making.

Ralph Waldo EmersonRalph Waldo Emerson, via Wikimedia Commons

I lose things, but not really, never really having them in the first place, and am able, in so far as I may recall or imagine them, to recover them again. And then, just as much as I lose things, I find things that have been lost by others, seeing things that others overlook, picking them out, pointing them out, pocketing them for later. Memory, too, is a loser and a finder, a shuffler, a parser, a re-arranger. Deliberately or not, we slip back and forth between physical things and the memories of places and events and persons, real or remembered, that the mementoes recall. A Proustian paving stone or that famous madeleine given to me by reading a book belong to my collection as much as any weighty bronze sculpture I hold in my hand. But only the choicest pieces may be displayed in the more public cabinet of curiosities which constitutes the conscious mind, while secret drawers are crammed with forgotten, repressed, or tragically neglected keepsakes, broken amulets, stopped pocket watches, and fragments of lost letters, sentences now illegible after that vial of holy water brought back from the Ganges or from Glastonbury broke and spilled, making the ink bleed. I tend to overflow, squander, shuffle, scramble, and hope that when the time comes whatever it is will fall into my hands. And sometimes I am surprised by what can only be a miracle: that this or that tiny object, a key, a slim volume, a scrap of paper on which I had written a word or a number, a quotation lost in a thousand page book, suddenly appears before me, and even when it is the last minute and I need to be running out the door and absolutely need to have found it. But what has been lost: moments, names, melodies, facts, details, sensations, intricately wrought hat pins, pressed flowers, locks of hair, lovers’ promises, things and events we swore at the time we would hold on to forever, is inconceivable and criminal. People even sometimes burn letters or leave family photo albums out in the rain. But we would rather not think on that.

Pippi Longstocking was a notorious finder, as is my friend Stephen Callahan; they called him “finder boy” in his youth and he was always called upon to look for something someone had mislaid. This is suspicious, now that I think of it; maybe he was actually a thief, like that seeker after truth Nietzsche writes about, who hides something behind a bush and seems surprised to find it precisely there where he once hid it! But any artist is this sort of a magician, an artist of the sleight of hand, swiping what others do not appreciate and setting it so that it becomes suddenly desirable, arranging it so that its original owner comes to miss it. Artists are people who endeavor to notice what was always there in potentialis, who are able to make the ordinary suddenly important, to see it new, to make others wish that they had found whatever it was first. And, of course, all philosophical systems and worldviews are a particular kind of arrangement by individual vision, a setting of the raw material of the actual world (what is) into an utopian pattern or design (what could be), rather than resting in a merely habitual rut of received ideas. Really, the arrangements we make may as well be utopian, elegant, joyous, sacred, ecstatic, experimental, serious funhouse mirrors and creative extensions of pre-existing “reality,” rather than a slavish mimesis to some status quo. Let us look at “reality” as a diamond in the rough, raw material, continually reset by ourselves, as creative royal jewelers, in infinitely fantastical tiaras which we can try on inside and outside of our heads to help us see and act and experience in new ways. If existence precedes essence, as the existentialists have it, then we can and must choose what we are and what the world is and means, how we act, what we value and reject, even if our choices are sometimes limited by a few natural laws and unavoidable circumstances. It shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, that finder boy grew up to be an aesthetic utopian who collects and arranges objects with an attention as devoted as that he renders to the design and conception of his ideal Nowhere, striving always to manifest it in the physical world.

Spirit may be understood as the arranger and the meaning-maker, while matter provides the colors and textures and shapes with which it plays. Why some people — even Emerson — conclude that therefore matter is the vulgar part of this union and spirit, i.e., form, the higher part of art, can probably be traced to our inherited prejudice against anything that doesn’t last, but it is as difficult to imagine a sculpture without marble or clay as it is to imagine experiencing the world without a body. A clay model of a body, however, a medieval Golem for example, is a rather pathetic thing without the in-spiration of ru’ah (Hebrew: breath; holy spirit) to make it come alive.

Pippi Longstocking knew what was important: the freedom to imagine, adventure, and roam unhindered by obstacles, whether physical or mental. She was, in fact, unconstrainable; she couldn’t be socialized; didn’t like school; she knew her own strength; she threw gold pieces around with a carelessness unmatched except by the denizens of Moore’s Utopia, where precious stones were to be found lining the gutters. Speaking of marvelous finders, I shouldn’t neglect to mention Phineas Sonin, our local junk man with his shining eyes and multi-colored rickshaws, who is always, always, finding and re-dispersing the detritus of civilization, as if to remind us that all our possessions are like the ribbons and shreds picked up by birds, always able to be transformed into new shapes and new psychic dwellings for fledgling dreamers. He reminds us that nothing is ever useless, even if it has outworn its original purpose. Also not to be forgotten is our wild, mad friend, Robin Simon — may she ramble somewhere safely, despite her neglect of gravity, time, space, and other natural laws —, whose gifts of miraculous treasures discovered in the streets unearth themselves even today from under piles of boxes or out of drawers in my room, and hurl themselves onto the floor moments before a letter from her —  the first one in years — appears in my mailbox, as if the objects were fore-echoes of the words on their way. A little Chinese box with lacquered scenes from fairy tales, a porcelain mask, and an embroidered sash, a pair of velvet dragon knickers, a miniature tea cup with a world inside. Telekinesis? Perhaps; it probably is easier to make physical objects move if one doesn’t believe in their actual weight. She was fluid with possessions, as rings she had picked up off our bureaus would just as innocently be slipped onto the fingers of seeming strangers or new friends, or tiny baubles pocketed in silence be left in tree nooks or upon the stairwell of a passing dandy wearing a pretty cape. How, she seemed to say, can any one thing belong to any one person? She rendered the objects their own agency, as if they were animated by attractions and fascinations to find their way into the hands of those who deserved them.

Some people claim that their dead friends and family, their ancestors, send them things as messages from the other worlds when they are wandering in rummage sales or antique shops: a tea pot, a letter opener, a bearskin cape with a silver, leaf-shaped clasp. And there are, indeed, times when an object seems to give us inordinately intense pleasure, either because it seems connected to a person or an idea, or because of its peculiar shape, weight, color, or smell, times when an object seems to be just precisely the thing to fill us with happiness, a sense of meaning, purpose, connection. In such a case, the true bohemian knows that no amount of filthy lucre is too much to spend or expend on the item, and, in fact, the squandering of mere money for something like that is part of the pleasure of the exchange. I enjoy spending money — not just the getting of the thing, but the actual act of giving the bundle of bills away. Some people feel pain when they pay; I feel a sensual pleasure, a sense of freedom and luxury. And it is not because I have unlimited supply — I live at present well below the poverty line —; nor because I have overlooked the fact that time is money; it is certainly not because I do not know what the cost of a thing is in Thoreau’s priceless definition, i.e., “the amount of what I call life that is expended for it now or in the long run.” It may be, rather, that I am not worried about having the money later, because I know I can live on very little, quite happily, quite richly.

Of course, we all know about the common folly of trying to fill spiritual emptiness with material riches, but, somehow, today’s cultural impoverishment has something to do with a misunderstanding of the spirit inhering in certain kinds of matter, in art, in artifacts, in certain kinds of physicality. In fact, a look at the history of our cultural relationship with matter and spirit reveals that inhering spirit in matter has been one of the greatest taboos, called by the name of idolatry. Taboo, as is well known, has a way of creating more perverse attachments, and the fetishism of objects as well as of human bodies in the form of consumerism and pornography may be a result of this insistence on the separation of spirit and matter. The widespread impoverishment in the face of so much material debauchery and excess impels us to discover a more meaningful connection between matter and spirit, body and mind, a connection that has largely gone missing among the sometimes extreme polar categorizations of ideal and real, physical and transcendental, carnal and spiritual. I want to look more closely at our unexamined assumptions, our cultural prejudices, and the way in which we have become at once unabashedly materialistic and piously, moralistically anti-aesthetic. It has turned out to be a worse bargain than was once calculated, for we have not only lost our souls, but have gained no compensatory worlds in return.

Everyone speaks about the problem of Americans being over-glutted with a base sensuality, but really, as is often the case with over-indulgence, we have become grossly insensible to the finer sensations. We cannot listen amid the incessant noise, we cannot see amid the rushing images, we cannot touch because we have become calloused all over. We are obese — but at the same time, we starve ourselves; our garages are filled to the brim with expendable and already broken junk; our landfills are mountains of eternal toxic shame; but few people seem to notice that this over-consumption is related to a numbness, a blind-deaf-and-dumbness to the faint stirrings and whisperings of the spirit that once could be traced in the lineaments of the physical world, in art and in nature, a numbness whose source is a tragic misunderstanding about how little one has to actually pay in order to be as wealthy as Emerson’s poet.

When people speak about the loss of spirit, they tend to suggest we cure the malady with a turn inward, a turn away from the physical world which implicitly negates the complex relationship obtaining between matter and spirit, between sensory and transcendental realms. This cure comes in many forms: minimalism; piety; asceticism; attacks on beauty and on the aesthetic components of art, music, social experience; an advocacy of pure conceptualism; a disregard of surroundings and environments; an insidious argument for technological consumerism; a leave-no-trace attitude to existence, whereby one is enjoined that the best thing a human could do, after not existing, would be to have as little impact as possible. While the last is a natural and, to some extent, admirable response to the abuse of natural resources and a very real environmental crisis, it has been adopted as a general platform for existence, suggesting that less is always more, and that there is nothing, literally nothing, that a person can contribute to the cultural or material richness of the world. The traces of natural affirmative human impressions and expressions are inadvertently erased in the rush to minimize the “carbon footprint,” but, alas, environmental damage is still spreading more quickly than can be counteracted by all the good will in the world, while culture and participatory engagement are disappearing faster than the ozone layer. A return to spirit and culture really requires very little in the way of natural resources since one can walk, bicycle, read, talk to a person who is beside one, experience nature, listen to what little silence there is left, without using fossil fuels and without creating toxic waste, without wasting any electricity at all; but governments and individuals choose instead to spend millions of dollars and use up more and more resources looking for some complicated technological means to continue to live unsustainably amid a myriad of distractions and annoyances, even though most of us agree that our gadgets, our jobs, our highways, our machines do not actually make us happier or better people. And, as we recklessly deplete our natural resources, we are literally running out of the vital matter to make more matter; and the cost, in terms of the horrific physical and anti-aesthetic desecration of the land as well as the ethical and spiritual degradation that comes with selfish greed and a neglect of human and natural consequences, is devastating even now.

The spread of technology, with its concomitant defense of the virtual, has contributed greatly to an apparent devaluing of the physical; yet, this “revolution” has not translated into a spiritualization of existence or a real reduction of tedious, meaningless work for harried humanity. Instead, the spiritual has been eradicated along with the physical connection. The technological devolution seems to be little more than a ruse for selling the newest device or gadget, without which the supposedly timeless-spaceless modern being feels unable to function. He has given up his memory, his ability to synthesize and understand ideas, his freedom, as well as any simple access to human or neighborly help, knowledge, or warmth. This price is too high to pay for a dubious return in the form of a promise of immediate access to data and information, the ability to buy things without leaving one’s home or office (minus the sensual thrill of handling dollars and seeing, smelling, touching the world). He has gained the ability to work and be reached at all times on any mountain top, in the middle of any conversation or experience, and the constant anticipation of some small chance of a random surprise salvation from what really can only honestly be characterized as an unbearable and shallow existence — an existence so unsatisfactory that one hopes constantly that it will be interrupted by something better. The allegedly virtual is fatally bound to a merely materialistic culture lacking in spiritual foundation. It costs much more than it returns, as its incessant buzzing, roaring, and ringing drown out any possibility of enjoying the “free time” theoretically to be gained by the convenience of technology.  As it turns out, keeping the infrastructure or virtual reality “on” twenty-four hours a day requires much more wasted energy than we like to think, thus flagrantly obviating any supposed return in environmental protection. A knapsack filled with free books checked out of the public library (a spiritual institution which is not by accident suffering an immense financial crisis while multinational information technology companies are thriving) is a much better bit of baggage to take to that desert island — or into the post-industrial future — than the newest oil-based and electricity-dependent plastic monstrosity; and one gets physical exercise while carrying it, not to mention the mental exercise, the experience of synthesizing organic, complex knowledge, the real experience of reading, digesting, reflecting in silence on whole books instead of downloading snippets and summaries, or dilutions of data and co-opted cultural capital, into a fact-crammed brain. There is an immense gulf between information and knowledge, and the way we as a culture seem to have forgotten this may have something to do with the commodification of even spiritual wealth into cultural capital, something to be utilized, manipulated, transferred, bought, and sold for some mercenary purpose. Education — one that engages in ethical and aesthetic reflection and questioning, fruitful confusion and uncertainty, dialogue, synthesis, and unaccountable experience — cannot be bought and sold across cyberspace or implanted via a chip in the brain. Speed reading is not reading. The “medium is the message,” and a book should be heavy, if only to weigh the reader, slow the reader down.

Emerson spoke of every “sensual fact,” as a material manifestation within the world, as a symbol for a complex assortment of ideas, not to be reduced to one mathematically or dogmatically predetermined solution or answer. And this interplay between the physical as symbol and its spiritual extension regenerates itself, infinitely, at no material, environmental, or ethical cost. Reflection, and its resulting provisional stations of synthesis, is one of the most essential processes for the development of new ideas, fresh insights, original arrangements; and it is something our society has almost entirely neglected, abandoned, forgotten. We can see the results of this neglect around us already, but only if we stop for a moment and reflect. What I suspect is that an important cause and effect of this neglect is a confusion about matter and its relationship to spirit, and while this or other solutions to our presently unsustainable predicament might occur to any of us were we to sit a moment with the rare discomfort that rushes in if we recuse ourselves temporarily from the rush and rage — the hope and hype — of commodities, data, and progress, we rarely dare to release our hold (although we are really the ones being held) on whatever it is we feel we must do in order not to fall out of step, in order not to lose our jobs, homes, social standing, security. We are so frightened of losing our grip that we do not risk the smallest danger (darkness, loneliness, confusion) to change our lives. We are so busy acquiring things we think we need, and doing things we think we need to do, that we do not even take the time to consider whether we really want the situation or success after which we are striving; nor do we have the leisure or quiet to enjoy or admire all that already belongs to us by right. “Things are in the saddle,” warned Emerson, back when it had not gotten nearly so bad as it is today, “and ride mankind.” But the Poet, he also reminded us, is “Sky-lord, Land-lord, Sea-lord,” for everything she sees or even imagines is an enduring possession. But we cannot possess it if we do not have the leisure or senses to enjoy it. There is — in effect — nothing which we can really lose, except perhaps the flexibility and fertility of our minds.

The PoetEmerson’s Essay “The Poet,” via Internet Archive

What then is the most fruitful relationship between physical entities and their associated ideas and spirit? Leaving language out of the equation altogether, we may consider that any individual specific object, mountain, or building is in contact with the idea or even “Ideal Form” of that object, an idea or ideal of mountain, of building. We might even assume, as many have over the course of the history of ideas, that anyone who is overly attached to a particular temporal physicality is somehow less spiritual, and here we have a philosophy and theology of spirit seemingly born in the service of sparing us the pain of loss and death ahead of time. Non-attachment might appear to be a wise method in the sublunar regions, where all is fleeting and time triumphs — but it rather seems like a ruse, or a case of special pleading, considering we do have bodies, and appetites, and that we do suffer the pain of loss and lack, despite all attempts to assuage it. We also, it must not be forgotten, experience pleasure, and it seems an act of bad faith to accept the one and reject the other. Though it hardly seems like an admirable achievement, some spiritual practitioners may manage to neither suffer nor enjoy anything at all. Rather, I suppose that the individual experience of losing an actual specific physical thing or person is a meaningful object lesson in the reality of death — it may lead us to enjoy life all the more, to pay more attention, to concentrate on our pleasures and on all sensations, even seemingly unpleasant ones, for we will not have the luxury of experiencing them forever. We should pay attention to the fate of matter, to fading, to physical decay and the processes of natural fermentation and regeneration. We should pay more attention.

Pain, delight, pleasure, beauty all come, in any case, in both spiritual and physical forms, usually in fact, in a mixture of both. We cannot, or rather should not, try to minimize or limit our experience out of a moralistic or even practical stoic defensiveness. Some bit of pain or trouble may be salutary, or even stimulating; some types of burdens are worth carrying, if only to build physical and spiritual muscles, if only to experience the delicious relief of laying them down and doing absolutely nothing afterward or in between. If I seem to be stressing the didactive benefit of the physical, let me add that matter is also to be enjoyed for its sensual properties as well, and maybe even in tandem with the sensations of its stings and arrows, as contrast at least. Renoir asked, “Why should beauty be suspect?” And, while we have some ideas as to why, we would do well to consider that pleasure and delight make up at least one part of what real life consists and we do no one damage by experiencing or dwelling on beauty if its creation does not incur inordinate residual spiritual or physical ugliness (as, admittedly, some seemingly pretty things may). While we might even entertain the idea that property is to some extent and in some cases a form of theft, let us not forget that we need not own something to enjoy it, and that the bounty and loot once pillaged from ancient civilizations — the victims of colonialist ravagement — serves to enrich millions of people every day in public museums, who come to possess the beautiful forms, materials, and historic and cultural significance by merely looking. While such booty has often been egregiously ill-gotten, it is not matter’s fault that people have abused each other to possess it in the past — indeed, we may hear the cries of the massacred people as well as the songs they sang while making the objects if we hold them close to our ears. Today we may (though we too often do not) choose more consciously to make and to attain things without such high human, environmental, and cultural costs — thereby hopefully merging spirit more meaningfully with matter. It is no simple task, however, to calculate how much pleasure and spiritual profit can be gained with the least amount of pain and inhumanity, especially if we admit that by merely breathing we kill organisms and by walking we cannot avoid stepping on the smallest of creatures.

While Thoreau is most famously quoted as saying, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” I read him a bit more closely and find that he is not absolutely vilifying matter — in fact, he learns all about his “higher laws” by pushing up against the bounds of the physical and through a practically hyper-aesthetic attention to physical details and forms. He is asking only that we seriously consider matter’s relationship to spirit, and entreating us to refrain from sacrificing spirit — in the form of values, artistic and ethical freedom, our integrity, the sanctity of nature, and the realm of transcendental imagination — to an exterior covering which has been reduced to a simulacrum only of meaningful humanity. It is not the exterior that is evil, but an exterior out of touch with its interior. He suggests we be worthy of our clothes, our castles, our pomp, and be as noble on the inside as on the outside. Beautiful things should, thus, be made in beautiful ways, in ways that are not in themselves ugly and in ways that do not cover up a multitude of aesthetic, ethical, or environmental crimes. But we must not get too fastidious about the messiness of making, living, experimenting, for we do not always even know which seemingly good act engenders unseen negative consequences or which seemingly bad or disengaged one might do worlds of good.

Today’s Americans may, indeed, be as vulgar as their exteriors portend; but this is a problem, not a noble unpretentiousness about which to crow. Rather, let us be pretentious first if it is a means to growing into or living up to a premature external glory. Thoreau, in my view, is quite a bit closer to the dandies and bohemians of Europe than the Puritan utilitarians of Massachusetts. The transcendentalists and the aesthetes together raise the imagination above mammon and rail against those who, as Wilde mocked, know the “price of everything and the value of nothing.” The dandies and the naturalists have more in common than at first meets the eye, despite Wilde’s horrified exclamation: “Enjoy Nature?!”

As Baudelaire notes, in his excursus on the dandy in “The Painter of Modern Life,” the child and the savage, and by association the aesthete and the transcendentalist, share an “adoration of what is brilliant — many-colored feathers, iridescent fabrics, the incomparable majesty of artificial forms — the baby and the savage bear witness to their disgust of the real, and thus give proof, without knowing it, of the immateriality of the soul!” And in a letter from 1894, Proust writes, echoing Jesus’s famous dictum about the kingdom of heaven: “You have happiness within you: that is the safest, if not the only, way of having it. In any case, whatever may be the happiness you dream of (to dream of it is to already have it in the most ideal sense of the word, which as a good idealist I believe to be the only true one) I am sure it is a happiness of the very best quality.” A classic bohemian from Mürger’s Vie de Bohême is indeed a transcendentalist of sorts when, instead of heavy and expensive furniture he moves from garret to garret with a folding screen upon which his beautiful chairs, tables, divans, and bed are painted. In a more neo-Platonic than a strictly Platonic sense — where a “disgust of the real” is not a denigration of art, but of the status quo — this painted screen is a manifestation of the idea of furniture, a sort of cosmic joke on society’s expectations, freeing the artist from what Thoreau called “shriveling one’s self up into a nutshell of civility,” freeing him from ignoble pleasing, flattering, lying, cosseting, selling or compromising himself to the non-ideals of the marketplace in exchange for a couple of chairs that are usually not even as beautiful as the ones a poor bohemian might invent. Better to sit on the floor than on a utilitarian chair purchased with one’s dreams and at the expense of one’s values. But the higher truth is that we must have beautiful chairs and beautiful dreams, or rather, we must see to it that our dreams come true, furnishing even the physical world with our spiritual fancies.

—Genese Grill


Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at


Dec 142015

k. a. Moritz



There’s so much snow
it swallows the hems of the wind chimes
and our fingers split
and they never seem to heal.
Blood seeps out when we’re excited.

As with Odysseus,
you will recognize me
by the scar on my thigh.

We give pain.
We take it with us,
carry it, too.


If Francesca Woodman Were My Taxidermist

Amazed she is alive, my childhood cat.
Her markings as oiled and flaked as cod (cooked).
Black, brown, and white.
A jagged line runs down her forehead
Stitching her face in half
As she stands on her elbows
And mouths to me,
About forgetting her under the steps.

When the memory drags itself back
I want to

It comes randomly:
Driving along the interstate,
As I drift through the shadow of the overpass.
When I’m on a street,
Passing cafes and people laughing,
Their wine glasses held high,
Their arms as thin as the necks of birds.

Somewhere, the door to a display case opens:
Ashy phosphenes blur
The camera’s eye.
Through a broken window
Long-nailed air strokes whiskers and feathers,
Her underarm hair.
She lifts her hands, her face blurred into
Pixels on a page.
Unlike her, I wake.
My fingers searching for fur.


D_ _ r  

The driveway is punctuated with grain.
Although April is in a matter of days,
Apples aren’t enough.
There’s still so much snow,
Still the nights clear their way into the negatives.

You can tell the deer are hungry.
They sashay down the dirt road,
And flip their ears and flip their tails, unafraid.
Even the blue jays look thin and muddy.
The black moles that burrow beneath the birdfeeder,
Come out and charge me when I walk by.

We’re all living with a need now:
Last night I dreamt I saw you at a party,
Amidst the lights, I saw embroidered on your sweater,
your name, missing all the vowels.


The Callous

The liquid inside is gone.
The yellow dome,
Thick and rubbery,
That too is gone.

When you sit, with your legs crossed
Lotus style,
You can see in a very simple
And clean way,
That your heel is missing
A hunk of flesh.

You may want to figure it out:
Why the hole reminds you of a past lover
Or maybe a current one.
When you place the tip of your finger
Into it and feel the new pink skin inside,
Why it feels erotic and sad
At the same time.

If you were smaller,
The size of a child’s toy,
You could count the rings of skin
That you had to cut away.



Where is your placenta buried?
I’ve been thinking
About my own

Means to place, meant to place me
There. Or here. Wherever.

Under the covers
I used to sleep next to you
As close as I could get
Our beds pushed together
My body pressed into the crack
As if I were digging against the trench
Between two tectonic plates
That slowly drift apart:


I told you about this idea
Asked about my placenta
And you had cried, saying

You had buried my placenta
In your dead mother’s backyard.



I dream I leave the burner on,
that your Altoids turn to car keys,
that in the middle of saying I love
bury your face in my breasts and huff the skin like a drug.

The next morning, you pack up your things: your t-shirt, your socks.
I’m awkward as I drink my coffee.
Did you use the toothbrush from last time?
Is it still wrapped in its napkin?

Saying goodbye is as sad as
seeing a Schwan’s meal delivery truck on Thanksgiving.


After you go,

………………….I run past homes


……………………………………….. …..and I smell laundry

……………………………………………………………………………..being cleaned.



I was alone and I was cold when I fell asleep with Roland Barthes.
Some stupid television show on in the background
The blue of the TV climbing up the walls like mold.
This old motor-inn smells like abandonment.
A sort of loneliness that settles over you
After you sleep with someone
You don’t understand
Let alone love.

Earlier I took a shower in the dark
The light kept buzzing, like a fly.
I was afraid it would fall out of the ceiling, into the water
And kill me.
Dead on the fake plastic floor.
My arm and hand unfurling out of the bathroom
Out onto the green shag carpet.

I wake up in between commercials, Camera Lucida on my breasts
I’m dreaming in segments
My mind a community of photographs
The image repertoire always a thought out of reach
But I try to grasp it
I close my eyes but the faces and bodies fade
A micro death?
And what of love? Of grief? Of dreaming?
Maybe I’m just getting my connotations all mixed up

Moving from X to Z, stuck at Y
Y am I here? Y an inevitable death? Y is it taking so long for the heat
To move a few degrees?

—k. a. Moritz


Currently residing in Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom, k.a. Moritz has begun work on her latest project, the NEcK, a publication that will showcase the gritty and rugged landscapes of life, both internally and externally. Aside from writing, she runs, eats, and juggles a variety of jobs. Moritz lives with her two cats, Fish and Fearless Marble.


Dec 132015


Haddad’s novel satisfies in ways similar to that of a great magic trick: an act that offers the audience a blend of fact and fiction, along with a presentation that constantly demands attention. — Benjamin Woodard


Rochester Knockings: A Novel of the Fox Sisters
Hubert Haddad, translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz
Open Letter Books
309 pages ($16.95)
ISBN 978-1-940953-20-5


In his 1924 book, A Magician Among the Spirits, the late Harry Houdini set out to demonstrate the counterfeit nature of Spiritualism: the belief that the dead can correspond with the living. Over thirty years, Houdini attended hundreds of séances in the United States and abroad, always with a skeptical-yet-open mind, hoping, as he put it, “to [ultimately] speak to my sainted Mother who awaits me with open arms to press me to her heart in welcome, just as she did when I entered this mundane sphere.”

Houdini never did reconnect with his departed mother before his own passing from peritonitis in 1926, but the text he left behind, a damning condemnation of Spiritualism’s manipulative practice, consisting of chapters devoted to mediums, collected letters, and correspondence, continues to stand as a kind of Bible for those leery of psychics and other parapsychological phenomena that perpetually linger in popular culture.

Margaret and Kate Fox, the subjects of Hubert Haddad’s fascinating new novel, Rochester Knockings, appear prominently in Houdini’s exposé and are often cited as the architects of modern Spiritualism. As Haddad explains via robust prose, in 1848, the sisters first experienced spiritual “rappings”—think cryptic knocks on the walls and floors, like mystical Morse code—at their family’s farm in the hamlet of Hydesville, New York. It didn’t take long before word got out about the sisters’ unusual ghostly connections, and the duo soon exhibited their gifts to paying audiences, traveling from Hydesville to Rochester, under the care of their entrepreneurial older sister, Leah, before eventually showcasing to a who’s who of New York City aristocrats. Theirs is a captivating, strange narrative, and Haddad’s fictional retelling, shaping itself as a classic dramatic tragedy, with a stratospheric rise, tragic flaw, and equally crushing plummet for its heroines, satisfies in ways similar to that of a great magic trick: an act that offers the audience a blend of fact and fiction, along with a presentation that constantly demands attention, as sections float from close third-person narration, shadowing the sisters or local residents, to epistolary scenes via Margaret’s diary.

Haddad walks a literary tightrope throughout Rochester Knockings, splitting time between the Fox sisters and their unique personalities, and it is here that small winks fill the reader in on the legitimacy of the fledgling mediums’ talents. While Kate, the youngest, appears genuine in her belief that she can speak to the dead, Margaret wavers at times when writing in her diary. For example, after Leah establishes the “Fox & Fish Spiritualist Institute” and books the girls in a local theater (“the biggest room in Rochester”) to drum up business, Margaret writes about the nerves that come along with forced public performance:

“I have the feeling I’m stepping on a bridge that’s collapsing, or steering an enormous boat into a black abyss where everything is creaking and streaming with water. And in those conditions, I still have to maintain the look of being tranquilly seated in a salon, awaiting the deluge! So, when nothing comes, it’s true, I crack my toes. What charitable person would expect someone dying not to cheat with death?”

These confessions of fraud continue in Margaret’s missives, until, so deeply rooted within the business of misleading believers, she one day burns her diary to protect her family’s livelihood. It isn’t until late in her life, and in the novel, that a down on her luck Margaret—alcoholic, widowed, dirt poor—finally admits her secrets in an attempt to embarrass Leah, who, having discarded her younger sisters, started her own profitable Spiritualist society. Margaret concedes to a crowded theater the whole thing was a sham. And yet, rather than have this reveal act as a thrilling climax, here Haddad uses the shift to cast doubt over Margaret’s admissions, as Kate says to her sister, “What? You were pretending?” Like a yin-yang, the more Margaret speaks of tricks, of the swindle, the farther Kate convinces herself that her own powers are real. This “who is telling the truth” question muddies itself further when, during their successful run, the sisters are subject to scrutiny from lawyers, doctors, and scientists, who take it upon themselves to debunk the women’s routine. Though history does show that these minor persecutions indeed took place, and were never successful, Haddad’s inclusion of each adds to his crafting of a complex narrative that, while centered around the rise and fall of the Fox sisters, also speaks to the concept of faith and devotion in general. What happens when we believe too much? When that belief is questioned? When that belief doesn’t return our piety?

Woven throughout Rochester Knockings is the rambling account of William Pill, a fictional gambler and troublemaker who, after meeting the Fox sisters, decides to fake his way into the medium business to pay off debts. Like so many others at the time (Spiritualism boomed in the 1850s thanks to the Fox sisters), Pill, taking on the alias Mac Orpheus, finds ample employment claiming his own spiritual networks, and eventually joins the Barnum circus. Unlike in his treatment of Margaret and Kate, however, here Haddad clearly establishes the forgery of Pill’s actions:

“At poker or roulette, Lady Luck was linked as much to bluffing as the little fetishistic rituals and would almost certainly elude [Pill] once he put faith in her star; but in front of a public gaping at ghosts, every turn was good for filling his wallet.”

In binding the skillsets of a gambler to that of a medium, Haddad perhaps shows the reader his true thoughts on Spiritualism’s genuineness, and yet Pill is not the only fictional addition to the novel who challenges the core concept of faith. Early in the novel, Methodist preacher Alexander Cruik stands before a Hydesville congregation, a guest of the hamlet’s Reverend Gascoigne, and uses “intuition more than reason” to speak to the room of churchgoers. As Haddad writes, he “let himself go off in a loud voice about numerous parables of his own creation, which his listeners imagined were taken from the Bible and the wisest took accurately as apocryphal.” Again, in this passage we see the author speaking to the slippery connection between faith and deception, only now he layers in the seemingly legitimate practice of organized religion. Add to this Cruik’s eventual alliance with the Fox sisters, as well as Reverend Gascoigne’s dabbling with spiritual readings from Pill’s Mac Orpheus, and Rochester Knockings becomes far more than simply a novel about Spiritualism: it’s a story that thoughtfully questions the potency of all belief systems.

Frequently, Haddad ends his chapters with a stanza of poetry. It’s an interesting choice, one that lends a fairy tale quality to the novel and allows the author to inject subtle revelations. Perhaps the most effective use of this technique comes after Kate spends an evening with Ralph Waldo Emerson. The next day, still starstruck, she recites a section of his poem, “Brahma”:

Far or forgot to me is near;
………..Shadows and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
………..And one to me are shame and fame.

Emerson’s transcendentalism is on display in the quatrain, and the whole of “Brahma” addresses the connection of all beings to a universal spirit. Still, within this stanza, one can also see the themes of Haddad’s novel: religion, faith, deception, profit. The duality of these four lines echo the complementary lives of Margaret and Kate Fox, and they mirror the structure of Rochester Knockings as a dramatic tragedy in commenting on nature’s extremes. It’s small kernels like this stanza that string the reader along—in a story about the art of convincing, would one expect anything less?—and elevate Haddad’s novel to extraordinary heights. In expanding on Harry Houdini’s discoveries, Haddad has penned a narrative that not only continues to condemn the world of parapsychology, but further questions all organized belief systems. That an author is able to achieve this while also writing a fun, engaging, and entertaining story is a rare accomplishment.

— Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in RevolverMaudlin House, and Cheap Pop. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his nonfiction has been featured in, or is forthcoming from The Kenyon Review OnlineAlternating CurrentGeorgia Review, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at and on Twitter.


Dec 122015

1-BurkoArtist Diane Burko photographing at Viedma Glacier



An individual has not started living until he can rise above
the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns
to the broader concerns of all humanity.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Nothing intrigues me more than the act of misremembering. Simultaneous misremembering? For this, I assume there must be a reason. So when I viewed a recent exhibition of Diane Burko’s work, Climate Contemporary: Artists respond to Climate Change, at the Lake George Arts Project, and was overwhelmed by her photographs, hung in a place to be viewed first when entering the gallery, I almost left the exhibit thinking there were none of her paintings in the exhibition. Looking at the list of works one last time before leaving, however, I was surprised to find that I was wrong and carefully turned back to view the show a second time, finding one painting in the mix. When I asked Diane if she had ever shown her photographs alone (without her paintings), she mentioned (in error) this LGAP show, among others.

 Diane’s photographs lift the veil. They remove the distance between the viewer and the subject, as they take your breath away and send a shiver, physically and emotionally. Indeed, for the first moment I saw them, I thought they were printed on the inside of glass instead of paper, so luminous were they. Because of the textures, scale, and richness of these images, one feels as though they are at the site, hanging out of the plane or helicopter, ship, etc, with her. I believe this is crucial to her mission in conveying the urgency of climate change. When trying to convey a subject such as global warming to a generation accustomed to communicating with abbreviations while texting & tweeting, or with snapshots via Instagram & Pinterest, you need to drive home the point in a way no report, summit, or documentary can. It was immediate. It was accessible. It was high-impact. The seductive beauty of the images is a motivating factor for the viewer, the sugar with the medicine. To me, it seems no surprise that Diane’s life and work as an exhibiting fine art photographer evolved simultaneously alongside her life and work as an environmental advocate.

2-BurkoSpert Island, January 17, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 30 inches, 2013, ©Diane Burko

By the visual eloquence of her photographs (not to mention the fact that she has gone to such painstaking lengths to obtain thousands of these shots for her various projects and exhibitions: on site, as well as from agencies and individual scientists) she conveys great passion, which is also a definition of art.

To those who know me, it must seem natural that I’d have a preference for Diane’s photographs as a means of communication. While this essay is surely about Diane Burko, I feel it’s only fair to briefly offer full disclosure. I am a printmaker (mostly of monotypes) and a lyric poet. It is no surprise then, that I favor a medium that captures a moment in time. Moreover, part of what I do for a living involves work with mindfulness meditation, the practice of being in the present moment. However, in my history as a gallerist, I’ve never favored photographs, and as an art-lover, I never recall singling out an exhibition of photographs as must-see. Rather, I tend to respond strongly to drawing, abstract painting and of course, printmaking. Having said this, there are, indeed, many photographs and photographers that I have deeply respected and admired. I only learned after this interview that Diane considers her photographs a hybrid somewhere between printmaking and photography. It seems to me that she is a painterly photographer, which to me makes all the difference.

It is also notable that there are many art critics, and I’ll mention a few, who hold opinions in direct opposition to mine expressed above. Rebecca Smith, sculptor David Smith’s daughter, curated the Lake George Arts Project exhibit, interestingly including four of Diane’s large-scale photographs and only one painting. She then made this curious comment in the Albany Times Union newspaper:

Burko, who began as a landscape painter, has a single painting in the show, which depicts frozen topographies threaded with variously colored lines. As the work’s title reveals, the lines mark the freak recession of the Columbia Glacier, located on Alaska’s southern coast, between 1980 and 2005. “I like to point out that this is how painting can tell you more than photography,” said Smith. “It is truer than a photograph, because you can put time into a painting. A photograph only captures a moment.”

Diane’s landscape paintings have been widely acclaimed and written about since the early 1970s. But things changed for her in 1977 when artist James Turrell (LINK — flew her over the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell in a refurbished Helio Courier airplane. Burko says the aerial views enabled her to abstract the landscape in new ways and that flying itself was thrilling. She began taking her own photographs to reference as source material for her paintings (often of monumental geologic phenomena) and to record her experiences. By 2000, her photography practice became another art form all its own.

3-BurkoNotes from Politics of Snow. (Click for larger image.)

In her series Politics of Snow, shown in 2010 at the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, Diane has drawn on the surface of a series of photographs, documenting, in plain visual language, environmental change. Not only does Diane document changes in the environment, she makes the viewer care. And when we care, we want to act.

A trip to Glacier National Park in 2011 became a turning point for Diane. The fact that at the turn of the century there were 150 glaciers there and fewer than 25 remain profoundly affected Diane. She’s quoted as saying she could no longer make beautiful paintings that did not have another purpose and needed to exchange ideas with and collaborate with glacial geologists throughout the world. Diane became witness to a cause.

By 2013, opportunity allowed her to begin recording and reporting the unprecedented ice melt on our planet. In 2013 she sailed around Svalbard with 26 other artists, sponsored by an Arctic Circle Residency, and spent four days in Ny-Alesund with scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute. In 2014, she returned North to Greenland’s Ilulissat and Eqi Sermia glaciers. In 2015 she made her second expedition to Antarctica and witnessed the Patagonian Ice Field of Argentina. Her current work reflects these Polar Antarctic and Arctic expeditions.

Most of us who have passed through the rigors of art school have had it drilled into us that painting from projected slides or source photographs can arguably “deaden” an image or at the very least take a scene “one-generation removed” for the viewer. In my opinion, skilled photography does not. There are gallerists and curators who prefer abstract art or paintings made en plein air for this reason, and given the luxury of time, such as her residencies at Giverny and Bellagio, Diane has made many plein air paintings as well. It is also important to mention that while many of Diane’s paintings begin from photographs, they soon depart in abstraction.

4-BurkoReflets I and II (shown as diptych), Oil on Canvas, 84 x 60 inches each, 1990, ©Diane Burko

In an eloquent essay titled, Glaciers and climate change: narratives of ruined futures, (WIREs Clim Change 2015. doi: 10.1002/wcc.351), Geologist M. Jackson investigates various narratives in artistic, performative, cinematic, and other humanities-based representations of glacier-climate discourse. The author compares the metaphor of Diane’s melding of painting and photography to the merging of science and art that the work exemplifies. Furthermore, the article uses the same painting that Rebecca Smith described (Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980-2005) and speaks of its usefulness in terms of a “fulfillment of prediction.” Jackson states, “By creating lines of current and estimated loss, Burko invites viewers to contemplate not the ice in current existence, but rather, where the ice not only once was, but also where the ice will not be.”

Jackson provides a solid argument worthy of consideration. And reconsidering Rebecca Smith’s curatorial viewpoint, perhaps she displayed Diane’s four photographs in a high-impact location, where they were viewed first in the gallery, and followed them with the one painting in the show to accomplish a “one-two punch” in the Lake George Arts Project exhibition. Playing devil’s advocate, would I have minded, however, if the painting were omitted from the exhibition? No. Would I love to have seen more of Diane’s photographs included in the exhibition? Definitely.

5-Burko-Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980-2005, Oil on Canvas, 51 x 60 inches, 2011, ©Diane Burko

I also took a look at a recent article by Sue Spaid titled, Moving Viewers to Pay Attention, who set out to discuss how paintings, however mediated and/or distorted, complement ordinary perception in ways that photographs do not. While her thesis seemed to hold water, her discussion, for me, did not. I found myself readily able to substitute the word photograph for painting in many of her arguments. Here’s an example: By contrast, photographers who purposely direct spectators’ attentions risk undermining photography’s believability-advantage. Now re-read her remark instead with the word PAINTING substituted for photography. This was the case for me throughout her essay.

What bothered me most, however, and should have made me put down the Spaid article immediately, was when she accused anyone preferring photographs to be filled with “wishful thinking.” She went on to say: The plethora of die-hard photography fans and movie buffs undermines the notion of the human hand as necessarily commanding greater attention. “Photography fans” happily visit photography exhibitions and photo-fairs. A photographer surely uses a human hand. And a filmmaker? Hmmmm, last I checked Stieglitz & Spielberg were pretty human, and very commanding!

I believe by its very nature, painting is a lens through which the artist translates the viewed scene or object, this being part of its intrigue. In a documentary context, however, does “intrigue” seems less of a requirement? Is this is in part why the photographs play such an important role in Diane’s mission as an activist? Summarily, Diane has made sure by the quality of their “voice” that both her photographs and paintings be “heard.” I caught up with her recently to ask these and other important questions about her work.

MKJ: Your remarkable life thus far has evolved not unlike a Jenga Puzzle, no one piece being able to be removed at its exact time in your career. Your painter’s eye clearly informs your photographs, begging the question, how much so?

DB: I find that often people, when first confronting my 40 x 60” images, mistake them for paintings. I think my photography actually is located somewhere between photography and printmaking. The images are so not like Gursky, Ruff or Struth, and they are not a typical National Geographic highly detailed shot either. Rather there is a play between sharp and soft focus, distance and detail, atmosphere and color. The same issues I consider in my paintings.

MKJ: Are you a self-taught photographer?

DB: Yes. I think anyone out of art school learns to handle a camera. I first did with a Pentax to take slides of my work and, of course, then the world around me.

MKJ: Amongst other subjects, you’ve chosen two of the most difficult to photograph, ice and snow (because of the blinding whiteness and lack of contrast), in the most difficult of circumstances, frigid cold. Talk a bit about technique, how you’ve learned to obtain the gorgeous contrast, colors and textures in your images of glaciers, and the obstacles you’ve had to overcome technically.

DB: Getting there is the real challenge. As far as actual technique I am really a low-tech woman. I shoot with a Canon EOS 5 Mark II and Mark III, both with a 24-105 lens, as well as a Sony NEX VII – as simply as possible. No particular tricks. I try to stay at 100-ISO usually on Program and then adjust for aperture intermittently. Of course I am taking thousands of images. The process of editing is key to success. The challenge of the Polar Regions is of course keeping your batteries charged and your fingers warm.

MKJ: Do you manipulate your own photographic images on the computer in Photoshop or work with a designer to do this?

DB: I use Photoshop to crop. I prefer a square format or full frame. Basically I use Levels in Photoshop to adjust images. I try to keep the color as true to the experience as possible – no fancy manipulations.

MKJ: Remind us here about the paper, and printing process you employ.

DB: All prints prior to 2010 were printed on German Etching Hahnemuhle. Since 2010 I use Canson 100% Rag. The prints are made from an Epson 98 at a local facility, Silicon Graphics.

MKJ: I found an old quote of yours about your early photographic work describing the photos as “…trying to capture something I could never capture with painting… where the brush is not invited.” I believe that at the time you were referring to focal point or spatial concerns. However, does this statement still ring true for you?

DB: When a photograph says it all I don’t want to just copy it. I am not a super-realist. Rather it’s the bad photograph that captures an experience, a memory that then stimulates a painting idea. I am usually painting wet on wet, thus I welcome evidence of the brush mark. I value creating multiple distances for viewing a painting. When far from the canvas, one takes in the landscape, the total image. Yet as you get closer, the surface reveals many abstracted areas of paint, color, and surface texture.

MKJ: Have you ever shown your photographs alone, without your paintings, and/or would you consider this if you have not yet?

DB: Yes, I first did at the Locks Gallery in 2006, 2010 & 2011; the Philadelphia International Airport in 2007; and most recently in September 2014 at the LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The show was titled, Diane Burko: Investigations of the Environment.  A digital catalog of this show is available. 

Also at this moment I have a number photographs on exhibit at the Noyes Museum in an exhibit titled, Frozen Earth: Images from the Arctic CircleAnd I will be showing photographs exclusively at Kean University in an upcoming 2016 exhibition titled, Glacial Dimensions: Art and the Global Ice Melt Diane Burko and Paula Winokur.

And of course there were those four photographs that you saw at the Lake George Arts Project this summer in Climate Contemporary: Artists respond to Climate Change.

MKJ: Do you see your paintings as playing a secondary role and the photographs becoming stronger players as you become more and more active in speaking out to educate the world about climate change? Do you foresee a time when painting will become obsolete as a means of communication for you; or rather, is painting a passion that you will never abandon regardless of the role it does or doesn’t play in your life as an activist?

DB: Painting is such a compelling medium, so charged with emotional power in our virtual/digital worlds. Personally, I need to use both mediums. Sometimes one medium takes priority over the other. At other times I go back and forth. I have diptychs and quadtych paintings about climate change that I know are truly compelling. Right now I am experimenting in my painting studio with some abstractions based on Landsat images while also developing a major photo project. So both impulses are being satisfied alternatively.

6-BurkoDiane Burko’s Studio, Summer 2015

MKJ: Your photographs document the passage of time and so can be used as a demonstrative tool, crucial to your mission. They also have a time stamp, leaving a record for scientists of the future. Can you speak about this legacy?

DB: Actually my photographs only document the time I am witnessing the glacier. But I am providing that record for other glaciologists to reference in the future, which makes me feel like I am making a contribution. This practice of visual comparison is called “repeat photography” and has been utilized ever since the invention of photography. Geologists rely on these visual records of change in the environment. They return to the same sites year after year (at the same time) to gather evidence of change. When I first began my Politics of Snow project, my paintings were based on their chronological repeats, sourced from USGS, NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

MKJ: Looking ahead, tell us about your upcoming agenda, including future travel plans and how these include your artwork, particularly your photography. Do you see any inventions or changes on the horizon involving your creativity?

DB: For the foreseeable future, that is the rest of 2015, I have no Polar plans. After so many trips over the past few years I need uninterrupted time to process all the information gathered in a deeper way. In my painting studio I am experimenting with new formats integrating maps as well as new painting techniques and materials. With my photographs I intend to create more grids of multiple images from the same locations, implying the passage of time. I am also exploring other conceptual strategies to create other metaphors about issues of climate change like my Deep Time pairings. Video is another avenue of exploration. I have footage from all of my expeditions that still needs to be reviewed and edited.

MKJ: What makes you most discouraged in regards to climate change?

DB: The fact that so many politicians engage in willful ignorance. The fact that doubt has been injected into the public discourse just as it was years ago with the harmful scientific proof about cigarettes and the ozone layer. How profit and greed seem to dominate everything is truly disheartening.

MKJ: What makes you most encouraged in regards to climate change?

DB: The fact that we are talking about it here; that more and more artists like me in multiple creative fields are dealing with this issue in their work; that the amount of coverage on climate change, droughts, forest fires, and extinctions are increasing in the press. And then there are politics. There are actually candidates running for the 2016 Office of President who are speaking to this issue. The fact that President Obama, along with the Pope, are calling attention to the perils of climate change – gives me hope.

MKJ: How can we get involved in affecting positive change at the local level vis-à-vis climate change?

DB: Each of us, aside from being mindful of our fossil fuel consumption, local food consumption and recycling, must be vocal. The personal is political. If each of us actually petitioned our representatives with our concern – often – it would make a difference. This issue impacts us all, and our grandchildren and their grandchildren as well. The time to act is now.

—Diane Burko & Mary Kathryn Jablonski



A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Dec 112015



This poem in Alexandrine verses was written by a Parisian lawyer, Marc Lescarbot, who had joined the early French settlement at Port-Royal, near present-day Annapolis Royal on the Annapolis Basin of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. After a year of active engagement in its development he was obliged to leave again in July 1607, at which time he composed this extraordinary description of the country’s resources as an inducement for continued investment in the venture he so ardently supported. The reason for his departure and the abandonment of Port-Royal was the financial difficulty of Pierre du Gua, Sieur De Monts, and his associates, whose monopoly on the fur trade had been abruptly canceled by the King of France, Henry IV. The poem appears in a collection of similar occasional verse entitled Les Muses de la Nouvelle-France that was added to Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, written after his return to France. The writing of the poem was started just before departing the Port-Royal and continued at sea. It is, in effect, the first extensive poetic description of Canada. Whilst there are translations of the Histoire, I have yet to discover an English translation of this poem. The text of this translation is based on the third edition of the Histoire de la Nouvelle-France of 1617, published electronically in 2007 by the Gutenberg Project at www.gutenberg and produced by Rénald Lévesque.

champlain detail3Detail from Champlain map, Nova Scotia, Bay of Fundy, etc.

Why did Lescarbot decide to go overseas in the first place? The reason he gives for wanting to go to New-France is a set-back he suffered as a lawyer in court due to a corrupt judge. He was, therefore, personally predisposed to find a better, uncorrupted world.

The start of the poem (1-12) is highly rhetorical and polemical, with an expression of Lescarbot’s personal regret at having to leave this beautiful place (1, cf. 25, 33, 47, 59) and three indignant rhetorical questions intended to shame his compatriots for their lack of constancy in abandoning the new settlement and the investment and efforts already expended, as well as chiding them for their dishonorable failure in establishing a new province of France (2-12), combining personal, aesthetic, moral, economic, patriotic and imperial motives. The polemical element is raised to the highest level later on, when Lescarbot reminds the King of his duty as a Christian monarch to spread the faith (167-176); he even questions the Lord God directly as to why he left the Native peoples out of his divine plan (293-304). These are themes of the highest order in literature, the duty of Kings and the ways of God to man, typically treated in epic and drama, but here combined with the profit motive. Significantly, the religious mission of the King is linked directly to the bounty of the land specifically created by God, he maintains, to motivate the King and to attract the French to the exploitation of its resources (177-180), thus connecting commerce with the spread of the Christian faith. Moreover, Lescarbot expresses regret that his intended audience, i.e. the French generally but specifically present and potential investors, do not know the attractions of the country (13-16). The actual phrase used in line 14, the “attractive lures”, serves to whet the appetite by introducing the lure of profit to be gained from the exploitation of its resources. Admittedly, these investors had just suffered a great loss due to a Fleming (Flamen = Flamand, 15), who had acquired furs along the St. Lawrence ahead of the French and robbed theirs as well, along with their canon. Lescarbot suggests that the investors will make good on their losses with compound interest (usure, 16). These are the addressees referred as vous in lines 9, 10 and 13, whereas nous in lines 3, 5, and 7 refer to the French collectively, with all of them being accused of a lack of steadfastness (3).

After this highly charged opening aimed at the main addressees of the poem, and following a prayer for safe passage back to France that emphasises the danger of the journey and the physical as well as spiritual distance of the “new peoples”(19-24), Lescarbot launches into a description detailing all the attractive and productive features of Port-Royal and its topography: a secure harbour, protected on both sides by hills and mountains (25-26), alluvial flats along the shoreline providing grazing for the plentiful game (27-30), and springs and streams making for well-watered valleys (31-32), with plenty of rain mentioned later(351-354). The emphasis on the presence of water is significant, suggesting a frame of reference based on the Mediterranean, with a climate perennially short of sufficient moisture in summer. Significant also is the mention of an unnamed island hyperbolically said to be worthy of the greatest king on earth (54-55) and whose commanding role is foreseen through an epic simile (37-41) in that its elevated headland dominates the surrounding plain, again a Mediterranean and, more generally, European ideal for the location of a fortified city or citadel. This city is ready to be built from the rocks supplied by the sea shore (43-44). Lescarbot introduces here (53-56) and throughout a prospective element of development and a potential for growth seen in terms of urbanization and permanent occupation by married settlers (57-58), the physical, economic and social cornerstones of European society.

Next, he invokes the fertility of the place, based on his own experience in developing gardens and working the fields at Port-Royal (61-62). Working the soil seems to have endeared the country to him as well as giving him a sense of –collective- ownership. It is also rather unique for an early visitor-explorer to have actually mixed his sweat with the soil in this way to test its fertility. At the same time, there is an idyllic element in the description (47-52) of a lovely little stream amidst the young greenery of a little valley in the hollow of the island’s bosom to which he “has lent his side” many times because of its beauty. This is a gratuitous detail that escapes the preoccupation with turning nature into culture: it introduces, not just the literary commonplace of the locus amoenus, or plaisance, ultimately based on the description of the Vale of Tempe in ancient Greece, but also a personal and, in fact, sensuous experience. Lescarbot’s originality in this has been noted by the critics. Paolo Carile has pointed out that, whereas in Champlain, beauty of nature is identified with utility, in Lescarbot the natural environment is estheticised from personal experience. He notes other literary innovations as well. The Farewell poem was a known genre restricted to a sentimental good-bye to a woman loved: in Lescarbot’s version, the object of desire changes to a colony in North America, here personified by the lovely island. Similarly, regret at leaving a place is a known literary theme, usually combined with praise of its various features; Lescarbot extends this to the resources of the country and the profit to be gained from them. The new context, colonialism and mercantile capitalism, occasioned a novel and hybrid genre along with a new purpose. In terms of point of view, we may add here the novelty of a poetic eyewitness account based on first-hand experience, rather than an imaginary description of the New World with many fantastic features as we have them in earlier literature. The systematic observation of flora, fauna, and the four seasons, adds a scientific element.

After mentioning the products of nature that grow spontaneously (65-66) he starts his elaborate praise (los= laus in Latin, 63) of the natural resources with a catalogue of the countless types of fish providing nourishment in Spring (73-106), including well-known varieties such as herring (77-79), so plentiful, it alone could make a people rich (78) and, of course, cod, so abundant that it is said to provide sustenance for almost the entire universe (101-108). In all, 27 types are mentioned but there are a thousand more unknown varieties (99). Lescarbot’s catalogues have been linked by past commentators with the Natural History of Pliny the Elder and, more generally, with the encyclopedic tradition of Antiquity, Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with the enumeration of curiosities found in travel narratives, and with the scientific poets of the 16th Century. The catalogues can also be linked to Adam’s naming of God’s creatures (Gen. 2.19) as a form of appropriation, of taking possession of the earth and having dominion “over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air”(Gen. 1. 26, 28). I would like to suggest yet another connection. We are now solidly in the territory of hyperbole and idealisation, recurring stylistic features that elevate this potentially pedestrian description of resources into the realm of the epic paragon or nul-pareil, ultimately serving the promotional purpose of the poem. The association with the epic is suggested as well by Lescarbot’s use of Alexandrine verse which is typically associated with elevated diction and grand and dramatic themes. The poet chose the same verse form for his heroicising account of the raid of the Micmac chief Membertou against the Armouchiquois across the Bay of Fundy also found in Les Muses de la Nouvelle-France.

All the desirable natural wealth enumerated here will make the future settler of this other (promised) land more blessed with a miraculous food supply than the manna of the Hebrews in the desert or the nectar of the blessed spirits of Greek myth (106-12). Throughout, Lescarbot easily mixes mythologies, pagan with Christian, as in lines 167-172 where he invokes the eagles of Jupiter to bring the decree of the King of Kings to the French Monarch, commanding him to spread the Christian faith. God’s omnipotence is demonstrated by the presence of the biggest sea creature of all, the whale (113-119) that comes into the bay daily. Winter provides shellfish, giving nourishment even to the poor and the improvident (125-128), as well as an opportunity for hunting large game and fur-bearing animals, especially the beaver, whose dens Lescarbot finds a thousand times more admirable in their construction than European palaces (135-140). It is remarkable, though, that Lescarbot does not make more of the fur trade at this point. It was the most profitable enterprise, but also the most contentious and problematic because of the competition from the English and the Dutch as well as the opposition from other French merchants to the monopoly of De Monts and his associates. In the final analysis, Lescarbot personally preferred agriculture over trade. This is followed by a catalogue of 37 birds (184-232), including a description of the previously unknown humming bird, seen as another example of God’s omnipotence in creating the smallest bird of all (205-232).

It is not only in his creatures that Lescarbot sees the hand of God. The very bounty of nature and its pleasures have been created by God to attract the French to this land where their labours will be rewarded in proportion to their desires (177-180), in order to propagate the faith which, moreover, is the God-given duty of the French King (173-176). Colonisation is ultimately justified by the religious imperative. Lescarbot himself gave religious instruction on Sundays to le petit peuple, the French workers and artisans of the colony; the leader of the colony, Poutrincourt, likewise instructed the Micmac (305-310). Autumn brings the harvest of the fields and gardens, in particular corn (blé d’Inde) that grows to prodigious heights (251-256), a harvest Lescarbot regrets not seeing because of his premature departure (257-266). Surprisingly, the climate is said to be not as cold as that of NW Europe (269-274), mainly because Lescarbot happened to experience only one mild winter (no snow until December 31, 1606 which promptly melted, and continuous snow cover only in February) and because of the varied impact of the Little Ice Age which saw the river Thames frozen over during the winter of 1607. Incidentally, there is a detailed and delightful recent description of the seasons on Annapolis Basin by Harold Horwood, a Newfoundlander who took up residence there and who mentions surprisingly mild winters, entitled Dancing on the Shore.

After this elaborate praise of the natural resources and the proven potential for agriculture, Lescarbot turns to the native inhabitants, the Micmac, whom he presents as in many respects superior to the French morally (329-340), while asserting their common humanity (297-298). He also makes an argument based on cultural relativism comparing the culture of the native population with that of nations of antiquity elaborated in Bk. 6 of his Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, entitled “Description des Moeurs Souriquoises Comparées A Celles d’Autres Peuples” (M.-C Pioffet, Marc Lescarbot: Voyages 2007, pp. 241-471) and comparing Micmac hospitality with that of the ancestors of the French themselves, the Gaulois. (321-322, 339-340). This comparative approach and the implicit transfer of the prestige of antiquity culminate in the work of the Jesuit Lafitau comparing the Iroquois with the early Greeks, Romans and Hebrews. Lescarbot’s cultural relativism even extends to language when he chooses to retain a Micmac word rather than imposing a “foreign” French name on a creature unknown to him (223-224). And he actually makes the now familiar ethnological distinction between hunter-gatherers and (semi-)sedentary cultivators of the earth, while privileging the latter way of life, as all Europeans did (285-290). The only respect in which their condition is deplorable is the fact that they lack the faith which –he maintains- they are eager to receive (291-314, cf. 166; by contrast, the first Jesuit missionary, Pierre Biard, relates a few years later that the Micmac listened to him politely but did not change their views one iota. The native people he has come into contact with (321-328), in particular the Micmac, are “subtle,” skillful or intelligent, possess good judgement, and are not lacking in understanding (321-324). They only require a “father” to teach them to cultivate the earth and the vine, and to live civilly in permanent habitations(321-328; cf. 287-290), thus combining paternalism with agriculture, viticulture and urbanism, the basis of Mediterranean culture. The main vice that he attributes to them is the desire for vengeance (341-342), a vice actually shared by the poet himself (390-393), and he criticises them for being improvident when it comes to securing an adequate food supply (125-131; 327). Clearly, the hunter-gathers’ apparent pattern of feast or famine appears to him as a moral failing: Lafontaine’s fable of the ant and the cricket comes to mind here. Overall Lescarbot’s presentation reflects, on the one hand, Montaigne’s notion of the bon sauvage unspoilt by civilisation, and, on the other, the largely positive first encounter between the French and the Micmac. It also serves the promotional discourse by stressing the duty of the French king and higher clergy to introduce the faith to these model catechumens. In fact, Lescarbot sees conversion not as a side benefit of colonisation; rather, the prospective harvest of souls is the ultimate goal (162-166), supported by the mercantile venture and the country’s resources. His religious and utopian motives, focused on an agricultural community of French settlers flanked by Native agriculturalists (287-290), become increasingly evident through sheer repetition as the poem progresses ( 59-64; 181-183; 251-264; 287-290; 321-329; 396-411), culminating at its conclusion in lines 423-426.

Significantly, mineral resources are only introduced briefly toward the end of the poem (385-388).   Clearly none of these had been developed (Lescarbot speaks of nurseries or breeding grounds of mines, 385) and the poet only gives a sketchy account of them, mentioning bronze (actually an alloy as he probably meant copper), iron, steel (a man-made product) and silver as well as coal. In an earlier farewell poem, he still expresses the hope that silver and gold will be discovered (Adieu aux François, August 25, 1606), the two most desirable get-rich- quick minerals universally sought after by European rulers and their explorers in the Americas. In the original charter issued by Henry IV in 1603, De Monts was specifically charged to bring home any gold and silver. Clearly, Lescarbot has given up on this prospect, hence the emphasis on agricultural produce and the potential for settlement of French colonists. As if to compensate, he does add, at the very end (412-422), almost as an afterthought, a luxury product, the high quality “silk” worthy of kings and produced by local hemp which could lead to a textile industry manned by Native(?) workers who have chosen to become sedentary.

On balance we can assume that French investors would not have been impressed by this prospectus that mainly emphasises agriculture and settlement. The cod fishery was already established in Newfoundland waters, a location much closer to Europe, and De Monts’ monopoly on the fur trade had been cancelled by the King, although a final one-year extension was granted after the colonists’ return. Lescarbot must have sensed the weakness of his case as he finished his poem by extolling, in compensation, the moral superiority of agriculture as a pure, untroubled way of life far from poverty, the madding crowd of his French homeland, and its deceit (423-426), possibly reflecting his own motives for leaving France in the first place and recalling the idealisation of the simple farmer by the Roman poet Virgil. And the “victory” attributed by Lescarbot to De Monts (363-384) is therefore only a moral victory to compensate for the failure of the enterprise as well as its disastrous first winter on the Ile de Sainte-Croix off the coast of New Brunswick, saluted by Lescarbot in passing on his return journey (363-384).

The Church did not rush in either to fund missionaries. The first Jesuit missionary, Pierre Biard, had to wait for years before he could sail for Port-Royal in 1611, not until a private sponsor was found in the Marquise de Guercheville, who raised funds through a subscription and had to buy into the commercial enterprise in order to secure passage for Biard and his companion, Énemond Massé. She actually had to buy out the two Huguenot merchants from Dieppe who were unwilling to take the two Jesuits on board; similarly Maria de Medici, the widow of the late King Henry, assisted financially in bringing about this first Jesuit mission to Canada. However, financial support was to remain problematic. The actual practice of supporting the missionary activity through profits from the fur trade made the Jesuit missionaries into competitors and led to conflict, in France and in Port-Royal. The whole concept of directly supporting religion through commerce was misguided.

In essence, Lescarbot’s account idealizes Port-Royal, but occasionally, less attractive aspects of the colony do make an appearance: its distance from France (21-22, 381), loneliness (162), the absence of female company (57), the need to improve the agricultural land (249-250), and the dangers of the North Atlantic (6, 21, 358, 380), in particular fog (349-350). Yet, despite these drawbacks, the poem testifies frequently to his profound personal disappointment at its abandonment (1-2, 160-161, 164, 170, 257-264, 344) arising from his own involvement and labour (61-62). The poet is a convert to his own cause. As such, the poem represents a final, almost desperate attempt to “sell” Port-Royal to his fellow Frenchmen by appealing at one and the same time to their financial, patriotic, imperial, as well their esthetic, moral and religious instincts, enhanced by the affective quality of his poetry and carried by the poetic licence of hyperbole in a variety of voices: from lament to praise, and from prayer to adhortation. The purpose is rhetorical, to persuade others of the lawyer’s cause. In terms of genre, we can add polemic, commercial prospectus, natural history and ethnography to the epic and idyllic elements already mentioned. Pioffet and Lachance speak of a “hymn to diversity and abundance” (cf. 106-108, 110-113, 158-159). The modification of the poetic genre of the Adieu from animate to inanimate addressee entails the figure of personification in the direct address of the island (55-57, 61, 109, 111, 158) and of the Earth itself (403-411), suggesting the pronounced symbolic value of the “New World”.

Lescarbot never returned to Canada but his little-known poem marks a unique text in comparison with other French explorers to Canada who all wrote in prose and hence, by definition, are far more prosaic in their ideas and expression, all the more so since they regarded the land purely in terms of its utility, as Carile has pointed out. At the same time, Lescarbot’s text throws into high relief a period of early European colonisation when the motives of imperialism, early mercantile capitalism, religion, and utopian idealism were joined uneasily. What is not unique is the fact that ownership of the land and its resources is not brought up in the poem. Lescarbot does address contemporary criticism of the appropriation of Native land at the end of the chapter “À la France” in the Introduction to the third edition of his Histoire de la Nouvelle-France where he provides the following theological justification: God has created the earth for man to possess; the Natives have not fulfilled this mission; Christians are the privileged children of God and hence, presumably, entitled to take possession. In other words, Native land use is seen as an underutilisation of its resources, creating a God-given opportunity for European colonists. Land and sea are presented as virtually crying out to be exploited. The underlying pattern is one of undervaluing Native culture and overvaluing one’s own claim, along with the local resources, which, even where modest, are presented as fabulous and there for the taking. One is reminded how persistent these attitudes are and how recent the realisation of their consequences.

—Haijo Westra



Only a verse translation would do justice to the rapturous tone and persuasive impact of the French original. The prose translation presented here inevitably falls short in these respects but makes available a unique text that offers some surprises in terms of its own conceptions of language, translation, and authenticity. Specifically, Lescarbot makes a point of maintaining the Micmac words of creatures he is unfamiliar with: Poulamou (= tomcod, line 89); Nibachés (raccoon, 155); and Niridau (=hummingbird, l. 223). In the last case he even considers the imposition of a French name to be inauthentic and he is able to conceive of his own language as foreign in this context (223-4). It should be kept in mind that the French names Lescarbot gives to native plants, birds and fishes derive from the other side of the Atlantic and are not necessarily accurate. For example, the laurier (laurel) of line 67 is not native to North America. The Joubar of line 95 is not a fish but the fin(back) whale, according to Ganong. See also Saunders, Speck, and Wallis in Deal’s bibliography for nomenclature. The Rivière de l’Équille (Sand Eel River, 91-92) already had its name changed to Rivière du Dauphin by Champlain; today, it is called Annapolis River. For a running commentary on all matters of translation, see the footnotes to the edition by Pioffet and Lachance.



Carile, Paolo.   Le Regard entravé. Littérature et anthropologie dans les premiers textes sur la Nouvelle-France. Septentrion, Sillery (Québec) 2000, pp. 68-82.

Deal, Michael. “ Paleoethnobotanical Research in the Maritime Provinces.” North Atlantic Archaeology 1 (2008) 1-23.

Ganong, W.F.   “The Identity of the Animals and Plants mentioned by the early Voyagers to Eastern Canada and Newfoundland.” Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Series 3, vol. 4, section 2 (1909) 197-242.

Lachance, Isabelle.   La Rhétorique des origines dans l’Histoire de la Nouvelle-France de Marc Lescarbot. Thèse de Ph.D. Université de McGill 2004.

Pioffet, Marie-Christine and Isabelle Lachance.   Marc Lescarbot. Poésies et opuscules sur la Nouvelle-France. Editions Nota Bene 2014, pp. 27-37, 99-120.

Pioffet, Marie-Christine.   Marc Lescarbot. Voyages en Acadie (1604-1607) suivis de La Description des moeurs souriquoises compares à celles d’autres peuples. Presses de l’Université Laval, 2007.


champlain detail4Detail from Champlain map

MARC LESCARBOT, A-DIEU A LA NOUVELLE-FRANCE du 30 Juillet 1607/ Farewell to New France, July 30, 1607: English translation

  1. Must we abandon <all> the beauties of this place
  2. And bid Port-Royal an eternal farewell?
  3. Shall we then forever be accused of inconstancy
  4. In the founding of [a] New France?
  5. What use is it to us to have borne so many labours
  6. To have battled the assault of the vexed waves
  7. If our hope is in vain, and if this province
  8. Does not bend under the laws of Henry, our Prince?
  9. What use is it to you to have
  10. Incurred useless costs, if you take no care
  11. To harvest the fruit of a long-term expenditure
  12. And the immortal honour of your patience?
  13. Ah! How I regret that you do not know
  14. The attractive lures of this land
  15. And even though the Fleming has caused you damage,
  16. Loss is often made good with compound interest.
  17. So that is why we must leave and get ready <to sail>
  18. And go to drop anchor in the harbour of Saint-Malo.


  1. FATHER OF THE UNIVERSE, who commands the waves,
  2. And who can cause the deepest sea to dry up
  3. Grant us to cross the watery abyss
  4. By which you have separated all these new<found> peoples
  5. From those who are baptized, and without shipwreck
  6. To soon see the shore of France’s Kingdom.


  1. Farewell, thus, beautiful coasts and mountains as well
  2. Which, with a double rampart, gird this harbor here.
  3. Farewell grassy glens which Neptune’s flood
  4. Bathes generously, twice with every moon,
  5. And to the <wild> game as well, which in order to find pasture
  6. Comes hither from all sides, there is so much vegetation.
  7. Farewell my sweet pleasure, springs and brooks
  8. Which water the valleys and the mountains with your moisture.
  9. How can I forget you, beautiful forested isle
  10. Rich ornament of this place and its basin?
  11. I prize all the sweet beauties of your sister
  12. Yet I prize even more your outstanding features.
  13. For, just as it is fitting for him who holds command
  14. To display a majesty more august and grand
  15. Than his subordinate; just so, to command
  16. You have an elevated headland which allows you oversight.
  17. Around you is an undulating plain,
  18. And the land in the vicinity <is> subject to your dominion.
  19. Your shores consist of rocks <suitable> for your buildings
  20. Or for laying the foundations of a city.
  21. In other places there is a little beach,
  22. Where a thousand times a day my spirit abides.
  23. But amidst <all> your beauties I admire a little stream
  24. Which presses gently the fresh herbage
  25. Of a little valley that descends in the hollow of your breast
  26. Plunging its course into the waves of the sea:
  27. Little stream that has tempted me a hundred times with its waters,
  28. Its charm forcing me to lie down beside it.
  29. Having all that, Island high and deep,
  30. Island worthy dwelling place of the greatest King on earth,
  31. Having all that, I say, what more can be lacking
  32. To create over there the city we need
  33. Except for every man to have his sweetheart by his side
  34. In the manner which God and the Church command?
  35. For your soil is good and fertile and pleasing
  36. And never its cultivator will be displeased with it.
  37. We <ourselves> are in a position to speak of it who, of many seeds
  38. Sown there have had first-hand experience.
  39. What else can I say worthy of the praise of your beauty?
  40. What shall I add here than that inside your domain
  41. One finds in great measure products of Nature:
  42. Raspberries, strawberries, peas, without any cultivation?
  43. Or shall I mention as well your verdant laurel bushes
  44. Your unknown medicinal herbs, your red currant bushes?
  45. No, but without leaving your bounds,
  46. I will touch upon the numerous armies
  47. Of the scaly creatures that come every day
  48. Following the tidal flow to bid you good day.


  1. As soon as the season of Spring returns
  2. The Smelt comes in abundance, bringing news
  3. That Phoebus, risen above your horizon
  4. Has chased far from you the wintry season.
  5. The Herring follows after with such multitude
  6. That it alone can make a people rich.
  7. My <own> eyes have witnessed this, and yours as well
  8. Who have had the care of our nourishment
  9. When, occupied elsewhere, your diligent hands
  10. Were unable to cope with the pleasing catch
  11. That the sluice of a mill sent into your nets.
  12. The Bass follows in the wake of the Herring
  13. And at the same time the little Sardine,
  14. The Crab, <and> the Lobster follow the sea shore
  15. With a similar result; the Dolphin, <and> the Sturgeon
  16. Arrive among the multitude together with the Salmon
  17. As do the Turbot, the Tomcod, <and> the Eel,
  18. The Shad, the Halibut, the Loach, and the Sand Eel:
  19. You, Sand Eel, although little, have impressed your name
  20. On that river whose renown I sing.
  21. But that is not all, for you have more
  22. Multitudes that pay you homage every day,
  23. The Pollock, the Finback Whale and the Squid and the Angler Fish,
  24. The Porpoise, The Blower Dolphin, the Sea Urchin, the Mackerel,
  25. You have the Grey Seal which, in a large pod
  26. Wallow in the light of day on your muddy bottom,
  27. You have the Dogfish, the Plaice , and a thousand other fish
  28. Which I do not know, nurselings of your waters.


  1. Shall I not mention the happily fecund Cod
  2. Which abound throughout that sea everywhere.
  3. Cod, <even> if you are not one of those delicate dishes
  4. With which gourmets spice their plates,
  5. I will say nevertheless that by you is sustained
  6. Almost the entire universe. O, how content will be
  7. That person one day who will have at his doorstep
  8. That which a distant world will come to seek from it!
  9. Beautiful Isle, You therefore have that manna aplenty
  10. Which I love more than Taprobane’s
  11. Beauties that they deem worthy of the blessed ones
  12. Who go about drinking the fragrant nectar of the Gods.
  13. And to demonstrate one more time your supreme power
  14. Whales honour you daily, and come of their own accord
  15. To salute you every day, until the ebb leads them
  16. Into the wide Ocean where they have their pleasure.
  17. Of this I will render faithful testimony,
  18. Having seen them many times visit this shore
  19. And consort at their leisure inside this harbor.


  1. But all these animals, all these creatures <from> here
  2. Depart when Phebus is about to approach the boundary
  3. Of the celestial mansion, where dwells Capricorn,
  4. And go in search of the shelter of Thetys’s depth
  5. Or often seek out a milder region for their pasture.
  6. In this harsh season there only remain close to you
  7. Clams, Cockles, and Mussels
  8. To sustain the one who will not, in a timely fashion,
  9. (Either poor, or lazy) have done any harvesting,
  10. Such as the people here who take no care to hunt
  11. Until hunger constrains and pursues them,
  12. And the weather is not always favorable for the hunter
  13. Who actually does not wish for the mildness of good weather
  14. But strong ice, or deep snow
  15. When the Sauvage wants to catch from the watery depths
  16. The industrious Beaver (that builds its home
  17. On the lakeshore, where it fashions its lair
  18. Vaulted in a way incredible to man,
  19. And a thousand times more admirable than our palaces
  20. Leaving it only one exit towards the lake
  21. To cheer itself down in the watery element)
  22. Or when he wants to spy in the woods the lair
  23. Either of the Royal Moose or the fleet-footed Deer,
  24. Of the Rabbit, Fox, Caribou, Bear,
  25. Of the Squirrel, the Otter with its silken fur,
  26. Of the Porcupine, <and> the so-called wild Cat
  27. (Which rather has the body of a leopard)
  28. Of the Mink with its soft fur in which Kings clothe themselves
  29. Or the musk Rat, all dwellers of these woods,
  30. Or of that animal which, loaded with fat,
  31. Has the cunning skill to climb on high
  32. Building its lodge on an elevated branch
  33. To discourage the one who goes in pursuit of it
  34. And lives, by that ruse, in the greatest security
  35. Not fearing (as it seems) any violence:
  36. Nibachés <raccoon> is its name. Not that in spring
  37. He does not have occasion for that hunt
  38. But the catch from fishing is more reliable then.


  1. Farewell, therefore, I say unto you, Isle of abundant beauty,
  2. And you birds, too, of water and forest
  3. That will be the witnesses of my sad regrets.
  4. For it is with great regret, and I cannot pass over it in silence,
  5. That I leave this place, although rather solitary.
  6. For it is with great regret that now I see
  7. Shaken the subject of introducing our Faith here
  8. And the Name of our Great God hidden in silence,
  9. Who had touched the conscience of this people.
  10. Eagles that inhabit the tops of high pines
  11. Since Jupiter has entrusted his secrets to you,
  12. Go up to the heavens to announce this matter
  13. And how much suffering I have of this inside my soul,
  14. Then return swiftly to the French Monarch of France
  15. To relate to him the decree of the mighty King of Kings.
  16. For to him is given this inheritance from heaven
  17. In order that in his name hereafter <and> forever
  18. The Everlasting One be worshipped in a holy manner
  19. And that his great name be revered by a hundred nations.
  20. And to motivate him more to do this thing
  21. <God> has wanted to attract him by a hundred kinds of profit
  22. Having made our labours commensurate with our desires
  23. And having completed them with ten thousand pleasures.
  24. For the earth here is not as a fool would guess,
  25. <As> she produces copiously for him who has experience
  26. Of the pleasures of gardening and the labour of the fields.


  1. And if you want the sweet song of birds as well,
  2. <This land> has the Nightingale, the Blackbird, the Linnet,
  3. And many another not known that sings pleasantly
  4. In Spring. If you want fowl
  5. That go and feed on the water’s edge
  6. <This land> has the Cormorant, the Mallow, the Seagull,
  7. The Canada Goose, the Heron, the Crane, the Lark,
  8. And the Goose , and the Duck. Six types of Duck,
  9. Whose many colours make as many lures
  10. That rivet my eyes. Do you want also
  11. Those birds of prey with which the Nobleman distinguishes himself?
  12. <This land> has the Eagle, the Owl, the Falcon, the Vulture,
  13. The Saker Falcon, the Sparrow Hawk, the Merlin, the Goshawk,
  14. And, in short, all the birds of noble hawking
  15. And beyond these yet another infinite multitude
  16. Which we do not have in common. But <this land> has the Curlew
  17. The Egret, the Cuckoo, the Woodcock, and the Redwing,
  18. The Dove, the Jay, the Owl, the Swallow,
  19. The Woodpigeon, the Green Finch, with the Turtledove,
  20. The Hoopoe, the lascivious Sparrow,
  21. The multi-coloured Ptarmigan, and also the Crow.
  22. What more shall I say? Will someone <at least> be able to believe
  23. That God himself has wanted to manifest his glory
  24. By creating a little bird similar to a butterfly
  25. (That does not exceed the size of a cricket)
  26. Displaying on its back a green-golden plumage
  27. And a red and white colour on the rest of its chest.
  28. Amazing little bird, why then, <as if> envious,
  29. Have you made yourself invisible to my eyes a hundred times,
  30. While passing lightly by my ear
  31. You only left the marvel of a soft sound?
  32. I would not have been cruel to your rare beauty
  33. <Un>like others who have treated you fatally
  34. If you had deemed me worthy to come and portray you.
  35. But although you did not want to hear my wish
  36. I will not give up celebrating your name nevertheless
  37. And make that you be of great renown among us.
  38. For I admire you as much in your smallness
  39. As I do the elephant in its vast size.
  40. Niridau is your name which I do not wish to change
  41. In order to impose one that would be foreign:
  42. Niridau, delicate little bird by nature,
  43. That takes the sweet nourishment of bees
  44. Syphoning the fragrant flowers of our gardens,
  45. And the rarest sweets from the forest edge.


  1. To these dwellers of the sky may I add, without offending,
  2. The excellence of a tiny winged folk?
  3. These are fireflies, which at nightfall
  4. Shine with brilliant clarity among the trees
  5. Darting here and there in such great throngs
  6. That the luminous band of starry sky
  7. Itself seems to hold no greater wonder.
  8. Therefore, commemorating here
  9. <All> the beauties of this place, it is indeed reasonable
  10. That you be included and hold a fitting place among them.


  1. But since our sails are already set
  2. And <we> are going to see again those who believe us perished
  3. I say Farewell once more to your beautiful gardens
  4. That have nourished us with your medicinal herbs,
  5. Nay also relieved our need
  6. <And> more than the art of Paean have kept us healthy.
  7. You have certainly given back to us in abundance
  8. The fruit of our labours in accordance with our sowing.
  9. So what does it matter if it ever happens
  10. (And which it necessarily will do in the future)
  11. That the soil here needs to be made more appealing
  12. And improved sometimes by human labour?
  13. Who will believe that the rye, and the hemp, and the peas
  14. Have surpassed twice the height of a young man?
  15. Who will believe that the so-called Indian corn
  16. Rises up so high in this season
  17. That it seems to be carried by insufferable pride
  18. To make itself, haughty, resemble a woodland?
  19. Ah! What great sadness it is for me not to be able to wait for
  20. The fruit that in little time you promise to render!
  21. How disturbing it is for me not to see the season
  22. When the squash and the melon will ripen
  23. And the cucumber as well: And <I> also grieve
  24. At not seeing at all come to fruition my wheat, my oats,
  25. And my barley and my millet, since the Sovereign
  26. Has blessed me in this modest effort with his hand.
  27. And yet, here it is the thirtieth day of the
  28. Month that once used to be the fifth in rank.


  1. Nations of all parts far away from here
  2. Do not marvel at this
  3. And do not at all consider us as being in a cold region,
  4. <As> this is not at all <like> Flanders, Scotland, nor Sweden,
  5. The sea here does not freeze over, and the cold seasons
  6. Have never forced me to save the half-burnt firewood.
  7. And if in your country summer arrives earlier than here
  8. You experience winter’s inclemency earlier.
  9. But you are staying yet, Poutrincourt, waiting
  10. Until your harvest is ready: And we, nevertheless,
  11. We set sail for Canso where the ship awaits you
  12. Which from there is due to convey all of us to France.
  13. For now, beautiful ears of grain, ripen quickly,
  14. May God the Almighty give you growth
  15. In order that one day his glory may resound
  16. When we shall commemorate his blessings
  17. Among which we will count as well
  18. The care which he will have taken to gather into his mercy
  19. These vagabond peoples one calls Sauvages,
  20. Dwellers of these forests and marine shores,
  21. And a hundred peoples more who are located on all sides
  22. To the south, West and North settled in one place
  23. Who love to work and who cultivate the soil
  24. And who, in freedom, live more contentedly from their produce than we
  25. But their condition is deplorable in this respect
  26. That they have not been instructed about the world to come.


  1. Why, o Almighty one, why then have you
  2. Rejected this race from your face until now
  3. And why do you leave to hell to devour,
  4. So many human beings who ought to triumph over it,
  5. Seeing that they are, like us, <of> your work and making
  6. And have from you received our fragile nature?
  7. Open therefore the treasuries of your compassion[s]
  8. And pour out onto them your blessings
  9. In order that soon they may be your blessed heritage
  10. And intone aloud your goodness throughout all the ages.
  11. As soon as your sun will shine on them
  12. Just as soon we will see this people worship you.
  13. Witness be the true conversations
  14. Poutrincourt held with these pitiful people
  15. When he taught them our Religion
  16. And often showed them the ardent desire
  17. He had to see them inside the fold
  18. Which Christ has redeemed by the price of his life.
  19. Clearly moved, they on their part gave witness
  20. With their mouths and hearts of the desire they had
  21. To be more amply instructed in the teaching
  22. Within which it is proper for the faithful make their way.


  1. Where are you, Prelates, that you do not pity
  2. This people that makes up half the world?
  3. <Why> don’t you at least give aid to those whose zeal
  4. Transports them so far as if under His wing
  5. To establish here God’s holy law
  6. With so much hardship, care and emotion?
  7. These peoples are not brutal, barbaric or savage,
  8. If you <choose> not to call by such names the men of yore,
  9. They are subtle, clever and of very sound judgment
  10. And <I> have not known a single one who lacked understanding
  11. Only they need a father to teach them
  12. To cultivate the earth, to cultivate the vine,
  13. To live in an organized fashion, to be economical
  14. And to dwell in fixed habitations from here on.
  15. For the rest, in our opinion, they are full of innocence
  16. If <only> they had knowledge of their creator.
  17. <But> because they do not know Him, neither mouth nor heart
  18. Ravishes God’s honour through blasphemy.
  19. They do not know the work of the amorous potion
  20. Nor have they knowledge of the use of aconite,
  21. Their mouths do not vomit forth our curses
  22. Their spirits are not given over to our inventions
  23. For oppressing the other, <and> the cruel avarice
  24. of an all-consuming preoccupation does not torment their souls.
  25. But they have the hospitality of the Gaulois,
  26. Who valued it so highly in their days of old.
  27. Their greatest vice is the love of vengeance
  28. When their enemy has offended them in some way.


  1. Farewell unto you, then, poor people, and <I> am incapable
  2. To express the sadness I feel
  3. In leaving you thus, without having seen as yet
  4. One of you made to truly worship God.


  1. Let us depart, then, from this harbor, the East wind permitting,
  2. For on these coasts the West wind is prevalent
  3. <And> moreover, this sea is often covered by fog
  4. Which causes the total loss of incautious men.


  1. Farewell for the last time, Rocks rearing high,
  2. Proudly raising up your caverns
  3. From whence pour forth without end abundant showers
  4. Which are supplied by the waters coursing down the mountains.
  5. Farewell, then, to you as well, Caves, that have pleased me
  6. When beneath your halls in bright daylight I have seen outlined
  7. The attractive colours of the Rainbow.


  1. Now that we are in sight of the awesome waves
  2. Of the Ocean deep, will I be able to pass by
  3. Without saluting from afar, or leaving <without> a Farewell
  4. To the land that received our <country> France
  5. When she first came to establish herself here?
  6. Island, I salute you, Isle of Saint Croix,
  7. Island that was the first dwelling place of our poor <fellow> French
  8. Who suffered major hardships while dwelling with you,
  9. But <it is> our bad habits that often cause us these injuries.
  10. I revere, however, your pure antiquity,
  11. The scented cedars on your side
  12. Your workshops, your lodgings, your superb warehouse,
  13. Your gardens choked by new weeds:
  14. But I honour above all on account of our dead
  15. The place that holds their bodies in its keeping
  16. Which I have not been able to behold without a power of tears
  17. So much did these terrible exploits sadden my heart.
  18. Be at peace, then, and may you one day
  19. Find yourselves in glory in the heavenly mansion.
  20. But nevertheless, DE MONTS, you take with you the glory
  21. Of having obtained victory over a thousand deaths,
  22. A true witness to your great courage,
  23. Be it when you battled the fury of the waves
  24. While coming to visit this faraway province
  25. In order to follow the will of HENRY, our Prince,
  26. Or when in front of your eyes you watched <them> die
  27. Those <buried> there who followed you to that fateful location.


  1. Far behind I leave you, mines to be
  2. Which the massive rocks lodge deep in their veins,
  3. Mines of bronze, iron and steel, and of silver,
  4. And of pit coal, in order to salute the people
  5. Who cultivate their land by hand, the Armouchiquois.
  6. I salute you, then, quarrelsome nation
  7. (For you have failed us on account of treason)
  8. To say unto you that one day we will obtain satisfaction
  9. And with greater effect, of your presumptuousness,
  10. Just as your offspring will be accursed among us.
  11. But your earth I want to salute in all its goodness
  12. For she is sure to give us an ample return
  13. When she will experience French cultivation.
  14. For in her provident Nature has already
  15. Implanted the vine so copiously
  16. And with such beauty, that Bacchus himself,
  17. If invoked, would not know how to improve on it.
  18. But its people, unaware, do not know the use of its fruit.
  19. Earth, you also have, with beans and grain,
  20. Your subterranean silos filled in harvest time.
  21. But although you give your produce abundantly
  22. Producing other fruits without human assistance
  23. Such as the hemp, squash and nuts we have seen,
  24. Your beans, nor your grain, in any case, you do not
  25. Produce without work, but your populace, in great number,
  26. <Already> breaks you with a sharp cutting timber, and turns you over
  27. To plant its seed there, in the Spring.


  1. But one more thing I must mention
  2. Which obliges me to write about it because of its rarity,
  3. <And> that is the product produced by the stalk of the hemp plant
  4. <A> product worthy of being held precious by Kings
  5. <And> most delicious for the repose of the body:
  6. It is a white, thin and fine silk
  7. Which Nature produces in the hollow of a shell,
  8. Silk which one will be able to employ for many a use
  9. And which workers will turn into cotton
  10. When you <Earth>, inhabited by good artisans,
  11. Will be controlled by a willed sedentarism.


  1. May I see that thing arrive soon,
  2. And careful Frenchmen cultivate your fields,
  3. Away from the cares of a life of hardship
  4. Far from the noise of the common crowd, and from deceit.


  1. Seeking on Neptune’s bosom rest without rest,
  2. I have fashioned these verses on the swell of his waves.

—Translated by Haijo Westra

Based on the Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, 1617 edition, produced by Rénald Lévesque and published by the Gutenberg Project (2007) at www. gutenberg


champlain detail2Detail from Champlain map

Du 30 Juillet 1607.

FAUT-il abandonner les beautez de ce lieu,
Et dire au Port Royal un eternel Adieu?
Serons-nous donc toujours accusez d’inconstance
En l’établissement d’une Nouvelle-France?
Que nous sert-il d’avoir porté tant de travaux,
Et des flots irritez combattu les assaux,
Si notre espoir est vain, & si cette province
Ne flechit souz les loix de HENRY notre Prince?
Que vous servit-il d’avoir jusques ici
Fait des frais inutils, si vous n’avez souci
de recuillir le fruit d’une longue depense,
Et l’honneur immortel de votre patience?
Ha que j’ay de regrets que ne sçavez pas
De cette terre ici les attrayans appas.
Et bien que le Flamen vous ait fait une injure,
L’injure bien souvent se rend avec usure.
Il faut doncques partir, il faut appareiller,
Et au port Sainct-Malo aller l’ancre mouiller.

PERE DE L’UNIVERS, qui commandes aux ondes,
Et qui peux assecher les mers les plus profondes,
Donne nous de franchir les abymes des eaux
Dont tu as separé tous ces peuples nouveaux
Des peuples baptizés, & sans aucun naufrage
Du royaume François voir bien-tot le rivage.

Adieu donc beaux coteaux & montagnes aussi,
Qui d’un double rempar ceignez ce Port ici.
Adieu vallons herbus que le flot de Neptune
Va baignant largement deux fois à chaque lune,
Et au gibier aussi, qui pour trouver pâture
Y vient de tous cotez tant qu’il y a verdure.
Adieu mon doux plaisir fonteines & ruisseaux,
Qui les vaux & les monts arrousez de vos eaux.
Pourray-je t’oublier belle ile forètiere
Riche honneur de ce lieu & de cette riviere?
Je prise de ta soeur les aimables beautés,
Mais je prise encor plus tes singularités.
Car comme il est séant que celui qui commande
Porte une Majesté plus auguste & plus grande
Que son inferieur; ainsi pour commander
Tu as le front haussé qui te fait regarder.
A l’environ de toy une ondoyante plaine,
Et la terre alentour sujette à ton domaine
Tes rives sont des rocs, soit pour tes batimens,
Soit pour d’une cité jetter les fondemens.
Ce sont en autres parts une menuë arene,
Où mille fois le jour mon esprit se pourmene.
Mais parmi tes beautés j’admire un ruisselet
Qui foule doucement l’herbage nouvelet
D’un vallon que se baisse au creux de ta poitrine,
Precipitant son cours dedans l’onde marine.
Ruisselet qui cent fois de ses eaux m’a tenté,
Sa grace me forçant lui prèter le côté.
Ayant dont tout cela, Ile haute & profonde,
Ile digne sejour du plus grand Roy du monde,
Ayant di-je, cela, qu’est-ce que te defaut.
A former pardeça la cité qu’il nous faut,
Sinon d’avoir prés soy un chacun sa mignone
En la sorte que Dieu & l’Eglise l’ordonne?
Car ton terroir est bon & fertile & plaisant,
Et oncques son culteur n’en sera deplaisant.
Nous en pouvons parler, qui de mainte semence
Y jettée, en avons certaine experience.
Que puis-je dire encor digne de ton beau los?
Qu’adjouteray-je ici que dedans ton enclos
Se trouvent largement produits par la Nature
Framboises, fraises, pois, sans aucune culture?
Ou bien diray-je encor tes verdoyans lauriers,
Tes Simples inconus, tes rouges grozeliers?
Non, mais tant seulement sans sortir tes limites,
Ici je toucheray les nombreux exercices
Des peuples écaillez qui viennent chaque jour,
Suivans le train du flot te donner le bon-jour.

Si-tot que du Printemps la saison renouvelle
L’Eplan vient à foison, qui t’apporte nouvelle
Que Phoebus elevé dessus ton horizon
A chassé loin de toy l’hivernale saison.
Le Haren vient apres avecque telle presse
Que seul il peut remplir un peuple de richesse.
Mes yeux en sont témoins, & les vostres aussi
Qui de nôtre pature avés eu le souci,
Quand, ailleurs occupez, vôtre main diligente
Ne pouvoit satisfaire à la chasse plaisante
Qu’envoyoit en voz rets l’ecluse d’un moulin.
Le Bar suit par-apres du Haren le chemin.
Et en un méme temps la petite Sardine,
La Crappe, & le Houmar, suit la côte marine
Pour un semblable effect; le Dauphin, l’Eturgeon
Y vient parmi la foule avecque le Saumon,
Comme font le Turbot, le Pounamou, l’Anguille,
L’Alose, le Fletan, & la Loche, & l’Equille:
Equille qui, petite, as imposé le nom
A ce fleuve de qui je chante le renom.
Mais ce n’est ici tout, car tu as davantage
De peuples qui te font par chacun jour homage,
Le Colin, le Joubar, l’Encornet, le Crapau,
Le Marsoin, le Souffleur, l’Oursin le Macreau,
Tu as le Loup-marin, qui en troupe nombreuse
Se vautre au clair du jour sur ta vase bourbeuse,
Tu as le Chien, la Plie, & mille autres poissons
Que je ne conoy point, de tes eaux nourrisons.
Tairay-je la Moruë heureusement feconde,
Qui par tout cette mer en toutes parts abonde?
Moruë si tu n’es de ces mets delicats
Dont les hommes frians assaisonnent leurs plats,
Je diray toutefois que de toy se sustente
Prèque tout l’Univers. O que sera contente
Celle personne un jour, qui à sa porte aura
Ce qu’un monde eloigné d’elle recherchera!
Belle ile tu as donc à foison cette manne,
Laquelle j’ayme mieux que de la Taprobane
Les beautez que lon feint dignes des bien-heureux
Qui vont buvans des Dieux le Nectar savoureux.
Et pour montrer encor ta puissance supreme,
La Baleine t’honore & te vient elle-méme
Saluer chacun jour, puis l’ebe la conduit
Dans le vague Ocean où elle a son deduit.
De ceci je rendray fidele temoignage,
L’ayant veu mainte fois voisiner ce rivage,
Et à l’aise nouer parmi ce port ici.

Mais tous ces animaux, mais tous ces peuples ci
S’écartent quand Phoebus veut approcher la borne
Du celeste manoir, où git le Capricorne,
Et vont chercher l’abri du profond de Thetys,
Ou d’un terroir plus doux vont souvans le pâtis.
Seulement pres de toy en cette saison dure
La Palourde, la Coque, & la Moule demeure
Pour sustenter celui qui n’aura de saison
(Ou pauvre, ou paresseux) fait aucune moisson,
Tel que ce peuple ici qui n’a cure de chasse
Jusqu’à ce que la faim le contraigne& pourchasse,
Et le temps n’est toujours favorable au chasseur.
Qui ne souhaite point d’un beau temps la douceur,
Mais une forte glace, ou des neges profondes,
Quand le Sauvage veut tirer du fond des ondes
L’industrieux Castor (qui sa maison batit
Sur la rive d’un lac, où il dresse son lict
Vouté d’une façon aux hommes incroyable,
Et plus que noz palais mille fois admirable,
Y laissant vers le lac un conduit seulement
Pour s’aller égayer souz l’humide element)
Ou quand il veut quéter parmi les bois le gite
Soit du Royal Ellan, soit du Cerf au pié vite,
Du Lapin, du Renart, du Caribou, de l’Ours,
De l’Ecureu, du loutre à peau-de-velours
Du Porc-epic du Chat qu’on appelle sauvage,
(Mais qui du Leopart ha plustot le corpsage)
De la Martre au doux poil dont se vétent les Rois,
Ou du Rat porte-muse, tous hôtes de ces bois,
Ou de cet animal qui tout chargé de graisse
De hautement grimper ha la subtile addresse,
Sur un arbre elevé sa loge batissant
Pour decevoir celui qui le va pourchassant,
Et vit par cette ruse en meilleure asseurance
Ne craignant (ce lui semble) aucune violence,
Nibachés est son nom. Non que sur le printemps
Il n’ait à cette chasse aussi son passe-temps.
Mais alors du poisson la peche est plus certaine.

Adieu donc je te dis, ile de beauté pleine,
Et vous oiseaux aussi des eaux & des forêts
Qui serez les témoins de mes tristes regrets.
Car c’est à grand regret, & je ne le puis taire,
Que je quitte ce lieu, quoy qu’assez solitaire.
Car c’est à grand regret qu’ores ici je voy
Ebranlé le sujet d’y entrer nôtre Foy,
Et du grand Dieu le nom caché souz le silence,
Qui à ce peuple avoit touché la conscience.

Aigles qui des hauts pins habitez les sommets,
Puis qu’à vous Jupiter a commis ses secrets,
Allez dedans les cieux annoncer cette chose,
Et combien de douleur j’en ay en l’ame enclose,
Puis revenez soudain au Monarque François
Lui dire le decret du puissant Roy des Roys.
Car à lui est du ciel donné cet heritage,
Afin que souz son nom ci-aprés en tout âge
L’Eternel soit ici sainctement adoré,
Et de cent nations son grand nom reveré:
Et pour mieux l’emouvoir à cette chose faire,
Par cent sortes de biens il l’a voulu attraire,
Ayant à noz labeurs fait selon noz désirs,
Et iceux terminé de dix mille plaisirs.
Car la terre ici n’est telle qu’un fol l’estime,
Elle y est plantureuse à cil qui sçait l’escrime
Du plaisant jardinage & du labeur des champs.

Et si tu veux encor des oiseaux les doux chants,
Elle a le Rossignol, le Merle, la Linote,
Et maint autre inconu, qui plaisamment gringote
En la jeune saison. Si tu veux des oiseaux
Qui se vont repaissans sur les rives des eaux,
Elle a le Cormorant, la Mauve, Ma Mouette,
L’Outarde, le Heron, la Gruë, l’Alouette,
Et l’Oye, et le Canart. Canart de six façons,
Dont autant de couleurs sont autant d’hameçons
Qui ravissent mes yeux. Desires-tu encore
De ces oiseaux chasseurs dont le Noble s’honore?
Elle a l’Aigle, le Duc, le Faucon, le Vautour,
Le Sacre, l’Epervier, l’Emerillon, l’Autour,
Et bref tous les oiseaux de haute volerie
Et outre iceux encore une bende infinie
Qui ne nous sont communs. Mais elle a le Courlis
L’Aigrette, le Coucou, la Becasse & Mauvis,
La Palombe, le Geay, le Hibou, l’Hirondelle,
Le Ramier, la Verdier, avec la Tourterelle,
Le Beche-bois huppé, le lascif Passereau,
La perdris bigarrée, & aussi le Corbeau.

Que diray-je plus? Quelqu’un pourra-il croire
Que Dieu méme ait voulu manifester sa gloire
Creant un oiselet semblable au papillon
(Du moins n’excede point la grosseur d’un grillon)
Portant dessus son dos un vert-doré plumage,
Et un teint rouge-blanc au surplus du corps-sage?
Admirable oiselet, pourquoy donc, envieux,
T’es-tu cent fois rendu invisible à mes ieux,
Lors que legerement me passant à l’aureille
Tu laissois seulement d’un doux bruit la merveille?
Je n’eusse esté cruel à ta rare beauté,
Comme d’autres qui t’ont mortellement traité,
Si tu eusses à moy daigné te venir rendre.
Mais quoy tu n’as voulu à mon desir entendre.
Je ne lairray pourtant de celebrer ton nom,
Et faire qu’entre nous tu sois de grand renom.
Car je t’admire autant en cette petitesse
Que je fay l’Elephant en sa vaste hautesse.
Niridau c’est ton nom que je ne veux changer
Pour t’en imposer un qui seroit étranger.
Niridau oiselet delicat de nature,
Qui de l’abeille prent la tendre nourriture
Pillant de noz jardins les odorantes fleurs,
Et des rives des bois les plus rares douceurs.

A ces hotes de l’air pourray-je sans offense
D’un petit peuple ailé adjouter l’excellence?
Ce sont mouches, de qui sur le point de la nuit
La brillante clarté parmi les bois reluit
Voletans ça & là d’une presse si grande,
Que du ciel etoilé la lumineuse bende
Semble n’avoir en soy plus d’admiration.
Faisant doncques ici commemoration
Des beautez de ce lieu, il est bien raisonnable
Que vous y teniez rang & place convenable.

Mais puis que ja desja noz voiles sont tendus,
Et allons revoir ceux qui nous cuident perdus,
Je dis encore Adieu à vous beaux jardinages,
Qui nous avez cet an repeu de vos herbages,
Voire aussi soulagé nôtre necessité
Plus que l’art de Pæon n’a fait nôtre santé.
Vous nous avez rendu certes en abondance
Le fruit de noz labeurs selon notre semence.
Hé que sera-ce donc s’il arrive jamais
(Ce qu’il est de besoin qu’on face desormais)
Que la terre ici soit un petit mignardée,
Et par humain travail quelquefois amendée?
Qui croira que le segle,& la chanve, & le pois,
Le chef d’un jeune gars ait surpassé deux fois?
Qui croira que le blé que l’on appelle d’Inde
En cette saison-ci si hautement se guinde
Qu’il semble estre porté d’insupportable orgueil
Pour se rendre, hautain, aux arbrisseaux pareil?
Ha que ce m’est grand deuil de ne pouvoir attendre
Le fruit qu’en peu de temps vous promettiez nous rendre!
Que ce m’est grand émoy de ne voir la saison
Quand ici meuriront la Courge, le Melon,
Et le Cocombre aussi: & suis en méme peine
De ne voir point meuri mon Froment, mon Aveine
Et mon Orge & mon Mil, pois que le Souverain
En ce petit travail m’a beni de sa main.
Et toutefois voici de ce mois le trentieme,
Mois qui jadis estoit en ordre le cinquième

Peuples de toutes parts qui estes loin d’ici
Ne vous emerveillez de cette chose ci,
Et ne nous tenez point comme en region froide,
Ce n’est point ici Flandre, Ecosse, ni Suede,
La mer ici ne gele, & les froides saisons
Ne m’ont oncques forcé d’y garder les tisons.
Et si chez vous l’eté plustot qu’ici commence,
Plustot vous ressentez de l’hiver l’inclemence.
Mais tu restes encor, Poutrincourt attendant
Que ta moisson soit préte: & nous nous cependant
Faisons voile à Campseau où t’attent le navire
Que de là doit tous en la France conduire.
Cependant beaux epics meurissez vitement,
Dieu le Dieu tout-puissant vous doint accroissement,
Afin qu’un jour ici retentisse sa gloire
Lors que de ses bien-faits nous ferons la memoire.
Entre lesquelz bien-faits nous conterons aussi
Le soin qu’il aura eu de prendre à sa merci
Ces peuples vagabons qu’on appelle Sauvages
Hotes de ces forèts & des marins rivages,
Et cent peuples encor qui sont de tous côtez
Au Su, à l’Oest au Nort de pié-ferme arretez
Qui aiment le travail, qui la terre cultivent,
Et libres, de ses fruits plus contens que nous vivent,
Mais en ce deplorable est leur condition,
Que du siecle futur ilz n’ont l’instruction.

Pourquoy, ô Tout-puissant, pourquoy donc cette race
As-tu jusques ici rejetté de ta face,
Et pourquoy laisses tu devorer à l’enfer,
Tant d’humains qui devroient dessus lui triompher
Veu qu’ilz sont comme nous ton oeuvre & ta facture,
Et ont de toy receu nôtre fraile nature?
Ouvre donc les thresors de tes compassions,
Et verse dessus eux tes benedictions,
Afin qu’ilz soient bien-tot ton sacré heritage,
Et chantent hautement tes bontés en tout âge.
Si-tot que ton Soleil sur eux éclairera,
Aussi-tot cet gent d’adorer on verra.
Temoins soient de ceci les propos veritables
Que Poutrincourt tenoit avec ces miserables
Quand il leur enseignoit notre Religion,
Et souvent leur montroit l’ardente affection
Qu’il avoit de les voir dedans la bergerie
Que Christ a racheté par le pris de sa vie.
Eux d’autre part emeus clairement temoignoient
Et de bouche & de coeur le desir qu’ilz avoient
D’estre plus amplement instruits en la doctrine
En laquelle il convient qu’un fidele chemine.

Où estes vous Prelats, que vous n’avez pitié
De ce peuple qui fait du monde la moitié?
Du moins que n’aidez-vous à ceux de qui le zele
Les transporte si loin comme dessus son aile
Pour établir ici de Dieu la saincte loy
Avecque tant de peine, & de soin & d’émoy
Ce peuple n’est brutal, barbare ni sauvage,
Si vous n’appellez tels les hommes du vieil âge,
Il est subtile, habile, & plein de jugement,
Et n’en ay conu un manquer d’entendement,
Seulement il demande un pere qui l’enseigne
A cultiver la terre, à façonner la vigne,
A vivre par police, à estre menager,
Et souz des fermes toicts ci-apres heberger.
Au reste à nôtre égare il est plein d’innocence
Si de son createur il avoit la science.
Que s’il ne le conoit, sa bouche ni son coeur
Ne ravit point à Dieu par blaspheme l’honneur.
Il ne sçait le metier de l’amoureux bruvage,
De l’aconite aussi il ne sçait point l’usage,
Sa bouche ne vomit nos imprecations,
Son esprit ne s’adonne à nos inventions
Pour opprimer autrui, l’avarice cruelle
D’un souci devorant son ame ne bourrelle
Mais il a du Gaullois cette hospitalité
Qui tant l’a fait priser en son antiquité.
Son vice le plus grand est qu’il aime vengeance
Lors que son ennemi lui a fait quelque offense.

Je vous di donc Adieu, pauvre peuple, & ne puis
Exprimer la douleur en laquelle je suis
De vous laisser ainsi sans voir qu’on ait encore
Fait que quelqu’un de vous son Dieu vrayment adore

Sortons donc de ce Port à la faveur de l’Est,
Car en ces côtes ci est ordinaire l’Ouest,
Puis, souvent cette mer est de brumes couverte
Qui des hommes peu cauts cause l’extreme perte.

Adieu pour un dernier Rochers haut elevés,
Qui orgueilleusement voz grottes soulevés,
D’où distillent sans fin des pluies abondantes
Que leur versent les eaux des montagnes coulantes.
Adieu doncques aussi Grottes qui m’avez pleu
Quand souz votre lambris au clair du jour j’ay veu
Figurées d’Iris les couleurs agreables.

Ores que nous voyons les flots épouvantables
Du profond Ocean, pourray-je bien passer
Sans saluer de loin, ou quelque Adieu laisser
A la terre que a receuë notre France
Quand elle vint ici faire sa demeurance?
Ile, je te saluë, ile de Saincte Croix,
Ile premier sejour de noz pauvres François,
Qui souffrirent chez toy des choses vrayment dures,
Mais noz vices souvent nous causent ces injures.
Je revere pourtant ta freche antiquité
Les Cedres odorans qui sont à ton côté,
Tes Loges, tes Maisons, ton Magazin superbe,
Tes jardins étouffez parmi la nouvelle herbe:
Mais j’honore sur tout à-cause de noz morts
Le lieu qui sainctement tient en depost leurs corps,
Lequel je n’ay pu voir sans un effort de larmes,
Tant mon navré le coeur ces violentes armes.
Soyez doncques en paix, & puissiez vous un jour,
Vous trouver glorieux au celeste sejour.
Mais cependant, DE MONTS, tu emportes la gloire
D’avoir sur mille morts obtenu la victoire,
Témoignage certain de ta grande vertu,
Soit quand tu as des flots la fureur combattu
En venant visiter cette étrange province
Pour suivre le vouloir de HENRY nôtre Prince
Soit lors que tu voiois mourir devant tes yeux
Ceux-là qui t’ont suivi en ces funestes lieux.

Je vous laisse bien loin, pepinieres de Mines
Que les rochers massifs logent dedans leurs veines,
Mines d’airain, de fer, & d’acier, & d’argent,
Et de charbon pierreux, pour saluer la gent
Qui cultive à la main la terre Armouchiquoise.
Je te saluë donc nation porte-noise
(Car tu as envers nous forfait par trahison)
Pour te dire qu’un jour nous aurons la raison
Avecque plus d’effect de ton outrecuidance,
Si qu’entre nous sera maudite ta semence.
Mais ta terre je veux saluer en tout bien,
Car un ample rapport elle nous fera bien
Quand elle sentira du François la culture.
Car en elle desja la provide Nature
A le raisin semé si plantureusement,
Et en telle beauté, que Bacchus mémement
Ne sçauroit invoqué lui faire davantage.
Mais son peuple ignorant ne sçait du fruit l’usage.
Terre, tu as encor de féves & de blés
Tes greniers souz-terrains en la moisson comblés.
Mais quoy que tes biens tu donnes abondance
Produisant d’autres fruits sans l’humaine assistance
Tes qu’avons veu la Chanve & la Courge & la Noix,
Tes féves tu ne veux ni tes blez toutefois
Produire sans travail, mais ta grand’ populace
D’un bois coupant ta brise, & en mottes t’amasse
Pour (sur le renouveau) sa semence y planter,

Mais une chose encor il me faut reciter
Qui pour sa rareté à l’écrire m’oblige,
C’est le fruit que produit la Chanve la tige,
Fruit digne que les Rois le tiennent precieux
Pour le repos du corps le plus delicieux:
C’est une soye blanche & menuë & subtile
Que la Nature pousse au creux d’une coquille,
Soye qu’en maint usage employer on pourra,
Et laquelle en cotton l’ouvrier façonnera,
Quand de bons artisans tu seras habitée
Par une volonté de pié-ferme arretée.

Puisse-je voir bien-tot cette chose arriver,
Et le François soigneux à tes champs cultiver,
Arriere des soucis d’une peineuse vie,
Loin des bruits du commun, & de la piperie.

Cherchant dessus Neptune un repos sans repos
J’ay façonné ces vers au branle de ses flots.


(This eBook excerpt is from Project Gutenberg’s Les Muses de la Nouvelle France by Marc L’escarbot produced by Rénald Lévesque. This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at

champlain detail1Champlain map detail



Haijo Westra has taught Classics at the University of Calgary and wrote about topics in Greek and Latin literature. More recently, he has turned to the early accounts of the East Coast written in Latin by the Jesuit Pierre Biard and the role of classical ethnography in the description of Native peoples, in particular the Micmac. The present article is his first venture into a French text of the period.


Dec 102015
Bohumil Hrabal

Bohumil Hrabal

Mr Kafka
Mr. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult
Bohumil Hrabal
Translated by Paul Wilson
New Directions, October 2015
160 pages; $14.95



r. Kafka and Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, recently released by New Directions, represents the latest addition to the growing body of work by the late Czech author, Bohumil Hrabal, to be made available to an English speaking audience. Composed and set, for the most part, during the early years of Communist era Czechoslovakia, this collection of seven short stories is deeply informed by a time when Stalin’s larger-than-life cult of personality loomed over a country unwillingly caught up in the thrust of major social and economic reforms. Yet, as the author indicates in his preface, this book can be seen as both a representation of his society’s evolution, and as an expression of his own creative evolution. During this period there was no single experience more profound for Hrabal, the writer, than his recruitment, in 1949, as a “volunteer” manual labourer at the Poldi Steelworks in the town of Kladno near Prague.

Today the Koněv division of the steelworks where Hrabal worked stands in ruin. During his term of service though, it was a bustling operation devoted to turning the wreckage of war into the raw material required for, among other things, armaments for the forces of the Soviet Union. Although he studied law, Hrabal had worked at a variety of positions including railway dispatcher, insurance agent and salesman prior to finding himself on the factory floor of the steelworks. He arrived in the company of an assortment of other white-collar workers and professionals who suddenly found themselves engaged in unfamiliar work in a strange and dangerous environment alongside seasoned labourers, Party hacks, and prisoners.

Of course, Hrabal was also an aspiring writer whose literary explorations had, to date, been informed by the French Surrealists. He described himself as plucking bits and pieces from the likes of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Céline. But at Kladno his pretentious, “pseudo-artistic” world disintegrated. What he had once aspired to, he now recognized as insubstantial in the presence of the real things, real people, and real words that surrounded him. In the face of this artistic crisis, he came to understand that he needed to reorient his approach altogether, taking on the perspective of a reporter; drawing on the lives, work, and conversations of the people he encountered on the job, on the street and, most commonly, in the pub over a beer.

With this discovery, Hrabal was on his way to developing the style of writing he would come to describe as “total realism”.  The stories in Mr. Kafka, which primarily date from the 1950’s, can be seen as his earliest efforts to ground his approach to writing in the real world, and demonstrate that reality can potentially be at least as magical as anything the Surrealists might conceive.

The steelworks have a starring role in four of the seven tales. The grandest and most ambitious of these is “Strange People,” set over the course of a single shift on the factory floor.  The story opens with a sharp visual that will be evoked repeatedly, every time someone or something passes down the long factory hall through the ribbons of light created by the sun pouring through the louvers of the ventilation towers above. As the shift foreman approaches, the light casts stripes across his overalls. He emerges, passing the silent machinery that ought to be in full swing, to confront a group of grinders who are resting by the sorting table “knees up, their arms folded behind their heads, like extras waiting in the wings for their cues.” Quotas have been raised without consultation and, under the leadership of a former milk bar owner and devout communist nicknamed The Dairyman; the grinders are refusing to work.

Meanwhile, a character known as the Judge struggles to get the hang of managing the two-button control pendant for the hoist that is used above the vats of acid with the assistance of a co-worker named Vindy. Early on he accidentally steps into a puddle of acid, so his shoe and pant leg will be eaten away as the day goes on. Over on the scrap heap, a group of female convicts unload freight wagons and toss metal crucifixes, coffin lids and other goods into hoppers to be carted off to the smelting ovens.

The scene will shift back and forth between these groups. The grinders, which include in their number a cop, a priest, a lawyer, and a restaurateur; debate among themselves the merits and risks of their job action while continuing to argue their case up the ladder of management until they reach the Trade Union Rep. At the vats, as they move in and out of the clouds of caustic green vapours, and cross over rickety planks, the Judge treats Vindy to a stoic account of all of the ways that his life has improved now that his circumstances are reduced to living in a sparsely furnished basement room. In spite of the pleasure he claims to find in small acts, like burning the scraps of fine wood he salvages, his discourse is imbued with an absurd, tragic sadness.

In the middle of it all, a film crew arrives to record a piece of propaganda entitled “Lunch Break in Our Factories.” The grinders are recruited to sit on a pile of ingots, hold newspapers and shout anti-American slogans. An aquarium is rolled in and birch saplings are arranged to approximate a grove of trees. Apprentices are directed to emerge from the “trees” singing and dancing, and to stand around the aquarium pretending to discuss the fish. Not willing to play along innocently, the grinders manage to convince the director to supply them with a round of salami buns for the sake of authenticity and refuse to stick to the script.

From the sidelines, Hrabal masterfully orchestrates this grand tragi-comic opera. He delights in the play of images, in the conversations and interactions of the cast he has assembled, and in the opportunity to present social commentary and human drama without appearing to take sides. In this scene, for example, the manager arrives, through the light-slashed hallway, in a gondola suspended from the crane. From his perch he insists that he is merely executing a trade-union decision, and encourages the grinders to return to work. Without an agreement in place, they refuse:

“Right, then,” said the manager, raising his black sleeve till it was immersed to the elbow in a shaft of golden sunlight. “But I’m reporting this to the director’s office and to the trade union.”

“Why are you treating us like this?” shouted the grinder with the cruciform scar under his eye. “Why are you taking a day’s wages out of my pocket?”

“Václav!” said the manager. “I hardly know you any more. You’re an old comrade and you’re coming after me like that?”

“You’re making my life miserable! The grinder shouted, and he picked up a crowbar, tossed it from hand to hand, scattering little reflections of sunlight around the shop, then hurled it at a stack of cast iron slabs. The crowbar clanged and clattered to the ground, the echo of its voice dying away among the blue shadows. The grinder ran on to the stack, climbed over the slabs, quivering with rage, and stood there, sliced in two by a band of sunlight.

“But Václav, I’m one of you, I’m a worker too, you know that, “ the manager said, placing his hand on his heart.

The energetic, highly visual style typical of Hrabal’s writing throughout his career is already evident in these early stories He is freely drawing on the characters he encounters on the worksite, playing up idiosyncratic mannerisms, physical features, and environmental details such as, in this story, the bands of light falling onto the factory floor. However, if he is starting, as he desires, from the ground up, there is a gently exaggerated quality and a delicate balance between comedy and sadness that reaches back, not to the French Surrealists now, but to his Czech literary forebears, like Jaroslav Hašek, author of The Good Soldier Švejk.

Those familiar with Hrabal’s work will know that he commonly employs a first person narrator to carry a story, either as the protagonist or as a secondary character. It is a striking feature of this collection that four of the stories employ a third person narrative, and that two of these tales – the one we have just examined, “Strange People”, and “Ingots” – are told from the perspective of a detached observer (“The Angel” and “A Betrayal of Mirrors” feature limited third person narratives).  With a narrator who stands outside of the action, watching and recording the activities at hand, the characters are allowed to freely engage in conversation, from idle banter to intellectual discourse, and from political commentary to personal confession. Nothing feels forced or contrived as Hrabal manages a relatively large ensemble within a limited space. One senses that during this time he is developing his ear, fine-tuning his ability to listen, and laying the groundwork for the flowing, almost stream of consciousness style that will mark his well-loved longer works.

A useful counterpoint lies in another of Hrabal’s early works, one that had its genesis as a series of tales that he collected from his uncle in 1949, but later cut and reworked into the rambling, one sentence discourse of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. In this novella, published in 1964, the narrator is an exuberant old man who regales a group of sunbathing women with an insanely wild account of his life and loves, augmented with digressions for his commentary on history, literature and, well, just about anything that crosses his mind. The irresistible charm of the narrator holds the story together. Hrabal’s well known later novels such as I Served the King of England, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still, and Harlequin’s Millions, tend to favour long sentences and paragraphs that can extend for pages, but make effective use of repeated images and motifs, and even recurring characters and locations – features that he is clearly exploring in the short stories he was writing in the 1950’s. In light of his earliest work, they seem to strike a balance between the staged structure of a story like “Strange People” and breathless intensity of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.

The present collection, which was first published in 1965 under a title that could be translated as Want-Ad for a House I No Longer Wish to Live In, is framed by two stories that were originally written in 1950 as “epic” poems and later re-envisioned as prose. The title story, “Mr. Kafka” is set in the years between the end of the Second World War and the Communist coup of 1948. The narrator, with a clear nod to the writer with whom he shares a last name, has been unlucky in love, resides with an odd landlord and his wife, and spends his days checking invoices against products in the warehouse of the wholesaler for whom he works. After a day sorting toys he takes to wandering through the darkening streets of Prague. He meets and engages with a number of colourful characters, from a precocious child in the park, to a philosopher who invites him to share a grilled sausage, to the prostitutes who ply their trade by night. But in his heart he still pines for his beloved who, most curiously, is named Poldinka – a name that the steelworkers often affectionately applied to the Poldi steelworks.

Our friend Kafka returns to close out the collection with “Beautiful Poldi”. Here the allusion is direct, this is a twisted love song to a cruel mistress. The reality of life for the steel worker, on the job, or after an accident or injury has left the unfortunate survivor maimed and disfigured, is played out in a mix of dialogue and long flowing passages.

Life is fidelity to the beauty exploding all around us, even, at times, at the cost of our own lives. The newspapers, meanwhile, publish glowing accounts of the volunteer laborer who comes home from work and dances the Cossack Dance while sending mental telegrams of gratitude to the authorities, whereas in reality he coughs up black bile and collapses into his bed. Or a thirsty drop of molten steel swims through a roller’s eye, his wife’s image vanishes, and he tries, with ludicrous little steps, to dance away his misfortune.

Hrabal’s own career as a volunteered steel worker was cut short when a crane fell on him in 1952. After recovering, he went on to work as a paper baler in Prague from 1954 to 1959. Although he was writing during these years, he would not begin to publish seriously until the early 1960’s and even then, his works were subject to censorship. By the time his books were finally appearing in print he was already into his 50’s. However, his foray into heavy industry was hardly a fruitless detour. Rather it would prove to be fundamental to the development of a unique voice, at once magical and grounded, that would help make him one of the best loved Czech writers of the latter half of the 20th century.

Hrabal was, first and foremost, a gatherer and disseminator of stories: the stories of ordinary people – big dreamers, unlikely heroes, melancholy souls. He would face criticism for failing to take a more vocal stance against the Communist government, but it would wrong to assume that political currents do not run through his work. However, they take their place among all of the other aspirations and anxieties of human existence and, as such, hold to no overt agenda. Even if he did err on the side of caution, it did allow him to continue to collect and share the stories that mattered to him. And when a number of his literary contemporaries chose a life in exile, he stayed in Prague until the day he fell out of his hospital window at the age of 82, leaving behind 18 volumes of collected works.

Within the context of his life and work, Paul Wilson’s translation of Mr. Kafka and Other Stories from the Time of the Cult offers a welcome and highly entertaining opportunity to witness an important moment in Hrabal’s self-identified evolution as a writer.

 –– Joseph Schreiber

Joe Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He tweets @roughghosts.



Dec 092015

Tim Conley



A SIGN IN A MUSEUM exhibit on Charles Darwin repeats the old canard about Marx proposing to dedicate a volume of Das Kapital to Darwin, who politely declines. I ask to see the curator and begin to explain the error to him. He suggests that we take the discussion to his office. Once the two of us are there, however, he lunges and attempts to strangle me. We thrash about and he pins me to a desk. My desperate hand finds within reach a fossil, perhaps the ancient jawbone of an ass, and strikes him in the head with it, killing him instantly. Blood seeps out of his occipital wound in terrific quantities and quickly makes its way under the office door. It snakes down the hall before I can think what to do, but fortunately the museum’s visitors accept the blood as part of this innovative exhibit.



I am a hand aboard the HMS Beagle, from whose foredeck the naturalist Charles Darwin has just been snatched and eaten by a terrible sea monster. Apparently satiated, the creature sinks to the depths from which it came. It suddenly strikes me that the obligation to reveal to the world the full magisterial theory of evolution falls is now mine alone. The weight of this responsibility so presses me down that I am taken to the ship’s medic. His face and voice are those of my high school biology teacher, his manner all disapproval.



A parish has invited me to give a short lecture on their church’s architecture, a subject on which I am an acknowledged authority. As I mount the pulpit, I notice that the not inconsiderable audience is entirely composed of hairy Neanderthals. Though their gaze might not be intentionally hostile, their low brows and prognathous, toothy smiles present a threatening appearance, despite their modern clothing. There seem to be a few nods while I outline the history of the transept, but as time goes on the fear grows that little if anything I am saying is met with any comprehension at all. I endeavour to explain by emphatic uses of analogy and gesture, and sense that my listeners grow restless, though their fierce looks remain unchanged.



I am a tour guide in a museum of civilization, the real agenda of which I have gradually come to realize is to justify the ways of neoliberalism. One of the visitors in my tour group is Karl Marx, the author of Das Kapital, but no one but myself has penetrated his disguise. He must be here doing secret research, and I am uncertain as how best to help him. At the same time, I cannot entirely shake off a sense of duty to my employers, dubious in quality as they may be, and so I am wary of his causing a scene. I therefore contrive to communicate with him surreptitiously, by means of winks, nods, and coughs peppered throughout my well-rehearsed narration of the Bronze Age, but remain unsure exactly what message it is that I am trying to communicate, and in any event he is resiliently oblivious to these overtures. Another visitor in the group pesters me with questions about blood rites. Exasperation overtakes me at the advent of cuneiform script.



A subdued, perhaps funereal collection of people has gathered for tea and cake in a poorly lit parlour. Guests come and go from a low door to what may be glimpsed to be a small kitchen. The oppressive daintiness of the wallpaper, furniture, and finery suggest a museum of Victorian living. A susurration of talk, the clinking of cups against saucers, but not a sound from my grandmother, who sits with perfect posture and a smile, whether of amusement or gratification I cannot tell. I remember that my grandmother is dead, and am on the verge of making some statement about this, when it occurs to me that I ought not to, that it would be a wrong and indelicate subject to mention, and so I uneasily hold my peace. My grandmother seems gradually to move further away from me, but then I perceive that it is I who am moving, for I am seated atop a giant tortoise.



Charles Darwin has his hand up my skirt, and though he is clearly no expert at his task, still he has a pleasant smell that I cannot quite identify. We are in a darkened room in the museum, which is now closed for the night, my back against a full-scale model of a guillotine. I can just barely read the larger signs on the wall giving the background of the French Revolution and the subsequent Terror, but something seems wrong in the account, and I try to communicate this to Darwin, who is breathing too heavily to hear my whispers. Flashlight circles begin to dance around the room as museum guards enter and Darwin halts his fumbling and we freeze together there against the guillotine for what seems an eternity. When at last the guards leave, we do not move because we cannot: we have become a permanent part of the exhibit.

—Tim Conley


Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in various journals in seven countries. He is the author of two collections of short fiction, Whatever Happens (2006) and Nothing Could Be Further (2011), and a book of poetry, One False Move (2012). His latest book is Dance Moves of the Near Future (2015).


Dec 082015
Timothy Ogene

Author Photo by Clare Mackenzie.


Lead me, psychopompos, through my found
City, down into the underground.
– George Szirtes, “Metro”

A roar sucks them under
The wheels of a darkness without pain.
Off in the distance
There is someone
Like a signalman swinging a lantern.
– Frank Stanford, “The Light the Dead See”


An empty bench in the open, frosted over,
A naked tree pregnant with time stuffed
In its widening trunk,

Boughs bent by violent icicles bunched
Like unlit chandeliers on winter’s x-axis,
A river exiled from its state,

Currents curtailed at both terminals,
Rendered dry after much hammering
In winter’s metal works.

In the view ahead,
Gothic structures argue with the skyline,
Bored by the absence of the be-goggled ogler.

There’s beauty here, I say to myself,
In this isolated patch stripped of the stench of gutters
After a downpour.

There is a type of beauty here,
In this absence of motion,
In this giddy absence of flirtatious fruits on trees,

In this glorious absence of paraded Polaroid
Swung as crumbs are hauled at native ducks,
In this relieving absence of poachers

Making passes at passengers on the same tour.
There is beauty in absence,
When trees,

Holding time in absent leaves,
Await winter’s worst
And the delayed return of summer.


Erratic Notes Left on a Trail


A bridge emerges from the remains of fog,
Imposing itself on my sight.

Its arch beautifully humped,
And I’m reminded of lumps on cow back,

The meaty spot a murderous blade
Must be thrilled to hack.

Underneath the bridge the river ebbs
And murmurs

As it journeys with a terminus in mind,
An infinite end

Albeit sure to empty
And rethread the loop.

A clearer view.
A carpet of algae wraps the bridge,

Draining its prehistoric strength,
Probing its intestines with roots we wish we had.


For those we love
We refrain from easy paths

And restrain the
Urge to run.


A note written in fog, on clear glass
Is memory erased at noon;

Falling and dipping in love
Left to fade in the face of light.


Home is where the umbilical cord lies
Buried between gnarled shrubs half-dead,

Overgrown and coated in shame,
A lie too crass to smear.


A dog follows its owner over the river,
Across the algae-covered bridge,
To the stare of sailing ducks.

May we return as geese and sailing ducks:
Humble, instinctual, without the tact to shell schools elsewhere,
To click the tongue at the remains of others.


The landscape is an apparition of a master’s piece
Discarded, rediscovered to great acclaim:
Fields of gold-colored leaves in fourteen stations of death
Lie to give depth, individually crisp,
The sky defaced with V-shaped strokes
Left for critics to name as birds.

There’s a swoosh of blue turning green,
An illusion of a nearby sea,
And ducks paddling between surfaces,
Sailing towards the sun in salutation,
Sailing towards a perennial ritual,
To a ritual that tethers us against our will.


There’s a girl running up the bridge,
Her polyester coat is making a sideway sweep
Against the wind.
A guardian in fur follows from behind,
Her eyes on the young.

Our girl has crossed the bridge,
Beckoning the fur to make real haste.
The fur has stopped to stare,
Holding the journey to a standstill,
Holding the future to an ambivalent past.


A tear is heavier than a severed leaf,
A sigh lighter than the crash of cymbals.

When asked my home address,
I respond with a sigh,
And watch severed leaves land on dormant grounds.

I left without a lover’s smell in my hair,
Without memories of my mother’s hug.
The passage home is burnt and that I regret.


A kiss recalled is adolescence restored,
Life remounted for another flight.

Amnesia is the burden of growth,
Of which I am a square instance.

Memory is a pinch and not the whole,
An aftertaste without a meal.

I remember the tongue and not the kiss,
The resistance of breasts and not the hug.

I write this day in fog,
Knowing it will fade to not return.


Dear Mother, it’s another day here,
Another night, I mean to say.

It’s a dance of darkness, Mother,
And it takes two to do the bleak waltz,

Hips grinding blindly, legs leisurely shuffling
Until sweat breaks forth;

Until the cheer of gloom, the shrouded daylight,
Is shredded in forgettable bits.


May this silence unease you, Mother,
May those absent calls,

The phone hanging obese on the wall,
Unease you.

But I prefer this to a thousand funerals.
Or which is best, Mother?

This, or the confused colors
Of spiteful mourners?


I come from a place where roads lead nowhere, to graves,
The wind an impractical joke that blows askance,
Rising from the soles of our feet,

Uprooting us before our first human steps;
Where children run homes and plough the fields,
And dogs walk the living through death’s orchard.

These we mention in passing:
At the wedding of a thrice-removed niece,
At a dance for abandoned gods.

The world hangs by the toes, dangling,
And its head bulges with blood, a burst as imminent
As the next shot in daylight.


We are told he stopped at twenty-one,
Our Rimbaud, having gathered what we all envy.
Then he left his home and invaded mine,
That adventurer I begrudge not.

Ash and Ashbery shared a stand,
Catalogued and shelved as one,
A minor logistic that assumed significance
As I hunted the latter but fell for both,

A treat I shindiged with a loud sucking
Of Turkish delight, recontexting
Myself in Ash’s words:

“Think of yourself as open. Equally hard.
Usually your gestures seem to take place
[Behind] a glass partition, fogged with steam”


A pony is purchased for a lad who hasn’t said a word
Since his tongue lay itself for normal speech.

I see him galloping through green earth,
His smile a cover for speech,

His dimples as deep as mine.
But here’s the deal as I’m told:

Dreams are embers in a December night,
Dying into senseless flakes at the hearth,

Useless save the past they color when we sleep.
The coloring is grim at times:

Constipated nights and all,
The peristaltic push and passage painfully hindered,

The hinds of a horse stuck to a haunted carriage,
And dawn dispiritingly delayed.


“I have a lover of flesh,” Day-Lewis says.
Mine used to be fresh, I say, but is now no more,
A country with boundaries made of straw,
A loveless sprawl dispersed by the wind,
Her seeds sprinkled away for birds to pick.

There is a Whitman in everyone, I say.
Rebellion relies on language, I say,
And so does a joke that falls on all,
Including the bystander whose isolation
Is geographic and linguistic.

Power resides in the pinny of a maid:
Fanon in the polish of the master’s shoe,
And Foucault in the politics of his son’s stare.
They will survive this flare,
And the boil will blister into a new brew,

For a stone tossed in a lake must be left to tumble down
To the bottom, and there, patted by currents,
It will fathom its float to shore,
Or waltz its way to a safe corner to rise again,
Or stay beneath, contented with death.


Mother, keep your hands on the plough.
Study the stars for signs and songs.
Keep away from the thalassic trader,
Away from his vessel and gunpowder.

Guard your borders and be bothered by unusual winds.
Dance when aroused by wine,
The trance thereafter enjoy.
Set forth and set sail in your own vessel.

Write your sights and handshakes afar.
Leave me nothing but a chest-load of papyrus.


Sub-surface Condition


In my sleep I float near sooted chimneys
And smell smoke rising from the mass
Of idle bodies, from the hoof
Of roaming nomads kicking and stomping
Through this land.

In the leprous hands of a life I once lived.
Cradled, I smell the crisp rise
Of smoke, an ascendance
That becomes me leaving the scale
Of memory, leaving the shell that cocoons me

From where waters run against pebbles,
Upstream, washing up against my umbilical cord
Long buried between shrubs
Where weeds spring daily,
Waiting for dawn-dew that never comes,

Waiting for sunlight obscured by an August cloud.


In this colossal space, curled up between posts,
My bed and I, the panes bleed the slime
Of winter, dribbling down like okra whisked for effect.

I recoil between posts, my bed and I,
As nothing here, in this novel patch,
Equals the roast of corncobs at home.


It is now threatening to snow, and this greyness,
The utter blankness of haze and leafless trees
Removes me from me, layer after layer,
To where the marrows yield

And the shivers begin.
I rattle like gongs in Ogume,
The ancestral home I cannot reclaim,
That’s now a farfetched note I pluck for effect.


The flakes are visible from here.
God must be at work.
The spaces without are rather concealed
And made dark by the utter whiteness
Of grains descending in place
Of rain.

God must be at work as they say
In a place I once lived,
Where the daily ritual
Of cocks at dawn,
And the heroic leap
Of lizards from treetops,

Are God’s fingers reaching down
To stroke our thighs.


A silhouette is taking shape
On my window pane,
The shape is surprisingly sensual,
With smooth suggestive lines,

With arousing curves.
And this pervasion I could not have conjured
Without those fingers that descend
To stroke my thighs.

.—Timothy Ogene

Timothy Ogene is the author of a collection of poems (Descent: Deerbrook Editions, 2016) and has recently completed his first novel. His poems and stories have appeared in One Throne Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Tahoma Literary Review, The Missing Slate, Stirring, Kin Poetry Journal, Mad Swirl, Blue Rock Review, and other places. He holds degrees from St. Edwards and Oxford Universities, and currently lives in Boston.


Dec 072015

Erika Mihálycsa


Author reading

THE AUTHOR IS SITTING on the platform sweating, with heart thumping so loud as to drown the spiky-haired fashionista’s mellifluous introductory warble. Stretched above the author’s head, taut and intimidating, is the tightrope on which the author is to jump gracefully at the moderatrix’s artfully concealed signal and read, or much rather, recite, enact, perform amid demi-pliés and relevés executed faultlessly on pointe, a particular fragment chosen by the publisher from the latest novel, hot off the press, in which the heroine’s volcanic orgasm sends a rift down the reinforced concrete walls of the 11-storey block of flats, cracks windows into spider-web patterns, drives the groundwater mixed with sewage up the waterpipes like a geyser so the soil, hollowed in, starts sinking until the crumbling block of flats tilts at an angle more dangerous than the Costa Concordia, at this point the author will look up from the page at the audience with a candid, inquisitive, tongue-in-cheek, playful, risqué, amiable expression while, still on pointe, lifting one leg unbelievably slowly into balance position, reciting all the while the masterly last sentence. At this point the audience always starts clapping. The author has acquired this trick from an interview with an opera star who for two decades had ruled the world’s lyric stages with her show of delivering the Queen of the Night’s aria on trapeze, and whenever she sang at the Met she would do a double backflip in the middle of the aria where all the bonds of nature are destroyed, after the protective net had been spectacularly withdrawn at the strings’ opening turmoil. There soars in slow rewind the primadonna’s perfect pinup body in bikini in front of the author’s mind’s eyes, Swarowski crystals flash lightning from her voluptuous locks and navel up to the starry firmament, the film reached more than nineteen million views on YouTube in less than two months, every tone pitch-perfect and crystal-clear and oh, that maddening little ritartando in the descending phrase before she attacks the glass sounds. Easy for her of course, she had been a junior world champ rhythmic gymnast before her voice was discovered. The author feels a great heat-wave, great, one second and the suffocating feeling will start, I couldn’t lift a pencil now, the moderatrix is still chirping the intro in a low conspiratorial tone, I am to step in immediately at the violins’ attacca, my legs start shaking, and my ankle is swollen quite visibly, come on, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, we’ll do it, I’ll do it, last time at the Book Siesta I nearly fell off the rope but that pert little poetess assured me no-one had noticed. But I certainly rank among the most successful in the trade, the audience flocks to my readings. Of course as long as there had been only the kitchen theatre feats and cooking for the audience, the author’s books barely sold in 4,000 copies, the publisher had to put an end to it saying it was all yesterday’s fad and that every halfwit had been cooking primetime for the past five years, in vain would the author invoke the delights of the caramelized words melting on the palate, the molecular chemistery of sentences pureeing the Mediterranean spices with the slightly astringent aromas of the terroir. So there was nothing to do but agree to a change in profile and branch out, even if the author could still all too vividly remember calling the gym a jinx, not to mention those interminable basketball games in school, squeezed between strapping arms and buttocks, forever losing the ball to the enemy and those vicious jabs in the ribs — the horror, the horror! Who knows, perhaps if I had been able to jump for the basket with that relaxed arching of the back of P’s (met him last month, he is running some company that manufactures chairs, was just back from fab holidays in Greys, he said), well who knows if I would still have become a writer. In fact P. didn’t even score more than average, one out of three perhaps, but oh, that movement! Still, it was worth working out for a full god-awful year, eating cabbage soup day in day out, sales have been skyrocketing ever since. If only the bodywork would resist for another four or five years, then I swear I’ll buy myself a house on the seaside and retire for good. The author suddenly remembered poor S.P., the dissident lyrical I who ended up exhibiting his liver cirrhosis, reading his ever shrinking poems with hesitant, slow, blackened tongue, chewing the words like porridge, although at the onset of his career he had flooded all publishers and their haunts and lovenests with his cascading multi-page poems and his voice had been like sounding ass or a tinkling cymbal, as a malicious colleague used to say, yet the author had secretly envied him in those days for his flame-like hair and flaring revolutionary rhetoric, not to mention his ecumenical sex-appeal. When the author last saw him, reading evidently gave him pain. Meticulously lined up in front of his battered volumes were his tumors in jars, my cancers as he would call them, with a touch of affectionate pride in his voice like one talking about his children’s academic successes, for S.P. became a rare, indeed a rarissimal case in medical history, his body apparently harboring no less than three different kinds of tumors entirely unrelated to each other that kept growing and producing a maze of intricately interlocking metastases on his lungs, spleen, lymphatic glands, bone marrow, colon, stomach, brain and esophagus, whereas the odds of patients having two different types of tumors was 1:300,000 among those diagnosed with the disease. At S.P.’s readings his recently removed, bluish-black and wrinkled or rosily smooth bottled tumors would face the dwindling, staggeringly middle-aged audience. Poor S.P. always used to say, screw success, and that the day would come when he would go marching in the textbooks and academic curricula and nobody would remember that (and here a long and variable list of names would follow, depending on his mood and on the occasion, but always uttered with vertiginously falling intonation) had ever walked the face of the earth. Well, he has made it indeed. Except, as he really had no way of foretelling, he had made it into the medical textbooks. Legions of oncologists in training would learn his MR images by heart and brood over his case history. Yes, he had always been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anyway, getting into the curricula nowadays was more difficult than the backwards-triple Rittberger for the virgin figure skater; it is at least five years since the author’s children last studied literature at school. The author remembered S.P.’s funeral with a shudder. The city could of course hardly have cared less for giving him an official funeral, and the university of medicine that had extracted whatever there was to extract from him for didactic purposes made no claims on the remains either. But for the generous donation of (and there followed the name of the one unfailing item from the list of names bound to utter oblivion, and who could unfortunately not honor the occasion with his presence, as he was touring the British Isles promoting his fifth novel translated into English), he would have been reduced to a social burial in the best case, although, having no relatives, he might just as well have ended up without any burial at all. Poor S.P. The moderatrix raised her eyes from under the violet eyeshade and set them on the author who in this moment recognized the intro’s closing formula, with forever striking us with its novelty upon the heels of unusual, at unusual a winsome smile crossed the author’s face and trotted as far as striking, as the toes flexed in the ballet shoes, the muscles of the calves were ready to lift a mountain if necessary, heaving the author from the chair at novelty and by the time the technical assistant found those taut tights with the spotlight, the author was balancing on pointe on the tightrope, ready for the first relevé and from between the heroine’s thighs issued, like the unremitting tide that can wash ashore, inch by inch, the heaviest oil tankers, like the first contractions of the womb at childbirth, like the immense pressure of solid, unstirring air before earthquake or electric discharge, like the.


Muss es sein

THE AUTHOR STARTED behaving ever more weirdly, he would take out the potato soup instead of the trash; at lunchtime he would come out of his study at the umpteenth call, all flushed. Writing didn’t used to affect you so much, his wife told him, you are sweating like in the sauna all day and these shreds of paper are everywhere, even on your pajamas. The writer produced a constrained little laugh. For two weeks now he had been living with the girl for whom the detective would fall head over heels exactly when she becomes the most likely suspect after the second murder. Lingering on her nape gave him infinite pleasure; he had even acquired a skill of groping the outlines of her butterfly tattoo with his tongue, all the while breathing in that incomparable scent at the base of her very short cropped auburn hair. He would write petunia odor, although he had not the faintest inkling what petunias smelt like, his nose was tone-deaf so to speak: in the kitchen he would mistake black pepper for cinnamon, but his wife was quite another tune, she would smell out from the staircase, what in god’s name have you put in the vegetable stew again? But it was getting increasingly difficult to conceal the girl from her, on top of all she had tried to run away twice over the past week, he had to drag her back from the window. Three meters from the window was Mrs. Kálmán’s balcony, the retired math teacher who made his children’s homework. For the third time he started awake in the middle of the night, literally floating in sweat, his heart racing like a steam engine. And yet — and yet! How ardently he wished to save her! He had planned their elopement a thousand times at least. Every day on his way to the editorial office he furtively studied the special offers in the tourist agencies’ shop windows, he had even pulled up the tent in the garage once or twice to make sure he still knew how to do it, and had the pressure in the tires adjusted. But it was at least two more weeks until his wife would take the kids off to the grandparents. If only the girl would not come so loud! It was not really the pitch, she never screamed, she whimpered rather, softly, grittily, so for two weeks the Bartók string quartets had been playing non-stop on the hi-fi, especially the third, but its second movement was too long, whereas the third almost always ended too soon. And the children were forever pulling faces, dad is having his sawing period, it must be some murderer with a knack for cold cuts, let’s hope to god it’s not the chainsaw again. So at the end of the day, the girl had to disappear with no further delay. What if she really is the killer and during their next afternoon siesta when he is lying blissfully by her side, all asweat, she executes him with the paperweight and escapes through the window in that catwoman’s black leather outfit? He remembered a scene from a film where the murderer was a myopic woman, almost blind, she had to feel out the victim’s temple with her hands; it was dreadful, three liters of Kryolan at the most modest estimation. Today, exceptionally, he didn’t feel like listening to Bartók either, let it be Beethoven rather, always the same intrusive question, but how are you going to look her in the eye, she trusts you, you have taken responsibility for her, you could still save her, all it takes is an extra bed, you could tell the kids that she is some distant cousin who is preparing for her acting exam, and in two or three months’ time she would find herself an age-appropriate guy and then perhaps your marriage could be fixed, she could for instance find a job as a bar singer, it is true he had never heard her sing but if one can whimper like that. The girl was sitting cross-legged in front of him, barefoot in jeans; her t-shirt had slid down one slender shoulder. She certainly knew how to look with those enormous grey eyes of hers. And he could already hear the sentence at the end of which she would lie naked on her belly in the middle of the running track in the woods, with 34 stabs from the same knife. He went out into the kitchen and poured himself a glass of blackcurrant syrup, with three ice cubes. He held the glass at the base like a whisky glass and was moving it in small circles to stir the ice. The detective would sit at the counter, halfway in his twelfth bourbon with ice, staring in front of him into the thick cigarette smoke, at the crack of dawn the gold-hearted barman would make a bed for him on the piano. Once he sent in the manuscript to the publisher he would have to debug his PC; it seems to be virused again.

—Erika Mihálycsa


Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, william carlos williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator of various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of HYPERION, issued by Contra Mundum Press.


Dec 062015



MATCHES: A Light Book
S.D. Chrostowska
punctum books, 2015
538 pages (OPEN-ACCESS e-book and $25.00 [€23.00/£20.00] in paper)
ISBN-13: 978-0692540732

Art / Barbarism

Unfortunately, I have a bad feeling that a huge and horrible crime happened, and the masterpieces were destroyed. If so, it would be a barbarian crime against humanity. — Ernest Oberländer-Târnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, on the incineration of seven masterpieces stolen in 2012 from the Rotterdam Kunsthal

A mother’s love burns brightest when the fuel is artifice, plastic slippers, and firewood. Art’s demise revealed the truth and power of the human heart. Veritas, victoria, vita!

The museum, the village, the abandoned house, the churchyard, finally the stove. Ash. Between the theft, the son’s arrest, the mother’s actions, and the art world itself (fearing the worst), the works were everything: a fortune, incriminating evidence, an irreparable loss. To the rest of us it was a crying shame. Before the lab’s findings sank in, the works were missed, their worth contained by the smoul­dering hope of their recovery, the story still too bizarre to be believed (especially after the mother’s retraction of the crucial part of it). After they were announced, the works became priceless, and their immolation, indefensible, beyond the pale. Here there is no why. We are survivors, bearing the burden of incomprehension. Incomprehension not of the human spirit, for the mother’s act was as mindless as the can of worms it opened.

Nor was it a crucible of love — that mother was no art lover! It involved no test, no inner conflict of values, one love against another fighting in a breast, with a mother’s love finally getting the better of the universal love of beauty.

Burn the evidence! was the obvious thing to do. Not: I must sacrifice the Art! (We would prefer she turn in the works along with the son, but what mother would do that? — it is as unfea­sible now as it was in biblical times.) A simpleton cannot be demonic. There was no question of zeal, of enthusiasm, of erotic arousal: Burn, Picasso! Burn, Matisse! And yet it used to be witches who stoked fire only to perish by it in those barbaric times. The innocence of the paintings, the Eastern European location, the poverty, illiteracy perhaps — all this makes for a credible latter-day hex.

And that is why, in a rush of blood to the head, we might blurt out “Crime against humanity!” The well-worn phrase — where the “crime” in question is nothing less than intentional degradation of human beings perpetrated on a large scale — seems hyperbolic in the new context, even if in the heat of indignation (to which destruction by fire certainly added fuel), we refuse to see it as just a metaphor.

The leap from humans to the human is easier the more the art of the recent past, when there were still masters worth mentioning, is sanctified as the expression of the human spirit, the quiddity of our dignity that protects us, like a magic circle, against all barbarism.

Art appreciation is an order of magnitude greater than art’s invaluability. The inestimable worth of art — of man — in our time requires the language of genocide to do justice to it. It is no “mere rhetoric,” but an unedited lament for humanity.

If, then, it strikes some of us as preposterous to call an art heist a “crime against humanity,” it must be because we do not value art as an extension of human dignity. Is it because art has always accompanied barbarity, as its counter­point? Our whole history is constructed on denying that we cannot have the one without the other, even if art was born among the barbarians. The twisted story of the burglary, the brutalization of these works, brings this twisted history, begun in prehistory, to a head. Acts we would consider bar­barous now, or that we will consider barbarous in the future, were perpetrated by those we now consider to have been the first artists, even the first “moderns.” The stature of barbarity keeps step with that of art. The more invaluable art becomes, the less we can appreciate it. The more invaluable individual life becomes, the less we can appreciate it.

We might not know it, but such wisdom speaks through our condemnation of Oberländer-Târnoveanu’s hyperbole. To accept it would mean convincing ourselves that a moth­er’s love counts for nothing, that it is worthless. You cannot make the willful destruction of high art level with the anni­hilation of people without elevating at least one mother’s love to barbarism.

Even if the crude destruction of these Magnificent Seven really was atrocious, some more refined method would have been easier to swallow. Its artfulness would mitigate its vulgarity. That is why we hope she did not burn them but, as unlikely as that is, deceived the analysts. Perhaps then her act would qualify as art, a performance without spectacle, with an audience to come. It’s been said — I know the man who said it — that “Barbarity is one of the signs in which one recognizes renaissances of the spirit.”[1]


Under Attack

The avant-garde artist was born of the image-breaker: the “icons” he broke belonged to his predecessors and rivals. In truth, however, they were the icons by which he lived his life and with which the art of his time was in agreement. His target, then, must not have been the artistic tradition, at least not directly; it was, rather, the reality sanctioning only images that flatter it — images that, while innocent, were thoroughly in the pay of wealthy patrons, who surrounded themselves with them as with mirrors. Naturally, the control of images made them structurally incapable of fulfilling art’s modern mission — to challenge, to unsettle, to open up. Only from the position of exteriority claimed by mod­ern art can the false beauties of the life of privilege, of the dream life of power, be violated. Modernity’s artistic frontier is inward, advancing towards, not away from, the pieties and powers — political, economic, theological — with which even the old masters were in conformity. The image broken by the modern iconoclast, the icon reduced to shards and rags, is, in short, the spurious coherent whole, with the “art world” nestled in it.


Art, Alienation, Extinction

There is a received and much-cherished idea that creativity cannot be alienating. Alienation befalls the exploited, their labour as mindless as it is repetitive, whereas creative work, where it is not enabled by higher economic standing, the prerogative of leisure, is mythologized as an escape into pleasure (even with the risk of madness or early death). Artists, of course, do collaborate, make, market, and sell their stuff, and the identity of the artist is perfectly compatible with that of the precarious worker or capitalist. But the neoliberalization of art is seen as incomplete as long as art is civilized by the triumph of form over content; form acts as a bulwark against the neoliberal civilization, whose watchword is content extraction. Capitalism keeps pace by producing the tools needed to extract content from form, funding art’s nonconformism. The creation of educational and other institutions that teach both art and its exploitation, as well as the rewards dangled before artists who defend art’s bul­wark, keep up demand for aesthetic product. At a time when everything is being turned into a resource, art can still set the terms of its own use.

A reboot of art’s political-interventionist ferment in the 1960s and ’70s would offer no resistance to neoliberalism’s encroachment. The identity of the artist has since become much purer, much more abstract and — dare we say? — super­fluous than in those days. All is well as long as it’s under­stood as just an identity or mask, and moreover, one among several others in competition or cooperation with it. Now that the “Creative Class” has been ideologically defined as vital for urban economies, the “creative subject,” a.k.a. artist, risks not alienation but isolation. With lived experience becoming art’s final court, whoever identifies with art to the exclusion of other roles — whoever lives and breathes art and otherwise lives not — must die of loneliness as one of the last surviving members of a species too old to reproduce.


Down and Dirty

If art really needs a clean slate, then life must have the oppo­site. But could we appreciate such art from such a life?


Scenes of Abduction

In the story of the rape of Hippodamia, a Lapith woman is saved from the clutches of drunken Centaurs, guests at her wedding feast. The oft-treated motif, allegorized as the struggle between bestiality or barbarism and humanity or civilization, ends quite clearly in the latter’s triumph. As with other erotic subjects, mythical or legendary scenes of abduction, depictions of lecherous violence and abuse, were long bound to a higher, moral purpose, while heroism and procreation as pretexts for titillation were deemed unworthy of art.

The sublimation called art is still aligned with nobility and morality. Art does not just represent — and that in two senses, of showing and standing for — the struggle against barbarism; it functions as a talisman. The choice and proper framing of scenes of this struggle fulfill art’s civilizing mission, contrib­uting head-on to the mastery over monstrosity, ugliness, and evil looming large. The mission’s goal was to impress upon our minds the seriousness and high stakes of the fight for, in this case, sexual entitlement. The artist wanted us to know, none too subtly, that he had done his part.

The “Manichean” framework, which demands explicitness, comes at a cost to art, which is accused of speaking from both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, bringing sexual­ity to the surface and manipulating it make artists complicit in subduing anarchic forces — including the eternal two-way traffic between the normal and the freakish, the familiar and the foreign. Art renounces pornography less for its content and effect than for subordinating such forces to quantitative self-regulation. On the other hand, as soon as the image becomes explicit, art falls under suspicion by priests and secular moralists of colluding with base desire. It is watched more closely and interpreted less charitably; exposed, it presents an easy target for yesterday’s orthodoxies. Doubt in its ability to quell insurgent passions makes conspicuous not what is obvious to us — art’s neutrality — but its barely hidden “barbarism.”

The long-term consequences of this double bind are still with us: even now, freed from moral service, sexuality in art is dismissed as gimmickry, gratuitous provocation. Its aesthetic value is dubious; it is still too caught up in prov­ing it has one. Its appearance is stiff, unnatural, in a word, unfree — and this in spite of the space given to it, having spread from canvas to celluloid, where it is occasionally even unsimulated. Its real, scrambled message is only intelligible to those who reject moralism of any kind and recognize art’s long struggle for a pagan origin.

Where it does not eradicate unruliness, censorship inspires encryption. In this hostage hermeneutic, sexually charged representations like that of Hippodamia’s rape, as they recur from the Renaissance on, are coded signs of distress. Rather than hailing the victory of the good through art, hence of “good” art, they signal art’s capture by “goodness.”


Coming Clean

If life really is a blank slate, then art must be the opposite.

—S. D. Chrostowska


S.D. Chrostowska is the author of Permission (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Miguel Abensour, “L’histoire de l’utopie et la destin de sa critique,” Textures 8–9 (1974): 64, my trans.
Dec 052015


Dennis O’Driscoll’s abrupt and untimely death on December 24th 2012 was a huge shock to the poetry world. He was an acclaimed poet (considered one of the best European poets of his time) and critic who was selfless in his generosity towards his fellow poets. His remarkable series of interviews with Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney, was published in 2008 – a book-length portrait of the famous poet. And, perhaps, it was Heaney who when speaking of his friend, Dennis, put it best:

“Not only was he constant in his dedication to his own work, he also acted as mentor and sounding board to beginners and established figures alike. Modest to a fault, he would have shrugged off the hero word. Yet there was heroic virtue in the man, in the way he answered the demands of his day job as a civil servant and then devoted what ought to have been free time for his own work to responding to the work of others. He was like Yeats‘s “man of a passionate serving kind”, never self-promoting or seeking the limelight but constantly being sought.”

On this, the third anniversary of his death, I am tremendously grateful to his sister Marie for sharing her memories of Dennis, her personal photographs and her vibrant artwork.

—Gerard Beirne


Though Dennis will be remembered by many through the treasured words he left behind, I will always be filled with the memories of growing up together, our childhood days.

I filled the garden with skipping rhymes, Dennis sat and read. He was the one who introduced me to the joy of reading, the first of many books.

He was a great instigator of much of the mischief which occurred in the household of six siblings.

He took me on my first trip without our parents, on the train to Dublin, where he quickly reached the top of the large queue in the train’s restaurant, with the use of my “magic slate” to announce to all that he was deaf and dumb. But he soon found his voice… when we were sympathetically ushered to the counter much to the annoyance of our fellow passengers!!

He created “pop up” art exhibitions of his ‘Abstract artwork” on the front wall of our home (which were worth a fortune!!). My parents were only alerted to the event by the sound of the odd car slowing down to take a peek as they traveled along the road.

Our annual holidays by the sea, embracing his anonymity, he could be a French tourist with little ability to communicate in English, seeking directions from exasperated, though helpful, locals. Convince people they were being interviewed live on the radio on topics of great interest, these interviews which we would listen back to on his tape recorder later in the day.

Our family’s Christmas will be forever tinged with sadness now,
his books and the many cards and letters he sent me
lie huddled together on my shelves,
where with the flick of a page,
I can feel his heart pouring out,
read his thoughts,
see visions through his words

Though it’s no easy task.


childDennis back in our childhood days.


Christmas Eve 2012

My heart sunk as I caught a glimpse of the postal van, on its last round, as it headed for home on that cold Christmas eve 2012. The parcel from my brother Dennis wrapped with care, filled with thoughtful treasures, was now lost I feared. My present had always arrived well before the Christmas celebrations began and was often the first gift to be placed unopened beneath my Christmas tree.

Little did I know what lay ahead or that Christmas day would be spent in a cloud of unbelievable sorrow as we booked unexpected flights home. Or that I would find myself sitting by Dennis’s fireplace with my family a few days later where his painful absence was truly felt after that dreadful phone call late on the night of Christmas eve.

On my return to Holland with my heart filled with sorrow following the painful task of bidding him farewell…

…on the eve of his birthday, beneath a winter sky, in the midst of twinkling lights of Christmas.

It was then… that I discovered that the precious package had in fact arrived… and awaited me in my neighbor’s house.

There it was in all its glory with the so familiar handwriting looking as fresh as though the ink was barely dry.

I held it close to me as though it contained life…
With trembling hands, I peered inside,
then I carefully
placed it beneath
my darkened Christmas tree…

as gently as a coffin lowered
to its
Place of rest…


marie and dennisDennis & Marie

While Dennis used words to create images, I use paints and brushes… So one Christmas I decided to combine our work and send him a painting as a gift from me, a welcome break from the endless ties, I hoped. I wondered which poem I should choose, and as I read through “A Christmas Night”, it created visions for me. And so with great ease, his words emerged upon my canvas with each brush stroke.

christmas night


After he passed away, Evie our niece, then aged ten, would bravely stand up at a number of his tributes to do a reading of one of her Uncle Dennis’s favorite poems.

eviePortrait of Evie aged four


Misunderstanding And Muzak

You are in the Super Value supermarket
expecting to meet me at 6.15.

I am in the Extra Value supermarket
expecting to meet you at 6.15.

Danny boy is calling you down special-offer aisles.
Johann Strauss is waltzing me down special-offer aisles.

I weigh mushrooms and broccoli and beans.
You weigh beans and mushrooms and broccoli.

It is 6.45 sign of you.
It is 6.45 no sign of me.

You may have had a puncture.
I may have been held up at work.

It is 6.55. You may have been murdered.
It is 6.55. I may have been flattened by a truck.

Danny Boy starts crooning all over you again.
Johann Strauss starts dancing all over me again.

Everything that’s needed for our Sunday lunch
is heaped up in my trolley, your trolley

We hope to meet, somewhere to eat it.


Since we lost Dennis, I continue to paint, and there are times when some of my work seems to be reflected in his words as in his poems Home and Time Sharing.


when all is said and done
what counts is having someone
you can phone home at five

to ask for the immersion heater
to be switched to “bath”
and the pizza taken from the deepfreeze.


Time Sharing

In our time together
we are travelling in the heated car,
a violin concerto playing on the radio
hills streaming with winter cold,
year – end fields worn down to seams,
a blazing quiff of distant dogwood,
burned meringue of snow on mountain tops.
We blurt past farms and cottages;
those whose era we share
are staring from net curtains
at a morning chill for milking
or are setting off to factories in the town,
their segments of road deserted.
It is like a childhood journey
of sleep and open-eyed surprise,
of hermetically sealed life
in the eternal present
before the final destination is reached
We hold hands on the gear stick
and, at this moment,
fear for nothing except the future.


Though it is not intentional, my sister Eithne once remarked to me that she can see a bit of us all in some of my paintings…on reflection, I had to agree. I can indeed see something of our very stylish Mother in this vintage style painting.


Years After

And yet we managed fine.

We missed your baking for a time.
And yet we were not better off
without cream-hearted sponges cakes,
flaky, rhubarb-oozing pies.

Linoleum-tiled rooms could no longer
presume on your thoroughgoing scrub;
and yet me made up for our neglect,
laid hardwood timber floors.

Windows shimmered less often.
And yet we got around to
elbow-greasing them eventually.
Your daily sheet-and-blanket

rituals of bed making were more
than we could hope to emulate
And yet the duvets we bought
brought us gradually to sleep,

Declan and Eithne (eleven
and nine respectively at the time)
had to survive without your packed
banana sandwiches, wooden spoon

deterrent, hugs, multivitamins.
And yet they both grew strong;
you have unmet grandchildren
in-laws you never knew.

Yes, we managed fine, made
breakfasts and made love,
took on jobs and mortgages,
set ourselves up for life.

And yet. And yet. And yet.

—Poems by Dennis O’Driscoll; Text & Paintings by Marie O’Driscoll

We are grateful to Anvil Press and Carcanet Press for permission to reprint the poems “Christmas Night,” “Misunderstanding And Muzak,” “Home,” “Time Sharing,” and “Years After.”


Dennis O’Driscoll (1954–2012) was born in Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Apart from nine collections of poetry, books published during his lifetime included a selection of essays and reviews, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams(2001), two collections of literary quotations and Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney(2008). Among his awards were a Lannan Literary Award in 1999, the 2005 E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the 2006 O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies (Minnesota). A member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of artists, he worked for almost forty years in Ireland’s Revenue and Customs service. He died on Christmas Eve, 2012.

A second collection of his essays, The Outnumbered Poet, was published by Gallery Press in 2013. His selection from the works of Michael Hamburger, A Michael Hamburger Reader, will be published by Anvil in December 2015.


Marie O’Driscoll was born in Thurles, Co.Tipperary in 1957, one of a family of six siblings. She was educated in the Ursuline Convent Thurles, and it was there that she had the only art classes, that she would ever attend. Both Art and English were her greatest passion throughout her school life.  In her final year  at school, the family were struck with tragedy following the death of their mother, Kitty, and five years later their father Jimmy also died. The shock of the term “orphan” became a reality in their young lives.

She spent a number of years living in Dublin, where she attended a secretarial college, followed by a move to the west of Ireland where she met her  husband to be. A number of years later they emigrated to Holland with their  two daughters. She began teaching English to adults and children, and eventually created a method of combining her two favorite passions together by setting up classes for children using art as a medium to teach English to them. Although she been painting for as long as she can remember, it took her many years to reveal her work to others. Since then her art has found its way to many corners of the world.


Dec 042015

Gass author photo William H. Gass / Michael Lionstar New York Times

Eyes book photo

William H. Gass
Knopf, October 2015
Hardback $26.00, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-1101874721

Everything is the same except composition.

—Gertrude Stein

William Howard Gass was born in July, 1924, the year Gertrude Stein first published portions of The Making of Americans. In one of many essays about Stein, a writer who became his literary role model and inspired his experiments in composition, Gass writes that the first time he read Three Lives, circa 1948 while a graduate student in philosophy at Cornell, he stayed up all night and that his “stomach held the text in its coils as if I had swallowed the pages.”[1] William H. Gass, newly minted Ph.D., would go on to write over a dozen books composed of sentences the details of which work both symbolically and literally, sentences whose sound and syntax and structure lift worlds from the page.

With a literary career spanning more than half a century, William H. Gass has been praised for his artistry, the beauty of his writing, and the depth of his analytical acumen. He is the author of four novels (including Omensetter’s Luck, The Tunnel, and Middle C), a collection of novellas (Cartesian Sonata), and nine works of nonfiction (including On Being Blue, The World Within the World, and A Temple of Texts). His numerous honors and awards include, among many others, the 1996 American Book Award for The Tunnel, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism (for Tests of Time, Finding a Form, and Habitations of the Word), the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction (1975), and in 2000 the PEN/Nabokov award and the PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement award.

For thirty years Gass taught philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he has been the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities since 2000. His most recent publications include a book of essays, Life Sentences (2012), Middle C in 2013 (winner of the 2015 William Dean Howells Medal), and in October of this year from Knopf, his newest book of fiction, Eyes, a superb collection of two novellas and four short stories. Now ninety-one, he lives in St. Louis with his wife Mary, to whom he has been married since 1952.

Despite the accolades, periodically Gass’s fiction has been accused of being “difficult” or “opaque” in much the same way as the usual postmodern suspects he is associated with, authors such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkins, and John Hawkes. Like most artists, Gass dislikes labels, although when pressed, he has called himself a “decayed modernist.”[2] His fiction is language driven, his characters “locales of linguistic energy,”[3] his plots secondary to astonishing metaphorical matrices. When asked about criticism Gass once replied “How can you write well enough to write about Colette?”[4] He’s right. The writing should always speak for itself. For me, discovering Gass was like his discovery of Gertrude Stein the night he read Three Lives. I cannot write well enough to write about William H. Gass; nevertheless, I hope to lure you to trust an artist and master of fiction and explore the world through his eyes.


Through a Glass, Darkly

In Camera opens as all the stories in this collection, with its own frontispiece: a black and white “selfie” of the author, possibly from the 1980s, with Gass standing in front of a large storefront window on an urban street. Thus the first image in a story bursting with imagery shows a literal camera, serves as a symbolic representation of the primary theme (our perception of reality), and is a visual pun on himself—a glass Gass. In the background, across the street, is a building with a door of steel panels similar to the steel shutters that protect the shop of Gass’s character Mr. Gab, a collector of vintage photographs—prints by Stieglitz, Atget, Sudek, and many more. The analogy of a camera shutter couldn’t be clearer.

The story is set in the present. Mr. Gab, seventyish, hides out in his shop in a derelict neighborhood where he spends long hours staring at his precious photographic prints. The shop itself becomes the next image, the shop as a camera—the first term for which was “camera obscura,” or “dark chamber,” which is exactly how Mr. Gab’s shop is described, except for the light that leaks through the shutters, projecting the image of shadows on the rear wall, shadows of external objects, objects outside Mr. Gab’s chosen hideaway. And so the images of cameras, photographs, shadows, and projections, begin piling up—all within the first few pages. If the imagery hasn’t been clear, Gass tips the reader to think beyond the surface story he’s telling to its philosophical underpinnings with the clause “but genius was a dark cave full of flickers” and we know we are in Plato’s allegory of the cave.

The seventy-five page novella is divided into four approximately equally long chapters. The third-person point of view uses the indirect internal monologue of Mr. Gab’s assistant (variously named the stupid assistant, you stupid kid, hey-u-stew-pid, u-Stu, Stu, and Mr. Stu in a wonderful progression that parallels the narration of the backstory), but the focalization shifts seamlessly when needed, and through Stu’s thoughts and Mr. Gab’s exposition (and thoughts) we learn how much the photos mean to Mr. Gab; they are his obsession, his raison d’être. The photographs are both for sale and not, as Mr. Gab would prefer to hoard his treasures; however, occasionally he is forced to sell a few prints to make ends meet and he acquires new stock by haggling with shady characters who visit the shop from time to time. His is a cash-only business, and he keeps no receipts so there will be no paper trail.

The stupid assistant, Stu, actually Mr. Gab’s stepson (Mr. Gab “had been his mother’s husband, but was not known to be his father”), is assumed by everyone to be mentally handicapped because of his physical handicaps, which are numerous. Although Stu walks with a limp, has only one good arm, and one good eye—like a camera—he is actually highly intelligent and during the long hours he spends observing the empty shop, perched on his stool like Quasimodo atop Notre Dame, he reads library books, including Walter Pater (another writer famous for his prose style and works on aesthetics, art criticism, and Plato).

During the course of the story, which covers Stu’s history with Mr. Gab, Mr. Gab explains his theory of art and life to Stu using his favorite prints as examples. Gass’s language is so intriguing and beautiful it is difficult to resist the temptation to Google the photos, which are real (at least the ones I looked up), and Mr. Gab’s tone of reverence is pitch perfect, as in this excerpt where he is describing a photograph:

There’s a dark circle protecting the tree and allowing its roots to breathe. And the dark trunk, too, rising to enter its leaves. In a misted distance—see?—a horse-drawn bus, looking like a stagecoach, labeled AI, with its driver and several passengers. In short: we see this part of the world immersed in this part of the world’s weather. But we also see someone seeing it, someone having a feeling about the scene, not merely in a private mood, but responding to just this . . . this . . . and taking in the two trees and the streetlamp’s standard, the carriage, and in particular the faint diagonals of the curb, these sweet formal relations, each submerged in a gray-white realm that’s at the same time someone’s—Alvin Langdon Coburn’s—head.[5] [Gass’s ellipses]

The phrase “in a private mood” works not only in context, but as a metaphor for “in camera,” Latin for the legal term meaning “in chambers” or “in private,” for we are in the most private of chambers imaginable, inside a mind, submerged in a “gray-white realm,” i.e. the gray and white matter of the seer’s brain. This description works metaphorically for the relationship between Gass and his reader as well, with Gass the “someone seeing” a scene and writing it down for us to experience (and don’t forget the frontispiece). Mr. Gab expands on his description, driving home the primary question Gass would have us contemplate:

Such shadows as are here, for instance, in these photographs, are not illusions to be simply sniffed at. Where are the real illusions, u-Stu? They dwell in the eyes and hearts and minds of those in the carriage—yes—greedy to be going to their girl, to their bank, to their business.[6]

Mr. Gab sees the photographers as “saviors” who “bore witness,” each a “stand-in for God . . . who is saying: let there be this sacred light.” The image of God, or gods, is present in all the stories of Eyes and is one of many intertextual links. The religious imagery continues with Stu stealing fruit from the local street market, a metaphor for the forbidden fruit and the tree of knowledge.

Gass once remarked (somewhat flippantly by his admission) that he writes to “indict mankind,”[7] and although that’s hardly the whole story, Gass’s pessimism is conspicuous throughout the collection, as in this example of Mr. Gab’s assessment of the world: “It is misery begetting misery, you bet; it’s meanness making meanness, sure; it’s calamity; it’s cruelty and greed and indifference . . . .”[8] Mr. Gab wants the pure perfection shown in the photograph. For Mr. Gab, the camera is rescuer and redeemer; for him, although the world is “full of pain, full of waste,” through the work of the photographers, “every injustice that the world has done to the world is forgiven.”[9] Stu isn’t so sure. He lives in the outer world, beyond the shop’s shadows, where he walks to and from his flophouse room, exposed before the world’s judging eyes.

Stu stands opposite to Mr. Gab, juxtaposing sun-filled reality with the illusory (though comforting) world of the shop’s shadows. The window in Stu’s flophouse room is unshaded and open all the time, compared with the shuttered shop, and Stu’s single form of recreation is to read (expanding his consciousness) in “sun-filled vacant lots”[10] while the entrance to Mr. Gab’s bedroom (above the shop, i.e. he never leaves) is described as a “hole that was even darker than the inside of a hose.”[11] However, it isn’t so neat and tidy; there is a distinct tension within Stu, the lure of the outside world—a world of color photography—versus his fear of losing the comfort of the concrete world of the shop, not to mention his meager wages. This serves as the story’s plot, as Stu becomes increasingly worried Mr. Gab will be arrested for dealing in stolen photographs. In many ways he wants to stay in the cave with Mr. Gab, and in an ending where the accumulated images culminate in a crescendo as achingly beautiful and sublime as Joyce’s “The Dead,” Stu’s choice is as subtle as a shadow.

Sudek CathedralJoseph Sudek, St. Vitus’s Cathedral, 1924-28


The Giver

The second novella, Charity, presented as a continuous block of text without paragraph indentations, tells the story of a single character, a Washington D.C. lawyer named Hugh Hamilton Hardy and his obsession with being asked for charity. Continuing with Plato’s theory of Forms, the primary theme of the second novella is the Form of the Good. Like the first-person stories “The Toy Chest,” “Soliloquy for a Chair,” and “Don’t Even Try, Sam,” Charity delves into a single character’s consciousness, but here Gass uses a third-person point of view, allowing him to shift between levels of psychic distance and explore a stream of consciousness style. The narrative also shifts in time, cycling (often abruptly) between Hardy’s past and present, and sometimes these shifts can be jarring and force one to reread a sentence or two. The first few pages, in particular, can prove obfuscating in the same way Benjy’s thoughts cycle between past and present during the opening pages of The Sound and the Fury. Gass expects his reader to trust him and move forward, and it is worth the effort.

Despite such speed bumps, the story effectively pulls the reader into Hardy’s consciousness. The style creates a claustrophobic feeling, keeping the reader trapped in Hardy’s mind, where Hardy, of course, is trapped, imprisoned by his feelings of shame and humiliation and guilt, anger and resentment, hating all the beggars and hating himself for his inability to say no. Regarding obsessional characters, Gass said “I want closure, suffocation, the sense that there is nowhere else to go”[12] and this is exactly what he achieves in Charity. On one level, Charity can be read as an inventory of all the people and organizations pleading for his aid. Gass loves a great list, and he indulges his genius for multiplicity, using exaggeration as a rhetorical device to engender in the reader the same frustration Hardy feels upon opening yet another letter that begins “I understand you have helped people like myself in the past.”

As with In Camera, there isn’t a conventional plot, only the rising tension of Hardy’s obsession with giving. Hardy’s obsession is tearing his psyche apart and his work only makes matters worse. His job requires him to travel around the world to various companies who are failing to deliver quality products—either from negligence or fraud—and inform them that unless they fix the problem, huge lawsuits will follow. He’s basically legal muscle, an “enforcer,” and his presence is a de facto threat to force the companies to comply, an ironic parallel with the panhandlers asking him for money.

Hardy works for “Health and Haven”—Haven an allusion to Heaven and God as the ultimate good, the ultimate giver. Hardy sums up his situation:

although I can walk into a Prague or Padua or Paris office and terrify the paperclips simply by saying hello and unsnicking my slick black briefcase, shiny as Mephistopheles’s mirror, I can’t face down a scheming beggar on the street.[13]

The irony of his situation is clear: the big scary lawyer is terrified of panhandlers. Gass creates a wonderful double meaning for paperclips: first, the literal—Hardy is so intimidating that the actual paperclips tremble (and a nice intertextual link to “Soliloquy for a Chair” where all tools are sentient); and second, the metaphorical—that the people Hardy confronts are as witheringly insignificant as paperclips. The simile of Hardy’s briefcase being like a mirror—shiny and clear, something to stand before and be judged guilty—is pushed that extra notch by assigning it to the devil. And that mirror, held up for us too, won’t let Gass escape either, recalling the reflection photograph of Gass (as if in a mirror) that opens In Camera.

Hardy’s continuous internal rant is punctuated by thoughts of Molly, the woman he is dating; their relationship constitutes a subplot. In this excerpt, Gass uses parallel structure (isocolon) to emphasize Hardy’s torment and then segues by association to his thoughts of Molly:

He’d been shaken down at high noon, shaken in full public view, shaken till his change withdrew from an embarrassed pocket and fell out of his crestfallen paw. It was humiliating but she loved to have him lick her like a puppy. Why did he do it? He did it because he was a coward. He did it because she was better at being beautiful than any woman he would ever be likely to know.[14]

Hardy’s mind leaps from “paw” to “puppy,” effecting the transition of his thoughts, but then his thoughts aren’t so clear. Does Hardy’s question apply to Molly, to giving money panhandlers, to both? Gass delays the answer, mimicking how thoughts can overlap. Such mental flights are occasions for Gass to have some fun with transitions, allusions, and imagery. For example:

Hardy would slowly kiss her cute feet: toe one, toe two, toe three . . . She would grow moistly abundant. Resplendent, the thigh skin, stretching away to the mount. He thought just then of the Mount of Olives. Absurd the adventitious bridges between words. Yet it was astonishing how a sacrifice, a catastrophe could comprise a gift.[15] [Gass’s ellipsis]

The sentence about “adventitious bridges” is Hardy’s thought, but it is also a metafictional wink to the reader, a reminder to pay attention and a way for Gass to comment on the possibilities of language. In this passage Gass doubles the image of charity beyond the use of the word “gift”: the Greek for charity is agape, the love associated with brotherly love and the love of God, as opposed to eros, or sexual love. Hardy is capable of the latter, but not the former. The reference to the Mount of Olives and the sentence about sacrifice as a gift brings in the image of Jesus and thus again God as the ultimate giver, and finally, charity is one of the three theological virtues in Christianity, together with faith and hope.

Bad parents run like a scar through much of Gass’s fiction, figuring prominently in The Tunnel, the novella Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s, and in “The Toy Chest.” In Charity, the protagonist’s parents are two of the worst, and the psychology that shaped young Hardy emerges as we learn of their stingy, insincere attempts at charity. During a pivotal episode of Hardy’s childhood, when his parents brought him along on an ill-fated attempt to deliver a box of donated items to a less fortunate family, Gass’s style amplifies the emotional resonance of the scene to such a degree, we cringe and squirm with discomfort. And it is this traumatic memory that will haunt Hardy to his breaking point.



The Utes

For Gass, a character can be “any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier.”[16] Ideas can be characters. It should come as no surprise then that in the next two stories inanimate objects are the main characters. In the tradition of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Gass offers us narrators in the form of a piano and a chair, and if Calvino (of whom Gass is an admirer) can write a convincing story from the point of view of a subatomic particle, Gass can certainly do so with a piece of furniture.

In “Don’t Even Try, Sam,” the piano featured in the 1942 film Casablanca speaks as if being interviewed and regales us with the inside story of this icon of American film. We get all the juicy backstage gossip—fastidiously researched, naturally—and for anyone who has seen the movie, it is obvious which actors (e.g. Beauguy and Miss Visit Stockholm) the piano is speaking about with her distinctly feminine voice. The story begins with a photo from the movie: a dour Rick leaning against the back of the piano as Sam plays, singing, the smiling crowd watching. This twenty-page story is the perfect thematic companion piece to In Camera and uses much of the same imagery. For what is Casablanca but a series of black and white photos? It is Mr. Gab’s stock, only animated—each frame its own collection of shadows, reflections, and glistening eyes, each only a simulacrum of reality. The piano’s grievance with the movie, and by extension, the world, is just this: it’s all a fraud. In the piano’s words: “If this is real life, real life must be a frigging fraud . . . . I go dum diddily dumdum but I don’t feel dum diddily dumdum.”[17] Of course the movie was false, movies are only representations. But the piano’s point is that there were layers of deception. For example, Dooley Wilson (Sam) wasn’t actually playing the piano—nor could he—and thus the title of the story sounds like what the piano might have said to Mr. Wilson during the famous scene when Ilsa asks Sam to play “As Time Goes By,” i.e. “Don’t even try, Sam.”

 Sam's Piano

“Soliloquy for a Chair” is another first-person biography told by an object—a foldable steel chair, named Mr. Middle. The chipper Mr. Middle (named for his placement among a group of seven similar chairs as seen in the opening black and white photo) introduces us to the Mississippi barbershop where he and his six companions have spent most of their lives. We learn he is a member of the race of Utes, who speak Utile or Toolese, for they are descendants of the first tools humans made “Back when the world had meaning.”[18] Mr. Middle’s tale consists of his observations of humanity interwoven with his story of how the barbershop became the target of a mysterious bombing. Gass uses rhyme and meter and sentence structure to engender a whimsical voice for the chair:

It was a friendly place, a little stuffy from piped-in warmth through the winter, but blossoming with habitués at all times of year because, as every person not cursed by baldness knows, hair in plenty grows, through droughts and blights and snows, but not in tidy rows. Not them. Not those.[19]

The philosophical parade continues with the story’s closing sentence (don’t worry, it isn’t a spoiler): “If it suits him in his heart to say it went this way, why not say it went this way, say I.”[20] Mr. Middle is commenting on the belief of Natty Know-it-all (who “got his name by being just the opposite”) that the Utes were the target of the bomber. The phrase “in his heart” implies the opposite of “in his head” (irrational versus logical); likewise “if it suits him” implies an irrational basis for his decision. Mr. Middle grants Natty the permission to believe whatever he wants, and stresses how little he cares with “why not.” If In Camera proposes the existence of an objective world, then this sentence suggests the opposite, and is as succinct as subjectivism can be. Leaving nothing to chance, Gass inverts the syntax, allowing him to end the sentence with “I”—a play on point of view and a pun (a favorite device) on “eye.”

 Steel Chair


A Folktale and a Nightmare

For the frontispiece of “The Man Who Spoke with His Hands,” Gass chose an illustration from William James’s Principles of Psychology that diagrams the neuronal pathways necessary for writing. Sensory information enters through the eye, travels through the occipital lobe to the thalamus and parietal cortex and then motor control is delivered down to a writing hand. The image of the hand figures prominently in the story, and Gass ensures we pay attention for he repeats the title (or slight variations) as the first line in 14 of the first 19 paragraphs. Gass combines this anaphora with his usual rhetorical and lyrical devices to create the tone of a folktale; you can almost hear the missing “Once upon a time” at the beginning.

The narrator of this fifteen-page story is slippery, for although the story reads like a traditional third-person narrative, there are suspicious intrusions of a first-person “I.” The tale is about Arthur Devise, music teacher, widowed father of a college-aged daughter named Dottie, and the man who speaks with his hands—that is, he is constantly making gestures with his hands that don’t necessarily relate to what he may or may not be speaking about. Juxtaposed to Arthur are the other members of the music department, including Professors Rinse and Paltry (names to join the pantheon of such academics as Henry Fielding’s Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square). The professors speculate extensively on what Arthur’s hand gestures might mean, only to find out that Arthur believes his hands are controlled by God. Paltry discounts this claim as madness and perhaps it is, since Arthur, whose wife was “terribly killed” and who must endure the “nymphomaniacal imposture” of his daughter (who is a student in Paltry’s class) might be suffering from a nervous disorder—which brings us back to William James’s Principles of Psychology. Much is left up for debate and the narrator delivers a barrage of sentences beginning with “perhaps” to close out the last two pages. Once again, the nature of reality is questioned, and the only conclusion is that nothing is certain and reality is subjectively determined.

 The last story in the collection is also the darkest. “The Toy Chest” is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, now an adult, reminiscing about his childhood, his toy chest a Proustian source of involuntary memory. The narrator is agitated, claiming “Today is one of my more lucid days,”[21] and the text is fragmented in places suggesting both a broken typewriter and a fractured mind. Here Gass uses textual spaces as a rhetorical device in a manner reminiscent of his novels Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and The Tunnel. In fact, the narrator shares many family motifs with Kohler in The Tunnel including an alcoholic mother, a critical father, and an odd aunt. The narrator produced his own newspaper as a child and wrote headlines such as “Death Day Extra” and “Drunken Mother Throws Up At Birthday Party” and as he drops deeper into memory, we are delivered into the solipsism of a single mind’s reality.


Worlds Within Words

When asked what he would concentrate on if he were to write an essay on his own work, Gass replied that he would “immediately start talking about the manipulation of language” and that he would “write about writing sentences.”[22] Anyone who has read Gass’s incredible essays knows what we might expect: detailed analysis of the structure of the sentence, spiral diagrams, etc. In the spirit of such an essay, consider the following excerpt from In Camera; it is from Stu’s point of view concerning a certain type of customer:

but occasionally there’d be some otherwise oblivious fellow who would fly to a box, shove off the bag of beans, and begin to finger through the photos as you might hunt through a file, with a haste hope might have further hastened, an air of expectancy that suggested some prior prompting, only to stop and withdraw a sheet suddenly and accompany it to the light of the good lamp in the rear, where he’d begin to examine it first with a studied casualness that seemed more conspiratorial than anything, looking about like a fly about to light before indifferently glancing at the print, until at last, now as intent as a tack, he’d submit to scrutiny each inch with tight white lips, finally following Mr. Gab, who had anticipated the move, through the rug to the card table and the cat in the kitchen, where they’d have what Mr. Gab called, with a pale smile that was nearly not there, a confab.

Concerning cost. This is what his stupid assistant assumed. The meeting would usually end with a sale, a sale that put Mr. Gab in possession of an envelope fat with cash, for he accepted nothing else . . .[23]

The first sentence (199 words including the part not shown) reports movement; it is what Gass would call a “scroll” sentence and describes a journey, a journey the customer takes from his entry into the shop, to the box of photos, to the rear of the shop, and finally to Mr. Gab’s kitchen. We are moving with the customer, and we are going to learn things about the world—including who lives in it—along the way. The sentence’s rhythm modulates as the traveler is either speeding along or stopping to contemplate the scenery.

A clear sound effect comes from the abundant alliteration, for example: “bag / beans / begin,” “hunt / haste hope / hasten,” “prior prompting,” etc., and assonance with “each inch” and “tight white.” Alliteration and assonance can create harmony or dissonance, and Gass uses both. Before the customer becomes “intent,” the alliteration is harmonious, mimicking his movement; however, after “until at last” the alliteration of the sharp ts becomes dissonant. The dissonance symbolically reflects the customer’s mood, his intense scrutiny, his eye attacking each square inch of the photograph. But the effects of Gass’s alliteration don’t stop there, it also affects the tempo of the sentence. Before “finally following” there are sixteen sharp ts beginning with “about to light” and two sharp ks (tack and scrutiny); after “finally following” there are seven sharp ts and seven sharp ks (including the sentence “Concerning cost”). The alliteration of all those stressed ts slows the pace as the buyer is scrutinizing the photograph (pronouncing all those ts slows the reading with almost a tongue-twisting effect). Further slowing the tempo while the customer scrutinizes his prize is the meter. Reading from “a fly about to light,” the meter is iambic until “last,” where there is a natural caesura and a convenient place for a comma. The meter then shifts to dactylic through “submit,” but breaks down between “scrutiny” and “lips” with multiple stresses. There are also caesuras between “submit” and “to” and between “scrutiny” and “each.” If you read this sentence aloud, you must pause, otherwise the words will overlap. Gass is constraining the system for effect, he wants us to move and stop with the customer. “Finally following Mr. Gab” with its easy alliteration and dactylic meter, releases the tension and resumes the forward momentum of the sentence as the customer is once again in motion, now being escorted by Mr. Gab; furthermore, now the sharp “k” sound predominates, symbolic of the location change. At the end of the sentence we have arrived.

Not so fast. It isn’t just sounds that Gass uses to create his effects, there is syntax (reflected in the meter) and structure as well. What about that odd paragraph break? If this were verse, we would call this an enjambment.

Enjambment is characterized by a line break without an end stop where the sentence carries over to a new line for poetic effect, for example for emphasis or surprise. Here Gass uses punctuation and a line break to alter the cadence just as enjambment works in poetry. Even though a period follows “confab,” it is clear this sentence doesn’t really end until after “Concerning cost.” Gass adapts enjambment to slow the cadence once again, to force the reader to pause and dwell on the secret haggling taking place behind the rug curtain. The reader makes a full stop at the period after “confab”; there is a natural pause in shifting to a new paragraph with the line break, and then there is another full stop after the two-word sentence “Concerning cost.”

What about Gass’s choice of words? “Concerning cost” is Stu’s assumption. The enjambment’s emphasis lends a sense of mystery—as if “concerning cost” was a euphemism for bribery or blackmail or theft, i.e. it is a genteel phrase Stu can apply to his master’s actions to maintain the illusion that all’s well and fair and legal and he need not worry about anything. If Gass had written (dreadfully) “About the price,” this effect would have been lost. The word “contraband” is used two sentences later with the same implication. There is also Mr. Gab’s “pale smile that was nearly not there,” which suggests conspiracy and coyness (and parallels the customer’s “tight white lips”), and the word “confab” is euphemistic for something less respectable, less legal. The customer first flies to the box of prints and is then compared to a fly directly—and flies are associated with refuse, carrion, disease. The history of each word becomes a part of the metaphor. Gass’s composition creates a metaphor for the customer’s movement, a metaphor for the customer’s and Stu’s state of mind, and metaphor for the moral character of the customer and Mr. Gab.

Lastly, the second sentence in the second paragraph brings the preceding into focus. This is all Stu’s interpretation, his judgment of what is happening, and where the larger metaphor of the story comes in: Because Stu can’t be certain of what is taking place behind the curtain—he can only assume—we know we are dealing with a question of epistemology, and that is the thematic base of the novella and a theme continued throughout the collection.

Magritte's The False MirrorRené Magritte, The False Mirror, 1928

Although each of the stories in Eyes was published separately, the themes and images connect them to produce an eclectic, yet unified whole. Gass’s ideal work of art is a thing in itself, a system of internal relations, and he hasn’t missed many opportunities to integrate these stories. Above all, there is the dominant image of the eye, around which other themes circle like “subordinate suns” according to his description. In Camera is replete with references to eyes, vision, observation, seeing; it is a story about photographs, images captured on film that were focused with eyes for eyes to see. Charity, a novella about a man who suspiciously regards the world, depends on the word “eye” as a verb (and as a noun); and all the stories draw from the definition of “eye” as a point of view, as judgment.

But beyond metaphors, shared themes, and intertextual links, the real quality unifying William H. Gass’s work is the composition, composition born from a belief in the beauty of language, composition that transcends the writing as a thing in itself to become a sublime affirmation.

The frontispiece opposite the title page is a black and white photo of a sculpture called Der Augenturm (The Eye Tower). It looks remarkably like a rocket ship, complete with a passenger sitting in the nose cone, ready for a journey. Marcel Proust wants us to believe that “The only real journey . . . would be to travel not towards new landscapes, but with new eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them can see, or can be . . . .”[24]

Be assured that William H. Gass’s journeys deliver some of the most exceptional views you will ever see.

—Frank Richardson

Frank Richardson bio pict 2

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. William H. Gass, A Temple of Texts: Essays (Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2007), 127.
  2. William H. Gass, Interview by Lee Gutkin (Los Angeles Review of Books, 2013), Web.
  3. Thomas LeClair, “William H. Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction” (Conversations with John Gardner, Allan Chavkin, ed. Mississippi UP, 1990), 180.
  4. William H. Gass, Interview by Thomas LeClair (The Paris Review, No. 70, 1977), Web.
  5. William H. Gass, Eyes (New York: Knopf, 2015), 30.
  6. Ibid., 30-31.
  7. William H. Gass, Interview by Jim Neighbors (Contemporary Literature, Vol. 43. No. 4, Winter 2002), 633.
  8. Gass, Eyes, 40.
  9. Ibid., 41.
  10. Ibid., 37.
  11. Ibid., 72.
  12. Gass, Interview by Thomas LeClair, Web.
  13. Gass, Eyes, 100.
  14. Ibid., 82.
  15. Ibid., 97.
  16. LeClair, Conversations with John Gardner, 180.
  17. Gass, Eyes, 158.
  18. Ibid., 176.
  19. Ibid., 183-184.
  20. Ibid., 196.
  21. Ibid., 234.
  22. Gass, Interview with Thomas LeClair, Web.
  23. Gass, Eyes, 16-17.
  24. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and The Fugitive (Ed. Christopher Prendergast. Trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier. London: Lane-Penguin, 2002), 237.
Dec 032015

Aashish Kaul


Les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère. — Marcel Proust

Beautiful books are written in a kind of foreign language. There is already in this adage of Proust the notion of ‘making strange’ that was to be espoused by the Russian Formalists some years later. Proust may or may not be the best example to discuss the Russian Formalists, for he both validates and annuls their thesis, but in this instance there remains a commonality that may, for the time being, be enough to eclipse their differences.

For the Formalists, obsessed as they were to develop a more scientific basis for literary studies and make them an autonomous and specific discipline, it became necessary to exclude all mimetic and expressive definitions of literature. To see a literary work as an expression of its author’s personality led inevitably (and unacceptably) to biography and psychology, while to regard it as a picture of a given society led in turn (equally undesirably) to history, politics, or sociology.[1] What remained, therefore, was the peculiar nature of a literary work itself, and it was this peculiarity that the Formalists made the basis of literary scrutiny, a peculiarity which could be distinguished from any other material and which lent a literary work its especial aura or quality. The Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky began with the idea that art refreshes our sense of life and experience. ‘If we examine,’ he wrote:

the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all our skills and experiences function unconsciously — automatically…. And so held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war…. And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art…. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant (italics in original).[2]

Subsequent developments in theories about literature and the creative process may make Shklovsky’s observation look obvious, but they hardly obscure its truth. And would not Proust give his whole-hearted assent to this idea! — Proust, who poured all his later life into composing a seemingly endless book with the sole aim of granting the reader a few visions of pure perception amidst the deadening whorls of habit, that dull inviolability which Beckett memorably called ‘the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.’[3]

The kind of enstrangement that Shklovsky advocates, namely, the one achieved by complicating form, is also at work in Proust, as it is at work in Joyce, in Virginia Woolf, in Faulkner — Borges wrote his stories as if they were expository pieces, while his essays repeatedly adopted styles and themes more suitable for fiction (though Shklovsky’s models are markedly older: Cervantes, Tolstoy, Sterne, Dickens). These formal/technical devices are for Shklovsky and others the very means of achieving ‘defamiliarization’ in a work of literature, and the final triumph of art over dull, automatized life. Literature, as Ezra Pound said, is news that remains news. But what is unfamiliar may become familiar, worn thin, itself automatized, with use and passage of time. So techniques and devices were needed to be perpetually juggled, some foregrounded over others for a period of time, to keep literariness alive across epochs.

Another kind of dialectic is at work here: the opposition between automation and defamiliarization. Having banished the author, having dispelled the biography, psychology, and historicity of a work, the Formalists were left simply with devices, and this could only lead to the astonishing pronouncement that there were in truth no authors, but only literary works (for example, Osip Brik, in ‘The so-called formal method’ (1923): ‘Opojaz proposes that there are no poets or literary figures, there is poetry and literature.’ He claimed rather provocatively that Eugene Onegin would have been written even if Pushkin had never existed, just as America would have been discovered without Columbus.). To be able to make a science of literary scrutiny, it was for them essential to mount a two-pronged attack: to demolish, in one stroke, the Romantic notion of the author as a vessel of divine inspiration and the utterly spurious, if deeply ingrained, distinction between form and content. Now the author was no longer either a visionary or a genius, but merely an artisan who arranged and rearranged material available at his or her disposal. The author’s job was to know about literature, the history of literature, the knowledge and skill in handling devices that made a work literary, and what he or she knew of life or reality was quite irrelevant.[4]

Shklovsky1 PSViktor Shklovsky

But psychology, biography, and the historic situation cannot be subtracted so easily from a given work; they are the very factors which make the rearrangement of material striking and novel in each case. For although a man’s life does not explain his work, the two are nevertheless connected. The truth, says Merleau-Ponty in his essay ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, is that ‘this work to be done called for this life’. It is therefore impossible to separate creative liberty from the peculiar incidents that shape an artistic life:

If I am a certain project from birth, the given and the created are indistinguishable in me, and it is therefore impossible to name a single gesture which is merely hereditary or innate, a single gesture which is not spontaneous — but also impossible to name a single gesture which is absolutely new in regard to that way of being in the world which, from the very beginning, is myself. There is no difference between saying that our life is completely constructed and that it is completely given. If there is a true liberty, it can only come about in the course of our life by our going beyond our original situation and yet not ceasing to be the same…. In every life, one’s birth and one’s past define categories or basic dimensions which do not impose any particular act but which can be found in all…. Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that — if we know how to interpret it — we can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work…. We never get away from our life. We never see our ideas or our freedom face to face.[5]

Then again, the muse was not the invention of the Romantics alone; she visited Homer and Virgil, too, was already Dante’s Beatrice, was the nature-song of the Tang poets in Classical China, touched Rilke in dreams. She is always there because she is not a phantasm, but only the mind’s effort to reify the wonder it feels, in creative, palpable moments, at its own ability to rearrange the lava flow of sensory data toward imaginative and artistic ends. Or perhaps she is but a place of negativity, not belonging to either the mind or language, for, as Giorgio Agamben tells us, ‘muse was the name the Greeks gave to the experience of the ungraspability of the originary place of the poetic word.’[6]


What makes a work defamiliar, that is to say literary or artistic, beyond the play of devices, then, is a certain ‘poeticity’ as Roman Jakobson called it. This poeticity, per Jakobson, was like oil in cooking; it cannot be consumed of its own, but when used as an ingredient in cooking other foods, it changes their taste completely.

In Sanskrit literature, in Indian classical music and other art forms, too, there appears a notion quite similar to Jakobson’s — that of the rasas. Quite literally, rasa means ‘juice’ or ‘nectar’, but what is really hinted at is that quality of a given work which evokes a particular mood in its reader or audience. In other words, it is the poeticity that lends a work its especial charm or atmosphere, and makes it unlike anything else one has experienced, foreign, rare, glittering like a jewel.

It is, then, the atmosphere of a literary work that makes its language feel foreign, unfamiliar, distant. This is the reason behind Proust’s paradoxical assertion. We could, of course, find another resolution, a Bakhtinian resolution, to this Proustian oddity, whereby it is a word’s internal dialogism, separate from its ability to form a concept of its object, that has the power to shape style: ‘The prose artist elevates the social heteroglossia surrounding objects into an image that has finished contours, an image completely shot through with dialogized overtones; he creates artistically calculated nuances on all the fundamental voices and tones of this heteroglossia’.[7] And so the greater the artistic nuances on the fundamental social tones of a language, the more foreign or unfamiliar will be the prose they generate.

Similar, too, is the belief of the Spanish writer Javier Marías, who once observed in an interview that what counts the most in a novel — and what we remember the most — is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves for a few hours or a few days. The prime aspect of a novel, said Marías, is its setting, which of itself is a secondary issue.[8]

javier-mariasJavier Marías

Roman Ingarden is in agreement. In any literary work, he writes, there are metaphysical qualities or ‘essences’ which can neither be found in objects nor psychic states, but instead are revealed, in complex or disparate situations or events, as the overall atmosphere which penetrates and illumines everything with its light. An essential function, then, of objective situations in a literary work is the manifestation of such metaphysical qualities. Such manifestation, however, does not arise purely from objects or situations, but emerges from the structure of the work, from its organic unity. Metaphysical qualities are merely held in readiness — they are not manifested in the work, but rather in its concretization through the act of reading.[9]

Essences, poeticity, atmosphere. These qualities are difficult to segregate in practice since, as Ingarden states, they can neither be found in objects nor psychic states, but emerge from the structure of the work and the act of reading. And so any reader of, say, Wuthering Heights or The Trial is aware of the presence of these qualities, without necessarily being able to draw a tally of all the places in the text where they are made manifest. In Joseph Roth’s late work The Emperor’s Tomb, for instance, the inconsistencies and compositional flaws are redeemed by these very essences that Ingarden speaks of, by the muted melancholy and nostalgia of the novel’s atmosphere.

The Australian writer Beverley Farmer, for example, expertly mixes formal and metaphysical qualities in her palimpsestic work A Body of Water. Early in the book she gives a description of a cove near her house, a description which, because it is so truly phenomenological, creates an effect of both enstrangement and existential depth:

My first summer in this place. So hot and still a day, and I spent it on the sand, the cliff-shadow advancing over me, and now and then went to lie in one of the channels between the pale rocks and was washed cold…. Sometimes at twilight the water in the pools east of the pier went dark with a grey-brown glint, a half-light inside it; and at the same time the rocks at the rim were grey and water-blue. Until it was too dark to see, water was rock and rock water….  Sandstone is honeycomb in this still afternoon sun, pitted with swallows’ nests. All this beach is the same colour — sand, rock and rock pool. The small mouse-shrieks of swallows skim and soar. The wave-shaped, whale-shaped headland is dark in the spray of the western sky…. My footprints flatten the crisp arrowheads left by gulls. At the high tide mark, along the hairline of the marram grass, clumps of feathers, all hollowed out, clench empty beaks and claws.[10]


The emphasis on essences, poeticity, atmosphere in the discourse surrounding literary works is a direct result of the fusion of form and content. Every form produces its own idea, its own vision of the world, observed Octavio Paz. ‘Form has meaning, and in the realm of art only form possesses meaning; content stems from form, and not otherwise.’[11] Tzvetan Todorov, while using an essentially Structuralist vocabulary, makes the same point: ‘Every work possesses a structure, which is the articulation of elements derived from the different categories of literary discourse; and this structure is at the same time the locus of the meaning’.[12]

Writing near the later stages of the Russian Formalist and Modernist revolutions in literature, E.M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, first published in 1927, while still lingering over concepts like ‘story’, ‘plot’, ‘flat and round characters’ into which modernist works had bored deep holes, acknowledged that in moving from ‘story’ to ‘plot’, the novel acquired a complexity favourable to the creation of ‘value’.[13] Now this ‘value’ cannot be found in plain narrative, but can only arise from the whole complex structure and is dependent on what Forster refers to as ‘pattern and rhythm’.[14] The novel has to be an aesthetic object and ‘rhythm’ helps toward this end. Rhythm cannot be imposed from outside and is not available to writers who plan their books beforehand. It must grow with and inside the narrative. Forster ultimately explains its effects as being analogous to those of music. In the triumph of plot over story, in the musical effects of pattern and rhythm creating value in the novel, we see again the Formalist preoccupation with literary devices, Jakobson’s poeticity, Ingarden’s metaphysical qualities. Julio Cortázar in his novel Hopscotch sums it up beautifully:

Why am I writing this? I have no clear ideas, I do not even have ideas. There are tugs, impulses, blocks, and everything is looking for a form, then rhythm comes into play and I write within that rhythm, I write by it, moved by it and not by that thing they call thought and which turns out prose, literature, or what have you. First there is a confused situation, which can only be defined by words; I start out from this half-shadow and if what I mean (if what is meant) has sufficient strength, the swing begins at once, a rhythmic swaying that draws me to the surface, lights everything up, conjugates this confused material and the one who suffers it into a clear third somehow fateful level: sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, book. This swaying, this swing in which confused material goes about taking shape, is for me the only certainty of its necessity, because no sooner does it stop than I understand that I no longer have anything to say. And it is also the only reward for my work: to feel that what I have written is like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence. In that way by writing I go down into the volcano, I approach the Mothers, I connect with the Center — whatever it may be. Writing is sketching my mandala and at the same time going through it, inventing purification by purifying one’s self; the task of a poor white shaman in nylon socks.[15]

Julio CortázarJulio Cortázar, via Wikimedia Commons

As I have stated elsewhere, Cortázar is hinting at several things here. Among them is the foregrounding of rhythm, form, devices over story or characters. It is rhythm that structures a book, page by page, sentence upon sentence, and not the desire to mimic ‘reality’ or relate a tale that comes to the writer altogether whole from the very start; it is rhythm, too, that word by word creates the story from barely noticeable mental or physical impulses and ideas, and that leaves behind writing which is ‘like the back of a cat as it is being petted, with sparks and an arching in cadence’. Yet another is the notion of writing as a purifying rite, not dissimilar to Shklovsky’s comment above: ‘the perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity’.

Cortázar tells us that the search for form enables rhythm to come into play, and that he writes from within this rhythm. For the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson, this fact alone would be enough to classify Cortázar as a true modern writer, distinguished from those he refers to as late modernists and postmodernists, because, for Jameson, form, in the case of modernist writers, is never given in advance but is generated experimentally in the encounter, leading to formations that could never have been predicted, unlike the late modernists and their successors, to whom the structure of the form was known in advance (since the likes of Cortázar, Proust, and Joyce had already discovered it for them) and to which the ‘raw empiricities of content’ could then be made to submit.[16] Jameson arrives at this observation at the end of a long and nuanced thesis, which is well beyond our scope to explore here, but even assuming that the break modernism signified with an earlier world was anywhere as paradigmatic and total as Jameson would have us believe, I am unsure if it could be applied so readily and consistently to all writers working in the latter period. For barring the more superficial cases, it is difficult to say with any certainty whether form and content arise together or separately in any given work. Indeed, in the more formidable works, they must out of creative necessity arise in unison.

When content fades into form, the fictional reality becomes fluid and dynamic; it is not something given, hard and raw, that a writer need merely ornament and make palatable with his or her craft. Any moral or social purpose, indeed the characters and their story, gives way to the process itself. A book like Forster’s discussing ‘flat and round characters’ would be inconceivable today, simply because, as Todorov states, novels do not imitate reality but create it:

Although we no longer refer to literature in terms of imitation, we still have trouble getting rid of a certain way of looking at fiction; inscribed in our speech habits, it is a vision through which we perceive the novel in terms of representation, or the transposition of a reality that exists prior to it. This attitude would be problematic even if it did not attempt to describe the creative process. When it refers to the text itself, it is sheer distortion. What exists first and foremost is the text itself, and nothing but the text. Only by subjecting the text to a particular type of reading do we construct, from our reading, an imaginary universe. Novels do not imitate reality; they create it…. [Similarly,] the fictional character is a segment of the spatio-temporal universe represented in the text, nothing more; he/she comes into existence the moment referential linguistic forms (proper names, certain nominal syntagms, personal pronouns) appear in a text regarding an anthropomorphic being. In and of itself the fictional character has no content…. But, as soon as psychological determinism appears in the text, the fictional character becomes endowed with character: he acts in a certain way, because he is shy, weak, courageous, etc.…. Character, then, can be an effect of reading; there exists a kind of reading to which every text can be subjected. But in fact, the effect is not arbitrary; it is no accident that character exists in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel and not in Greek tragedy or the folktale. A text always contains within itself directions for its own consumption.[17]

It is not a coincidence, then, that as content fades into form, and the fictional reality becomes fluid, the novel sheds its old skin, loses some of its neatness or artefact-ness (although this is not to deny the uniqueness of the fictional world, which is dependent on the uniqueness of the artistic consciousness); its personages abandon their literary rigidity, begin to distrust their own qualities to become, surprisingly, not less but more human and lifelike, as in the case of Robert Musil’s hero Ulrich, in the cunningly titled great modernist work, The Man Without Qualities.

This is the great heritage of modernism. Characters are not described to make them ‘round’ or believable, but to make them contextual in the larger narrative of the work. (Did not Chekhov himself believe that human character is essentially flat, and it is life instead that is complex?) Writing is an attempt to understand one’s position in the world, to find a relevance for one’s past, one’s memories in the forever-becoming present and an impersonal, abstract (or absurd) future. Most modern-day writers emphasize the structure of the work and the unity of its various parts that respond to an internal necessity rather than outward reality. Very often, a writer’s choice of a subject, together with the style and perspective he or she employs to express this subject, is enough to show where his or her affinities lie. And choosing an aesthetic itself amounts to a moral act, for, as Georg Lukács puts it, ‘the ethical intention in the case of the novel is an effective structural element of the work itself.’[18]

As the artistic vision turns more personal, it withdraws from the common ideas of social and moral exchange and the general categories we ascribe to reality, and the more singular it becomes, the closer it comes to defining reality in a clear, specific manner, away from the shared perception of the mass. The creative process in its coming into being and becoming is deeply personal, and needs the gift from the otherworldly, the aesthetic thrust that creates in the receiver a feeling of transcendence. The emotion it produces is a little outside words, even though emanating from them, like laughter. In such cases, the fictive world makes no effort to mimic the ‘real’, but engenders an entirely new, unfamiliar version, in the process defeating it.

But this defeat, or as Lukács calls it, self-destruction of reality, is of an entirely intellectual nature and is not immediately evident in a poetic or sensuous way. Genuine interiority, he writes, turns ideas of life into ideals, and the inability of the outside world, which is a stranger to ideals and enemy of interiority, to achieve an appearance of completeness within the novel can only be overcome when it becomes the focus of the artist’s mood or reflection.[19]

Hugo von HofmannsthalHugo von Hoffmannsthal

Fredric Jameson, on the other hand, has argued that this ‘enstrangement’ and obsession with form that makes the artefact preferable to reality is the result of late capitalism turning modernism into ideology and the crowning of aesthetic autonomy over life and experience in the midst of humanity, that is to say, history,[20] but in truth the twin notion that a book is a vision of the world and at the same time a thing added to the world is perhaps at least as old as the printing press. Don Quixote, for example, would not exist in the absence of this crucial theme. Much later than Cervantes but also much before the beginnings of modernism, in a fictional fragment, The Rose and The Desk, Hugo von Hofmannsthal could write:

I know that flowers don’t fall by themselves out of open windows. Especially not at night. But that’s neither here nor there. Briefly, the red rose was suddenly lying on the white snow of the street in front of my black patent-leather shoes. It was very dark, like velvet, still slim, not yet opened, and entirely without scent in the cold. I took it home with me, put it in a tiny Japanese vase on my desk and went to sleep. A short while later I was wide awake. There was a faint glow in the room, not from the moon but from starlight. I felt the scent of the heated rose wafting toward me as I breathed, and I heard a low voice. It was the porcelain rose of the old Vienna inkstand, which had something to say. “He has absolutely no feeling for style anymore,” it said, “no taste at all.” It meant me. “Otherwise he couldn’t possibly have put such a thing next to me.” It meant the living rose.[21]

—Aashish Kaul


Aashish Kaul completed his doctoral studies at the University of Sydney. He is the author of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories (2014) and The Queen’s Play (2015).


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Ann Jefferson and David Robey, eds. Modern Literary Theory – A Comparative Introduction. London: Batsford, 1986. p 27.
  2. Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. trans. B Sher. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991. pp. 4-6.
  3. Samuel Beckett, Proust. New York: Grove Press, 1957. p. 8.
  4. Jefferson and Robey, pp. 31-34.
  5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Basic Writings. ed. T Baldwin. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. pp. 284-89. See also, Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. trans. R Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975. pp. 151-53.
  6. Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity. trans. K Pinkus and M Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. p. 78.
  7. MM Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. trans. C Emerson and M Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982. pp. 278-79, see also, pp. 298-99.
  8. Javier Marías, ‘Eight Questions for Javier Marías’, Voyage Along the Horizon. trans. K Cordero. San Francisco: Believer Books, 2006. pp. 175-82.
  9. Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art. trans. G Grabowicz. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973. pp. 290-96.
  10. Beverley Farmer, A Body of Water. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1990. pp. 4-6.
  11. Octavio Paz, Alternating Currents. trans. H Lane. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990. p. 6.
  12. Todorov, 1975, p. 141.
  13. E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. London: Penguin, 2005. pp. xiv, 86-87.
  14. Forster, pp. xv, 134-50.
  15. Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch. trans. G Rabassa. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. p. 402.
  16. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity. London: Verso, 2012. p. 208.
  17. Tzvetan Todorov, ‘Reading as Construction’ in Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy, eds. Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996. pp. 259, 266-67. See also, Todorov, 1975, pp. 54, 93-95.
  18. Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel. trans. A Bostock. London: Merlin Press, 1971. p. 72.
  19. Lukács, p. 79.
  20. Jameson, pp. 176-79.
  21. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings. trans. J Rotenberg. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005. p. 49.
Dec 022015
DFW credit Flickr Steve Rhodes Salon

David Foster Wallace. Credit Flickr/Steve Rhodes via

A gargantuan book wherein all the glinting particulars of an animate metropolis everywhere dissolve in these shadows of the valley of death? This without ever skimping in the effort to speak a score of deeply personal tongues? Plus just the writer’s resolve to stake a substantial chunk of his lifespan in the manufacture of an irksome and unrepeatable nothing? With this stuff I, for one, can like totally Identify. —Bruce Stone

DFW cover


End of Tour1

Still from James Ponsoldt’s DFW biopic The End of the Tour

Only the most militant fans of David Foster Wallace will find anything objectionable in The End of the Tour, director James Ponsoldt’s eulogy for the writer, who died, at 46, in 2008.[1] The biographical film has an indie ethos and an all-business cast, though its provenance still begs a double-take. The screenplay is adapted from a 2010 book by David Lipsky, which is itself a reboot of Lipsky’s five-days-long, but never published interview with DFW, this conducted in the far-right margin of the publicity tour for Infinite Jest. So the product that arrived at summer theaters was practically rippled with layers of pre-packaging and spin, but Ponsoldt, for better or worse, just relegates all such abstraction to the dialogue and otherwise keeps his telling as grounded as possible. The loveable schlub Jason Segel plays Wallace, while Jesse Eisenberg does his minimal-affect routine as Lipsky, and Joan Cusack has a bit part as a cartoon Minnesotan. The typecasting alone reflects an earthbound sensibility, so it seems only natural that the film’s real star should be the Midwestern landscape. For tax reasons, western Michigan stands in for Wallace’s central Illinois, and its sprawling flat-earth vistas of thin crusty snow and distant copses dazzle in their sheer ordinariness. Amid those harshly beautiful winter fields, beside a county road that’s dutifully plowed but little traveled, sits Wallace’s house, a long low ranch with cheap-wood finishes and shit-stained carpets (the homeowner keeps two large black dogs), looking improbable and improvised against the elements.[2] Basically, The End of the Tour is a well-intended mash-up of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, mostly harmless.

By my count, Tour contains just two powerful moments, both of which model in a kind of cinematic negative space the daunting edifice of Wallace’s work. Late in the movie, there’s a shot of Wallace’s cave-dark study, where Lipsky takes a rapid and belated inventory, gathering material for his piece. Threads of nuclear sunlight line the apertures in the room’s heavy-gauge curtains, and the stage is set for a blinding dissolve. Even if Plato’s allegory is the furthest thing from your mind, the sequence reads as an eloquent pantomime of Wallace’s achievement.

The second scene is more indicative of the film’s handling, its careful avoidance, of the work it memorializes. When Lipsky first arrives, Wallace invites him to bunk at the house in a “sort of guest room” space. The room in question is furnished with a futon and an assortment of load-bearing flat surfaces on which Wallace’s many books are arrayed in tall and pristine, as if machine-made, towers, the hulking Infinite Jest conspicuous among them. As neither man comments on the absurdity of the decor, the scene comes off as a sight gag, underlining Lipsky’s physical discomfort and competitive rancor. He beds down for the night with Wallace literally towering over him. But something more disquieting rumbles beneath the surface, as if the film has stepped roughshod on a live nerve. The sheer number of museum copies speaks volumes about Wallace’s chilling solitude (he can’t give this stuff away!). Even worse, those vertically stacked bricks of type-written pages suggest something redundant and wasteful and ultimately futile at the end of the labor of writing itself (he can’t give this stuff away!). The printed book never seems more paltry, less adequate to the teeming world it contains, less consistent with the miseries of its creation, than when it’s replicated in mass quantities and warehoused for distribution, smilingly absorbed by the consumer-capitalist system. This is why chain bookstores and Amazon and the little shelf-lined back rooms of publishers’ publicity offices give me the howling fantods (to borrow Avril Incandenza’s phrase).


And this is how the film treats Wallace’s work—it’s part of the furniture, atmospheric rather than elemental. Presented with a chance to show Wallace at the lectern, reading from IJ at a Minneapolis bookstore, the camera averts its eye, opting instead to focus on Lipsky, in the wings, quietly eating his heart out. The film’s narrative loyalties lie with Lipsky’s book, not Wallace’s opus, so it strains to contrive a story arc from the shifting relations, a kind of sibling rivalry, between the writers. These tensions feel manufactured, thin and underwhelming, and there’s something prefabricated or too-convenient in the script’s frame-tale design, the whole interview episode recounted as a flashback after Lipsky learns of Wallace’s suicide in 2008. But the film is earnest and sincere—a level-best effort all around—and if it’s a little flat-footed and embarrassing, it’s embarrassing in the way a mother can be embarrassing when she brags about you in public.[3] The End of the Tour has nothing urgent or revelatory to say about Wallace or his work, and this silence, admittedly, makes it hard to distinguish between pious hagiography and the mercenary selling of graven images. Even so, viewers should brace for impact when a simulacrum of the man first emerges from his Illinois abode to greet Lipsky in the iced-over driveway. The moment has some of the charge of a Christ drolly exiting a crypt, or a dead relative blinking at you non-confrontationally from a photograph. The sight triggered, for me anyway, a wave of grief, long overdue.[4]


Into the House that Jack Built

What forestalls any and all hand-wringing over the film’s portrait of the writer is how inconsequential it feels when placed alongside Wallace’s own work, by which I mean mainly, perhaps exclusively, his Infinite Jest—the novel whose sonic boom, even without the artificial stimulus of Tour, we’re still hearing the echo of. Maybe my perspective is a little skewed: I read IJ for the first time in June, two decades too late (my epitaph, I fear) for Wallace’s proper coronation, but right on time for Ponsoldt’s film.[5] Call it kismet.

A quick tour of the web reveals how commonplace, even sadly clichéd, it has become to expound, however tardily, on one’s own personal reading of Infinite Jest. Booster-club testimonials, generous vocabulary dumps, anachronistic reviews, the incremental records of reading-group listservs, why-not-to-read-it spoofs as well as why-to-read-it genuflections: these things are everywhere in cyberspace, constituting in aggregate a kind of DIY sub-genre of literary criticism, DFW & I.[6] Amid the bylines and chatter some distinguished names surface: in 2009 Aaron Schwartz, the digital whiz-kid who ran afoul of the web’s download restrictions, immersed himself unabashedly in the novel’s brain-teasing puzzles, while the Canadian fantasist R. Scott Bakker contributed an elaborate takedown to the archive in 2011. The novel continues to attract casual potshots, as well: Harold Bloom, via Women’s Wear Weekly (no joke), and Bret Easton Ellis, via Twitter, have both lobbed vitriol at Wallace and his readers.[7] Ponsoldt’s film is just part of the vapor trail, in his high-overhead medium, from the novel’s transit. So grant the film safe passage as it lumbers affably from summer cinemas toward DVD-rental outlets everywhere. Meanwhile, the monolith itself, IJ, still beckons, rife with controversy, thick with conundrums, prolix and aloof, meditative and smart and hilarious and searing. If you have to this point, as I did, given wide berth to the beast—if you suspect a lame Pied-Piper fandom in the cult of Wallace—I encourage you strongly to test your scruples against the book itself. With the possible exceptions of heartfelt parenting and excellent sex, nothing is more deserving of your time and attention than Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

This is not to say that the novel is perfect, as in, uniformly without flaw or defect. The givens of the textual world alone range from peculiar to zany: a family saga that conflates Hamlet and The Brothers Karamazov on the grounds of a tennis academy? A North-American map that has been cheekily revised? Calendar years auctioned for naming rights like NCAA bowl games? An army of wheelchair-bound French-Canadians who squeak across the landscape, seeking a doomsday device—in this case, a lethally entertaining videodisc? Most of the novel’s imaginative excesses are entirely palatable, the satire spot-on. But I have to draw the line at, or enclose in squiggly brackets, elements like the Vaught twins, who make a killer doubles team at Enfield Tennis Academy, despite (or because of) being conjoined at the head. Likewise, a few high-drama scenes—an after-hours tryst in the headmistress’ office, a torturous interrogation with some complicated staging, an Inner Infants support group meeting—are insipidly farcical. And the lush filmography of JO Incandenza, one of the book’s ballooning endnotes, is a marvel of erudition, with a number of fine Easter eggs glinting in the bushes; these many films, besides, haunt the whole length and breadth of the big novel, yet I can’t help but imagine their titles voiced by The Simpsons’ Troy McClure: Blood Nun: One Tough Sister, Dial C for Concupiscence, The Night Wears a Sombrero.[8] Note the exclamation point in Accomplice!

Of course, when visiting a grand cathedral, you can stand outside and count the gargoyles or you can head inside to hear the choir. In the case of IJ, bloopers notwithstanding, every page bears the impress of an obvious and undeniable genius. The book is a cacophonic compendium of millennial voices, and Wallace manages to coax something beautiful from each one. He can lampoon the pretensions of the most esoterically high-brow discourse[9]; render the slovenly charms of a smart teenager’s private language (including mathematical geek-outs); lovingly detail the screwy articles, botched possessives, and fouled-up idioms of non-native speakers; and cull a muted poetry from the workaday lexicons of felicidal pimps, reformed burglars, flummoxed psychiatrists, rotten fathers, and transvestite prostitutes. Wallace has an awful lot of fun with catachresis in the book. He does an unforgettable Irish brogue and captures the weirdly crestfallen ecstasy of an overdose in progress, all metastasizing syntax and achingly fine-grained perceptions. More than just reproducing such voices, Wallace textures each with chiaroscuro shadings, catching quirks and nuances, speech tics that slide around fluidly. This virtuoso display is nowhere more evident than in Note 304, a lost-island set piece in which Jim Struck of Enfield Tennis Academy attempts to plagiarize a scholarly work for his term paper in a class he calls “Poutrincourt’s History of Canadian Unpleasantness course thing.” In fact, this endnote encapsulates, in microcosm, the work in all its vastness. Like a slice that gives up the whole loaf, it reveals almost everything you could want to know about the novel: from how to read it or why to bother, to what, if anything, the book has to say to its patient and intrepid auditors.


The Endnote

In this sub-basement of a chapter, Wallace simulates not just the puff-cheeked oratory of “US academese,” but the off-the-leash, cognitively impaired rhetoric of a narcotized scholar, this one expatiating on Canadian terrorist cults, the initiation rite of the Wheelchair Assassins in particular. For purely ornamental reasons, the scholar also ties in a mention of the feral infants—a byproduct of toxic waste dumping in a geographic region ceded by the US, with love, to Canada—who otherwise writhe and roil offstage, part of the novel’s emblematic marginalia. Here’s a sample of the scholar’s vocal signature: “Almost as little of irreproachable scholarly definitiveness is known about the infamous Separatist ‘Wheelchair Assassins’ … of southwestern Quebec as is accepted as axiomatic about the herds of oversized ‘Feral Infants’ allegedly reputed to inhabit the periodically overinhabitable forested sections of the eastern Reconfiguration.” For long stretches, the Endnote compiles verbatim citations of this impeccable balderdash, yet the mood of grotesque parody never quite extinguishes a stubborn, oddly poignant verisimilitude.

Intermixed with such passages is the sulky and slang-riddled rambling idiom of the plagiarist, who supplies a running commentary on the article, with the occasional sarcastic flourish:

the hardest work for Struck here is going to be sanitizing the prose in this Wild Conceits guy’s thing, or at least bringing the verbs and modifiers down out of the like total ozone, which the Academese here on the whole sounds to Struck like the kind of foam-flecked megalograndiosity he associates with Quaaludes and red wine and then the odd Preludin to pull out of the grandiose nosedive of the Quaaludes and red wine.

The violence of the code-switching might cause whiplash, but it feels almost seamless because Struck himself is so hilariously preoccupied by the scholar’s whacked-out style: “Struck at certain points imagines himself gathering this Wild Conceits guy’s lapels together with one hand and savagely and repeatedly slapping him with the other—forehand, backhand, forehand.” Carrying the sequence to its logical conclusion, Wallace carves still more layers in the vocal palimpsest when he offers glimpses of the plagiarized paper itself, a kind of hybrid voice, Struck’s redaction of the article. After a paragraph from the scholar, outlining the cult’s test of an aspirant’s mettle—a game of Kierkegaardian “Chicken” with a moving train—we read, “Struck transposes clearly nonadolescent uptown material like this into: ‘The variable of the game isn’t so much a matter of the train, but the player’s courage and will.’” And though Struck is an unusually blinkered plagiarist, Wallace grants him enough perspicacity to imagine his teacher’s marginal comments on the resultant paper (“a big red triple-underlined QUOI?” beside a manic transition) and to observe the Doppler shift in Day’s article, as it crossfades from scholarly exposition into full-blown confabulated narrative.

Wallace is clearly a masterful ventriloquist, yet the sheer number of voices in the novel’s discursive field lays it open to charges of logorrhea, as if the book were kaleidoscopic but not cohesive. The terrible truth about IJ, however, is that, at 1079 pages, it isn’t digressive at all. Wallace’s inexhaustible verbal repertoire is matched by an exacting architectural vision. In an interview, Wallace claimed that his book models the fractal form of a Sierpinski gasket,[10] but the novel supplies an equally apt metaphor by which to grok its artful structure: that is, the book itself poses as an InterLace Entertainment. InterLace is the name of the telecom company founded by Noreen Lace-Forché, the “Killer-App Queen” who supplanted the titans of network television with her outfit’s NetFlix business model, and the company’s moniker feels like a hard nudge[11] from Wallace to mind the myriad interlacements in the novel’s pages. The raucous polyphony bends toward euphony, after all.

Like a thumbnail enlargement in an art book, Note 304 offers a manageable arena in which to observe the design ingenuity. Most obviously, this endnote identifies the author of the Wild Conceits article as one G. T. (Geoffrey) Day, a character who, a hundred-odd pages after we read the note, will turn up casually among the cast at the Ennet House for recovering addicts. The book doesn’t make this connection explicit for readers; Wallace asks us to splice the wires, to notice the subtle and surprising intersections of the characters’ lives.[12]

The Endnote also makes abundantly clear something that most readers could glean from the main text’s plot: that the predicament of the Wheelchair Assassins is analogous to the plight of the ETA tennis team. Struck reads of the elimination-tournament structure of the Separatists’ train-dodging, just as, later, the novel’s readers will encounter an apposite description of tournament protocols when ETA faces Port Washington. To double-underscore in neon the thematic kinship here, the Note offers this appraisal of the cult’s rite of passage: the train-dodging ritual is “intimately bound up with ‘Les jeux pour-memes,’ formal competitive games whose end is less any sort of ‘prize’ than it is a manner of basic identity: i.e., that is, ‘game’ as metaphysical environment and psychohistorical locus and gestalt.” This disclosure boomerangs and dovetails with the coaching philosophy of Gerhard Schtitt at ETA: unburdening himself to an acolyte, Schtitt explains that in competitive tennis “the true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself…. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe…. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” Schtitt’s theorizing might sound like self-discovery; that it entails self-annihilation becomes clear as the players court an extreme inhuman stoicism in order to excel. In fact, all of the characters in the book’s three major plot threads share a common struggle: to escape the cage of the narcissistic I, “transcend the self through pain,” whether it be a hard-core, self-abnegating patriotism, the will-suppressing protocols of tennis practice, or the reason-defying bromides of Alcoholics Anonymous. The novel’s thematic unity couldn’t possibly be tighter.

But these are only the most glaring examples of IJ’s structural integrity. To get a glimpse of the subtlety and pervasiveness of the book’s imbrication, consider another putative digression from Day’s article. Toward the end of the Note, Day turns his attentions to a different Separatist group, the Cult of the Infinite Kiss. This faction’s initiation rite involves the lip-to-lip conjoinment of heterosexual faces, which faces then respire alternately a single lungful of breath until the participants pass out from oxygen deprivation. Day’s exposition includes some pointed commentary on the differences between the two terrorist cells, but it also functions as a hyperlink, reminding readers of Orin Incandenza’s nightmare concerning his mother: her disembodied head is bound by tennis string to his own horrified face. Similarly, the crux of the other ritual, that leap in front of a barreling locomotive, reverberates when Don Gately, the novel’s square-headed hero, sports with a Green-line train while at the wheel of a borrowed muscle car. And Struck’s own ineptitude vis-à-vis the French language recalls the incomprehension of the monolingual terrorist Lucien Antitois (broker of “blown-glass notions” and gray-market entertainments) during a pivotal Francophone interrogation.[13] IJ is that kind of book: a massive honeycomb of images and motifs, characters and themes, the whole swarming with so much life that the infrastructure stays mostly concealed. That the novel is, in this way, almost infinitely expandable, is not to say that it’s compositionally loose or entropic.[14]


Of Figurants and Revenants

For some readers, this peek into IJ’s motherboard might feel anticlimactic, as if its internal circuitry were just a tangle of arbitrarily crisscrossed filaments—as if, despite the endless verbiage, the book had nothing whatsoever to say. As it happens, this crisis of communication—in which words are mere forms, empty of substance—lies at the very core of the novel (both the species and genera). This is the problem of Hal Incandenza, youngest dynastic son, closeted pothead and on-court rising star at ETA. Hal has a gift for language; he’s read the OED and committed most of it to memory. His term papers testify to his high-order brilliance. Yet, he seems incapable of experiencing, much less conveying, authentic human emotions, even on the intimate subject of his father’s suicide. Per the novel’s blunt diagnosis, Hal shapes fine words, but in a figurative sense emits no sound.

Far from being an anomaly in IJ, Hal’s case is typical, even archetypal, as numerous characters observe this existential gag-rule by force, choice, or mere disposition. Among the more lighthearted examples is Jim Struck’s plagiarism,[15] but for all its goofball comedy, Note 304 also shows how this node of the book goes meta-, constituting an inquest into the nature of writing and reading. Immobilized before his computer (except for “grinding his eye” and picking at his acne), literally engaged in the work of reading qua writing, the plagiarist mouths words parasitically, like an intellectual zombie or prep-school golem for Day’s ideas. The only volitional substance attributable to Struck himself are acts of camouflage, as he converts Day’s prose into “less-long self-contained sentences that sound more earnest and pubescent, like somebody earnestly struggling toward truth instead of flecking your forehead with spittle as he ranted grandiosely.” Struck’s enterprise is pure cynicism: plenty of words, but no sound. Like Hal, Struck has become a figurant.

The novel defines a figurant as a peripheral actor with zero speaking lines in a sitcom (like the anonymous bar patrons in the heavily scripted Cheers!), a visible part of the scenery but existentially muzzled. Against this class of tragic characters, IJ poses another, which would appear to be the figurant’s antithesis: the committed speakers at AA meetings. Such speakers aim to embody total honesty, to tell the truth about their addiction experience, however ugly the truth may be. The listeners, for their part, strive for Identification, a mode of ideal hearing that erases the slash in the classic self/other dichotomy. The book is explicit on this point: “Identify means empathize. Identifying … isn’t very hard to do, here. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own.” As a strategy for responding to narratives, identification has garnered some well-deserved abuse over the years; all too easily, identification reverts to simple narcissism in which the reader’s self-interest and prerogative are the ultimate determinants of a story’s value.[16] Wallace has in mind something less obnoxious, a more sincere merger of selves or communion of souls which appears to be lifted straight out of Tolstoy.

In his ingenuously titled treatise “What Is Art?” Tolstoy rejects the notion that literature exists for the reader’s pleasure. Instead, a true work of art, for Tolstoy, occasions the very Identification that IJ exalts:

the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone elseʹs — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist — not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.

Wallace’s novel sometimes reads as a hard-line dramatization of Tolstoy’s ideas. All forms of pleasure are suspect in IJ, symptoms of a self-destructive addiction, the antithesis of purifying pain. But when the novel portrays individual acts of listening/reading, the proselytizing feels humble and low-key, not at all doctrinaire. See the description of Lyle, the unofficial staff guru at ETA: “Like all good listeners, he has a way of attending that is at once intense and assuasive: the supplicant feels both nakedly revealed and sheltered, somehow, from all possible judgment. It’s like he’s working as hard as you. You both of you, briefly, feel unalone.” The pitch of the advocacy rarely runs hotter than this.

But IJ ultimately breaks ranks with Tolstoy, and its portrayal of literature, reading, and writing (all sides of the same equilateral triangle) turns increasingly ambivalent. To see how, we have to consider another character type in the book: the wraith (yes, wraith). Like Hamlet, IJ has a few ghosts traipsing around the castle, and these wraiths hybridize the traits of speakers and figurants, a reconciliation of opposites with dire implications. A wraith, we learn, “had no out-loud voice of its own [figurant], and had to use somebody’s like internal-brain voice if it wanted to try to communicate something [speaker].” Another stipulation vis-à-vis wraith ontology: because wraiths inhabit “a totally different Heisenbergian dimension of rate-change and time-passage,” they must “stay stock still in one place” for vast amounts of time in order to interface with the living.

In both regards, this vision of the afterlife makes the wraith sound a lot like an author figure: the wraith’s telepathic mode of communication (and otherworldly stillness) unmistakably connotes the act of writing. Tolstoy’s manifesto already describes literature as an occasion for mind-melding, but Georges Poulet, in “The Phenomenology of Reading,” captures the truly haunting nature of the experience. Poulet observes that reading is always an assault on consciousness: it “is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another, and this other thinks, feels, suffers, and acts within me.” The book behaves like a software application installed and running on the hard drive of the reader’s mind, temporarily displacing the self. The experience, for Poulet, ultimately verges on spirit possession—he refers to reading as “this possession of myself by another”—but the wraith that Poulet summons isn’t the book’s author: it’s the book itself. Poulet writes, “so long as it is animated by this vital inbreathing inspired by the act of reading, a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, […] a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects.” This vision of the book as a portable consciousness that can roam from reader to reader might sound itself like a Wild Conceit; the “self-consciousness of literary texts,” a well-worn phrase, has never been construed so literally. But Poulet’s ideas do help to clarify the author-function of Wallace’s wraiths.[17]

Initially, the wraith incursion in IJ serves to reinforce Tolstoyan aesthetics. As with the book’s other author figures, those gifted AA speakers, colloquy with a wraith makes Identification possible, for both parties now, speaker and listener, author and reader (the roles are reversible in wraith-initiated dialogues). The lone character to consciously converse with a wraith, in a fever dream, later reflects wistfully on the experience: “he has to admit he kind of liked it. The dialogue. The give-and-take. The way the wraith could seem to get inside him. The way he said [the listener’s] best thoughts were really communiques from the patient and Abiding dead.” At such moments, IJ does verge on advocating reading as an antidote to self-destructive narcissism. Even Struck, the most hapless figurant, finds himself attaining Identification, however unwittingly, with the “foam-flecked” disquisition of G. Day. Having diagnosed (accurately) Day’s addiction to narcotics, as he reads yet another head-clutching passage, Struck recalls his own father’s disastrous substance abuse, as if he recognizes his own story there in the style, if not the substance, of Day’s essay. Call it Identification, with an asterisk.[18] Here, too, under the least propitious circumstances, reading provides an occasion for “meeting the self.”

Because reading IJ is an extraordinarily labor-intensive exercise, it would be at least courteous if the book were to recommend the activity, validate the time spent and pains taken. Instead, the book equivocates. The first killjoy irony here is that, in order to hear a speaker or converse with a wraith, the listener/reader must shut down the voice, cancel the self, become essentially a figurant.[19] One group of rapt listeners, as they achieve ideal hearing, must “consciously try to remember even to blink”; in this case, identification is tantamount to petrification, the audience turned to statuary, locked in a state of suspended animation. And even under optimal circumstances, with a communicative wraith aiming for honest self-expression and mutual Identification, the inter-mental communion can feel like “lexical rape,” or so the lone experimentee puts it as the wraith floods his consciousness with unfamiliar, seriously uptown words.

The second irony is less local and more pervasive: namely, if the wraith functions as an author-figure, it also models the plucky reader. When the wraith reveals that it can “move at the speed of quanta and be anywhere anytime and hear in symphonic toto the voices of animate men, but it couldn’t ordinarily affect anybody or anything solid, and it could never speak right to anybody,” it offers a description of the reader’s very experience in turning the pages of IJ. Albeit well short of the speed of quanta and/or choral totality, IJ’s readers do slide unimpeded and unregarded from voice to voice, consciousness to consciousness, likewise powerless to impact the world(s) they survey. Don Gately, in whom the wraith confides, acknowledges the tragic paradox of wraith existence:

Gately lets himself wonder what it would be like, able to quantum off anyplace instantly and stand on ceilings and probably burgle like no burglar’d ever dreamed of, but not able to really affect anything or interface with anybody, having nobody know you’re there, having people’s normal rushed daily lives look like the movements of planets and suns, having to sit patiently very still in one place for a long time even to have some poor addled son of a bitch even be willing to entertain your maybe being there. It’d be real free-seeming, but incredibly lonely, he imagines.

Gately pities, more than envies, the wraith’s condition, because, per his description, it has a lot in common with the abject solitude of a figurant. The solution (writing, mobility, Identification) and the problem (voicelessness, immobility, loneliness) are not antipodes, but mirror images. So much for a straightforward endorsement of literary labor, on either end, production or reception.

To return, then, to the paradigmatic industry of Jim Struck, what the Endnote ultimately does, like the book as a whole, is to pose the question, so who’s really the wraith? Day’s article, wraith-like, has colonized Struck’s consciousness. But thus zombified, undead in a sense,[20] a model figurant, Struck himself adopts the stock-still pose and vocal cooption tactics of a wraith. And Struck’s predicament, buried in a seemingly inconsequential recess of the endnotes, becomes legitimately uncanny insofar as it anticipates our own. IJ doesn’t so much say as do something to readers: it turns us into figurants, which is to say that it also grants us the status of wraiths. And what is true of the reader is, as a corollary, true of the book: IJ, in Poulet’s sense, is a wraith, inhabiting us and extending the potential for Identification, and it is also a figurant, telling us nothing.

Read in this light, IJ might reflect Wallace’s discontent not just with consumer-capitalist addiction, but with a deep vein of aesthetic theory. Once upon a time, around the Baby Boom era, it was fashionable to excavate the paradoxes inherent in literary texts. With essays like “The Language of Paradox” and “The Heresy of Paraphrase” in The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks argued that this structural principle—irony, contradiction, paradox—lies at the heart of all great works of literature.[21] And during the short-lived heyday of New Criticism, disciplined readers sought only to discover the pathways by which literary texts contrive their stony silences.[22]

In his journalistic writing, Wallace has weighed in, derisively, on the work of Brooks & Co.; he recounts, briefly in “Tense Present,” how subsequent waves of theory exposed the New Criticism as hermeneutic flimflam.[23] The essayist Wallace also decries irony as an intellectual pose, and figurant-class, say-nothing literature in particular. In “Fictional Futures,” discussing reportorial hipster fiction of a bygone era, Wallace calls out writers for describing problems without posing solutions, reducing, per Wallace, “interpretation to whining.” His big-picture verdict affirms his faith in revolutionary art: “What troubles me about the fact that Gold-Card-fear-and-trembling fiction just keeps coming is that, if the upheavals in popular, academic and intellectual life have left people with any long-cherished tradition intact, it seems as if it should be an abiding faith that the conscientious, talented, and lucky artist of any age retains the power to effect change.” Similarly, in “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace tilts at irony,[24] imagining the cultural rebellion later dubbed the New Sincerity: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values.” All of the Tolstoyan energy in IJ reflects Wallace’s well-documented aversion to intellectual and spiritual nihilism.

But the self-negating turn in Infinite Jest, the turn that converts speakers into figurants, makes both of them wraiths, suggests that Wallace, in his greatest book, could embody but not transcend this artistic crisis. The novel virtually ratifies New Critical principles. What’s a Sierpinski gasket, after all, if not an incredibly well-wrought urn? Readers past and future, of all critical persuasions, figurant filmmakers included, might well balk at this conclusion, which has the dubious distinction of being both revelatory and obvious. But Wallace’s skepticism of art’s hermetic beauty? A gargantuan book wherein all the glinting particulars of an animate metropolis everywhere dissolve in these shadows of the valley of death? This without ever skimping in the effort to speak a score of deeply personal tongues? Plus just the writer’s resolve to stake a substantial chunk of his lifespan in the manufacture of an irksome and unrepeatable nothing? With this stuff I, for one, can like totally Identify.

—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 good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The film’s release caused a minor flap in that the writer’s estate publicly announced its displeasure with the project, but the script deflects charges of foul play by airing Wallace’s anxieties about his celebrity and generally deferring comment on his work. Ponsoldt’s is a smart, bookish film hiding behind an idiot’s grin.

    These endnotes obviously betoken a superficial solidarity with Wallace’s aesthetic. Roll your eyes all you want. Wallace himself learned the gambit from writers like Nabokov and Nicholson Baker, both of whom I prefer to DFW. But practical concerns persuaded me to fall back here: I wanted a nice deep root cellar in which to stash the worst of the spoilsport disclosures vis-à-vis the novel—someplace cool and spacious and dimly lit, with pacifying damp-clay smells and a large number of tappable casks, where the advanced group might repair for bonus tracks and outtakes. Then again, readers worried about spoilers would probably be well-advised to just click the topside X and duck out now.

  2. The house’s street address might read “The center of nothing,” Wheelchair Assassin Rémy Marathe’s garbled translation of “The middle of nowhere” in IJ.
  3. This is my conclusion even though I saw the film under snark-inducing circumstances: a primetime screening at a posh mall-theater on the expectably glammed Westside of Los Angeles. A wine bar next door absorbed some of the early-arrival foot traffic, and still the area around the high-tech ticket kiosks, where you can swipe your card to collect pre-purchases, was crowded with affluent cineastes, awash in secondary sex traits (what with the women in LA prosecuting the sartorial arms-race of a desert climate). The screening chamber itself boasted notably luxurious, boxy faux-leather black recliners, like first-class airline seats that let you kick way back, outfitted with cupholders that could handle those absurdly large theater sodas, naturally. Even if you hadn’t finished IJ just weeks earlier, the signs of egregiously hedonistic spectation would have stood out in bold-face type.

    Factor in now that the screening concluded with a Q&A involving Ponsoldt and Segel. Besides bumping up the general rate of crowd effervescence, the principals’ attendance also explains why greeters met filmgoers at the entrances and pressed upon them a sturdy bubble-sheet survey, with a tiny ballpoint, for the sake of audience feedback. Excepting one question about the draw of this particular film, the survey was all about purchasing behaviors, standard market research. I stood the form upright on the floor until the film’s end. When the lights came back on, Ponsoldt and Segel clambered into director’s chairs on the stage. They fielded deferential questions from a host, plus a few, later, from the audience, and though their handlers stood by at attention, overdressed, in the aisle, and though one young woman who had come solo—blond curls bestrewn in a Renaissance braid, simple sundress in a grayscale print—relocated after the credits rolled, the better to record on her smartphone the celebrities’ breathings, it was impossible to judge or resent anybody. Ponsoldt came off as a sweetly ingratiating fanboy (a little self-satisfied, but who can blame him?); Segel, a dapper mensch (yes, he claimed to have read the novel prior to filming; no, he didn’t understand it all that well; no, no one asked him to do the voice of Vector from Despicable Me). I stayed until the Q&A wrapped.

    I held up the queue as I fumbled around, like a true amateur or a bona fide Martian, with a confirmation-page print-out which the machine just sneered at.

  4. To be honest, the grief was probably as much about me—for me—as about or for Wallace.
  5. In my defense, circa 1996, I was in no condition to read IJ or care much about what the world made of Wallace. A brush with linguistic deconstruction, in grad school, left me more or less incapacitated, unfit for public consumption, much less civic participation, for the better part of two years. My pupils stayed dilated the whole time. The crushing irony, of course, is that I had gone to UW-Madison to study literature.
  6. Some of these exegeses are duly footnoted. Equally unsurprising is that many of them discuss the basic technics of reading: they note the heft of the book (which left a dimple like a check mark near my navel), the time spent per page (depends), the number of accessories required to cope with the acreage between main text and footnotes (I got by with a single pencil and a kind of clawed grip, involving the pinky, on the book’s spine).

    For my own contribution to the genre, I seriously considered writing something first-personal, something between clear-eyed criticism and chronic self-absorption, about the ways in which IJ’s tactics anticipated with surprising regularity my own more daring plays as a fiction writer. Lots of little things, snatches of phrasing (anyone else borrowing the lingo from A Clockwork Orange?), architectural affinities (the tunnels at ETA vs. the tunnels at CU in my not-published novella), etc. Here’s just one substantial example, involving the special kind of unreliable narration in IJ’s first chapters. When Hal Incandenza attempts to speak to the admissions committee at Arizona, though his words, per his report, are calm and lucid, the deans hear only monstrous subhuman noises, accompanied by threatening behavior. The mutual distress is so severe that the deans pin Hal to the floor and have him committed. In my own story “The Advantages of Living,” written circa 2005, the narrator likewise says apparently innocuous things that conceal a more outrageous reality. He gets his ass kicked, twice, deservedly, for his troubles.

    I used this gambit again in “FPS,” clickable here in the magazine’s archives. That story also shares DFW’s appetite for tumbledown phrasing and deliberately tortured syntax (which he got from Pynchon, for anyone keeping score), but “FPS” really bears mention because that story is what propelled me into IJ last summer. Wallace, thinly disguised, has a cameo in “FPS,” his suicide plays a conspicuous role. The treatment might seem a bit glib and unfeeling, but something deadly serious lurks in the subtext, if you care to do a little math. My point being, Wallace and I shared some common acquaintances at Illinois State University—I actually applied, hilarious to me now, for his job when he vacated circa 2002 to take his post at Pomona—and as I was writing the story, his death came to seem less like a historical event and more like a loss in the extended family. This is what drove me, after two neglectful decades, to spend seven weeks or so under the hood of IJ.

    Let’s acknowledge too that Wallace’s last words to Lipsky, in Ponsoldt’s film, were “You wouldn’t want to be me.” It would tie things together nicely if I were to think of the IJ synchronicity phenomenon in those terms, but I don’t. Instead, I was thinking that the strange correspondences between IJ and my meager stuff might make it possible to argue for the existence of a literary zeitgeist: that maybe world literature, if configured along certain traditional lines, contained specific potentialities that amounted to almost a playbook of foregone conclusions for any reasonably ambitious young writer. I had planned to quote TS Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Borges’ “Pierre Menard.” Decided wisely against all of this.

    My theory on Hal’s psychosis is that he’s not at all psychotic. Hal might, by the end of IJ, have experienced a transformation such that he’s no longer an emotionless figurant (see below), but is now for the first time fully human. He could be the poster boy for the kind of sincerity rebel that Wallace imagines at the end of his essay “E Unibus Pluram.” In a world of ubiquitous irony, where everyone is a figurant, such a rebel would have to be perceived as a monster; no one would recognize his utterances as speech because he would be speaking the foreign language of substance. (Notice too how the solution and the problem have identical symptoms.) The book makes this reasonably clear, almost obvious, but you have to splice some widely separated wires.

    Meaning the model that once prevailed in the undergraduate curriculum, in that transition moment between a hegemonic Western canon and all-out Canon Wars. For that matter, it’s not possible to talk adequately about IJ’s precursors without mentioning the filmmaker David Lynch.

  7. Here’s Bloom: “I don’t want to be offensive. But Infinite Jest is just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent…. Stephen King is Cervantes compared with David Foster Wallace.” And Ellis: “Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the, Literary Doucebag-Fools (sic) Pantheon.”
  8. Whether this ham-handedness is intentional, crucial to the book’s thematics, is a matter of debate. Some argue that such farcical touches show Wallace aping sympathetically the conventions of pulp entertainments. Others contend that such moments deliberately sabotage the reader’s pleasure, so as to distinguish Wallace’s novel from the lethal Entertainment of the same title. Wallace’s book might be the rumored anti-Entertainment, the narrative antidote to the film’s Medusa gaze.
  9. One filmic scholar even channels, pithily, Harold Bloom, specifically his more abstruse excrescences in The Anxiety of Influence: “For while clinamen and tessera strive to revive or revise the dead ancestor, and while kenosis and daemonization act to repress consciousness and memory of the dead ancestor, it is, finally, artistic askesis which represents the contest proper, the battle to the death with the loved dead.” Believe it or not, this bloated corpse of a sentence is more than empty blather: a meta-reflection on IJ’s literary ancestry.
  10. A Sierpinski gasket:


  11. See also the role, in IJ, of annular fusion, a closed-loop mode of power generation and waste disposal. The whole book can be conceived of as an annular, or ring-like, construct.
  12. Not all of which are easily resolved. In his discussion of the train-jousting ritual, Day mentions the miner’s son who loses his nerve and fails to jump across the tracks. His cowardice becomes legendary, widely known as “Faire un Bernard Wayne,” within the Wheelchair faction. The surname evokes a connection to John “N.R.” Wayne, ETA’s top player, himself likely a double- or triple-agent working for the Canadian terrorist cell. J. Wayne’s family hails from the same mining region in Quebec, but beyond this hint, the genealogical connection is impossible to lock down.
  13. This list of examples could go on and on. When Struck imagines Day “utterly strafed … and typing with his nose,” the contact between face and gizmo recalls JO Incandenza’s gruesome suicide (he sticks his head in the microwave) as well as the climax of the Eschaton game in which Otis Lord’s head gets lodged in a computer monitor. And dumb Struck’s plagiarism signifies a figurative voicelessness (see below), which evokes the text-recitation performance art of radio DJ Madame Psychosis, which evokes the literally muted Don Gately, intubated in the hospital, which evokes poor Lucien Antitois, impaled via the throat with his own hand-carved broomstick, which evokes Guillaume DuPlessis who dies of asphyxiation with a dust rag in his mouth, which evokes the catatonic “It” in her Raquel Welch mask…. My personal sense is that none of this is accidental, though all of it might be, for Wallace, Too Much Fun (see below).
  14. The density of the book’s interlacements actually reminds me of the mithril shirt, the Dwarvish chainmail from The Lord of the Rings. This reference to Tolkien isn’t entirely gratuitous. In a 1955 letter to WH Auden, Tolkien claimed to possess a kind of sixth sense: an ability to feel, palpably, the beauty of literary forms. “It has always been with me,” he writes, “the sensibility to linguistic pattern which affects me emotionally like colour or music.” I doubt that Tolkien would appreciate the intricate artifice in IJ, but this kind of extra-sensory perception, with a little recalibration, might help readers to experience the often stark, frequently disturbing, and sometimes downright ungainly IJ as something joyful.
  15. Note 304 confirms that the endnotes are inextricable from, rather than extraneous to, the novel’s artistic design. However, the endnotes, in aggregate, also point to a major glitch in said design’s matrix: namely, who’s writing them? It’s impossible to locate a central narrational perspective in IJ. The nominees include Hal Incandenza and a smattering of wraiths (JO Incandenza is the most likely choice, and Lucien Antitois’ death, a passing into knowledge of “all the world’s well-known tongues,” feels like a cue). But the wraith theory founders on the fact that Hal sometimes narrates from a first-person point of view; the Hal theory on the fact that he disappears for very long stretches of third-person limited narration. Even if DFW himself were the implied narrator, the shifts into Hal’s first-person perspective don’t quite compute. This narrational evasiveness isn’t necessarily a defect in the novel.

    Perhaps the most jarring example of IJ’s narrational problem arrives as Don Gately speeds across town in the Ford Aventura. The prose tracks precisely with Gately’s perceptions and thought processes, until, inexplicably, we read, “Has anybody mentioned Gately’s head is square?”

  16. Identification strikes me as the gateway to the domain of reader-response criticism,at one extreme pole of which even Struck’s plagiarism is fully licensed and authorized.

    I once read a student exam in which the writer said, of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” only that the poetic speaker reminded her of Santa Claus. A hard-core reader-response critic might argue that there is no such thing as better or worse in responses to literature, thus giving me no basis on which to judge negatively the student’s contention. While I admit that my initial reaction was to find the comparison ludicrous, I could be persuaded to play along—who knows, this reading might even be profound—provided that the student made the case with some kind of rigor, looking closely at and thinking hard about specific features of the poem and the legend.

  17. Zoran Kuzmanovich, in an essay on Nabokov’s “The Vane Sisters” (a famously haunted text), says something apropos: “Every ghost story is an allegory of reading.”
  18. Struck’s identification with Day’s article might be a travesty in that Struck isn’t really listening to the substance of the passage; Struck misses, for example, the kinship between the cult’s aspirants and the tennis hopefuls, himself included, at ETA.
  19. Poulet describes this tyranny of reading: “As soon as I replace my direct perception of reality by the words of a book, I deliver myself, bound hand and foot to the omnipotence of fiction. I say farewell to what is, in order to feign belief in what is not. I surround myself with fictitious beings; I become the prey of language. There is no escaping this takeover.”
  20. The novel has scads of references to the undead (vampires, revenants, wraiths, the living dead, etc.). One of my favorites is the nickname of Eugene “Fax” Fackelmann, a small-time criminal with a big-time role in the novel’s closing chapters: Count Faxula.
  21. Viktor Shklovsky, the godfather of Russian Formalism, after a survey of world literature even more exhaustive than Brooks’,ultimately arrived at the same conclusion: that strategic juxtaposition—contradiction, irony, paradox, antithesis, ambiguity, a god with many names—is the common denominator in all forms of literary art. But owing to historical circumstances (mainly Soviet oppression), Shklovsky’s work remained virtually unknown until after New Criticism, and Shklovsky himself, had been laid to rest: call it a posthumous confirmation of findings.

    Brooks discusses poetry exclusively in The Well Wrought Urn, but Shklovsky observes the same design principles in novels, plays, fairy tales, even movies.

  22. Maybe an overstatement. In “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” Brooks labors to explain that poems might deliver some didactic statement, a declarative truth about the world, but he insists that such a statement, to be accurate, would be so fraught with qualifications as to cease to be an actionable proposition. His main contention is that the beauty and/or “meaning” of a poem lies in the interplay of its parts, not in any generic takeaway. Early in the essay, Brooks makes a distinction that proves especially relevant to the case of IJ: the formal juxtapositions in poems don’t cancel each other out like logical antitheses, but rather they constitute a unity, for Brooks an “achieved harmony.” Later, however, when Brooks discusses Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he talks about paradox in such a way that it approaches self-negation: “Keats’ Urn must express a life which is above life and its vicissitudes, but it must also bear witness to the fact that its life is not life at all but is a kind of death.” In its portrait of reading, IJ poses this kind of paradox, which nevertheless remains an “achieved harmony.”
  23. The demise of New Criticism is an old story, and reports of its death are often exaggerated.Wallace concentrates on NC’s risible pretensions to scientific objectivity, “the stuff of jokes and shudders” for DFW.But Wallace might be hasty to link NC, as he does, to Grammatical Descriptivism, whose executors sought to compile a dictionary in a bottom-up, vox-populi manner. As I see it, the real trouble with NC is that what starts as descriptivism comes out the other side as SNOOT prescriptivism, establishing a universal and maybe arbitrary standard for artistic creation/appreciation. NC tends to work best for an elite body of texts, not coincidentally produced in large numbers by White Male writers. Honestly, though, the politics bothers me less (as a White Male) than something even more basic: the suspicion that artistic principles, once apprehended and codified, are anathema to art itself. (Brooks & Co., in certain lights, seem to me like a kind of literary Penn & Teller act.) Maybe this fear is unfounded. What NC and its Formalist kin prescribe amounts to little more than a plea on behalf of structural unity, an imperative that form and content smartly bedevil each other. Still, the whole project risks devolving into mere routine, and a pall of cliché gathers ominously. Fitting that Wallace, in IJ, should have harped on the need to recover the awful truth that underlies even the most moronic clichés.

    The close reading prescribed by NC continues to inform all responsible interpretive praxis (excepting Franco Moretti’s controversial “distant reading”), and this method survives too in creative writing programs, which work best when they emphasize craft and composition, not meaning (see, for example, Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design, or even James Wood’s How Fiction Works). At present, NC is mounting something of a cultural comeback; in How to Do Things with Fictions (2012), Stanford’s Joshua Landy argues, once again, that literary works are defined by their structures and techniques, and that the best of these train readers to think in new ways.

    When I read passages like this one, from Brooks’ “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” I find it hard to fathom how NC ever went so thoroughly out of style: “the word, as the poet uses it, has to be conceived of, not as a discrete particle of meaning, but as a potential of meaning, a nexus or cluster of meanings.” Another passage resonates with IJ in particular: “the ‘beauty’ of the poem … is the effect of a total pattern, and of a kind of pattern which can incorporate within itself items intrinsically beautiful or ugly, attractive or repulsive. Unless one asserts the primacy of pattern, a poem becomes merely a bouquet of intrinsically beautiful items.”

    Another objection is that the “unity” of literary works, prized by New Critics, is just a naïve fallacy, but to say that unity lends itself to a facile kind of deconstruction seems to me to substitute one truism for another. A related complaint, among gender-, class-, and race-minded critics, might be that no book is ever silent. You would have to take this up on a case-by-case basis, but see Note 22 above.

    NC, with its emphasis on pattern-making, might seem ill-suited to discussions of fiction, insofar as it elides less specialized measures of literary craftsmanship: matters of plot and characterization, suspense and transformation, climax and delay (aka, retardation)—all the vertices and dragons’ backs of the standard Freitag triangle (which was devised to explain dramatic design), to say nothing of style’s infinite permutations. However, NC’s principles operate there too, and even where they aren’t readily apparent, the same caveat applies. Writers might exaggerate or truncate the Freitag pattern of rising and falling action, make “inverted checkmark” structures of varying slope and acuity, rightside-up or upside-down, all day long, but they’re still bound by the model. For his part, Wallace tends to prefer the soft ending and anticlimax, among other “nonconfluential” tactics, in IJ (some exceptions include the Eschaton game and the fracas between Ennet House residents and Hawaiian shirt-clad ‘Nucks), but we can still think of the Sierpinski gasket’s interlocking triangles as a giddily Freitagian construct.

    Which is to say, I get why some writers would want to take a hammer to convention, abjure every “literary” stratagem in the headlong pursuit of some asymptote of the real, a straighter record of what is. The rebellion has a long history, but David Shields, with his Reality Hunger manifesto, is the movement’s current poster child, and apparently the oral historian Svetlana Alexievich just bagged the Nobel Prize for her scrupulous suppression of artifice. Wallace understood this anti-aesthetic impulse, and its hazards, as well: in IJ, the filmography of JO Incandenza includes eleven works of “Found Drama,” some of which are “conceptually unfilmable,” none of which is released for viewing. Note that IJ is not itself a Found Novel.

    Strangely, it would be possible to cite both Tolkien and Nietzsche (the philosopher’s dread becoming that smears the edges off of being) to allay these anxieties over artifice. Both writers hint at an upbeat conclusion: that the discovery of structural commonalities does nothing to exhaust the mystery and singularity of creation. You might as well resent having to write in English.

  24. Brooks himself finds the terms “irony” and “paradox” aggravating. He treats them as loose synonyms in “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” but Brooks’ “paradox” might be viewed as a remedy for Wallace’s debilitating “irony.” For further discussion.
Dec 012015

gabriel-josipoviciGabriel Josipovici


The first time I read Gabriel Josipovici, it was a slim, glossy brown volume sent to me by Carcanet that looked at first glance as if it might be poetry. It wasn’t, it was a short novel entitled Everything Passes, but I was struck by the amount of white space the reader is confronted with on each page, the writing being confined to a slender column of dialogue that is itself intermittent, fragmented by vertiginous silences. I began to read the first few words and felt myself slipping, slipping, as if down a polished chute, those aching blank spaces dragging me across to the next portion of dialogue as if across a dangerous precipice. I had to put it down for a while because it frightened me. And for the same reason I had to pick it up again. When it was finished, I was stunned. It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time.

Why has Gabriel Josipovici never won the Man Booker Prize? Or the Goldsmith’s, or the Costa Book Award? It’s a common question among those of us who are thrilled by his work. His reception by the British critical establishment has been a rocky one over the past 45 years, which remains perplexing to me. A man who spent his career teaching literature, a published academic critic and a writer of novels, short stories and plays of striking originality, should surely tick the right boxes? Maybe there is an otherness about his writing that stems from his childhood in Egypt[1] that lingers in his books just sufficiently to disturb the mainstream mind? Maybe he has been too far ahead of his time, and only now are we able to catch up with him?

Over the past few weeks, Gabriel and I have put this interview together over email. During this period he celebrated his 75th birthday and a strong sense of retrospection grew out of our conversation, a chance to look at the entirety of his writing life. I told him our focus would be on creativity: his creativity, the creativity in his texts, the creativity that his writing draws out of the reader. This was the result.


Victoria Best (VB): Let’s begin with The Inventory, your first novel published in 1968. I’d like to get a clearer picture in my mind of your mid-twenties self, a literary critic by now but embarking on a work of fiction. What was the inspiration for this novel?

Gabriel Josipovici (GJ): I wrote The Inventory before I wrote The World and the Book (1966, 1965-70). I had been writing fiction at least since my early teens – Monika Fludernik, when she was researching for her book on my fiction and drama, came to the house to look through my files and unearthed a short story I’d published in the Victoria College school magazine in 1954 in Cairo, when I was thirteen. It concerned a road waiting for the road-mender who comes every day to work on a stretch of it and who doesn’t come that day and will in fact never come again because he’s dead. I read it with amazement, because though it was naïve and didn’t really know what it was doing it had the voice I associate with my later writing, showing that this ‘voice’ is something one is born with, or that is the product of one’s earliest years, and, however ‘formative’ the experiences of one’s teens and later life, it remains constant. I went on writing stories, and in the year I had off between school and university I tried to write a novel but it was so bad and I believed in it so little that I burned it. But a story I wrote then was kept for ages by Encounter, the leading cultural journal of the time, who eventually wrote to say that after long consideration they’d decided not to publish it, but they’d like to see anything else I wrote, which was encouraging. Then at Oxford I wrote and published stories in University magazines, and an enterprising publisher (now an agent), Gillon Aitken, got in touch and asked to see more of my work. I was tremendously excited, of course, but it turned out he only wanted a novel. I said I didn’t have one but would naturally send it to him if and when I did. Despite this, I couldn’t seem to write anything longer than short (very short) stories.

I have often spoken about how I came to write The Inventory. It was such a breakthrough for me and emerged out of such turmoil and anxiety that – I now realise – it has acquired in my mind something of the status of a founding myth. But I’ve recently been reading through some of my early working notebooks and I can perhaps take this opportunity to round the picture out a bit, to release it (for myself at any rate) from its mythic dimensions.

After two years as a graduate student at Oxford and two as a young assistant lecturer at the University of Sussex, writing short stories no-one wanted to publish, I was getting more and more frustrated, feeling the need to write something longer than a short story, partly because I desperately wanted to have something substantial to work on for months rather than weeks at a time, and partly because I felt that if I didn’t write a novel I couldn’t really consider myself a proper writer (I had not yet read Borges or Robert Walser, who might have made me think differently), and partly of course because, as Gillon Aitken had shown me, publishers weren’t interested in short stories from unknown authors. I had even got to the point of feeling that much as I loved my work at Sussex, I would have to give it up, since I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days living the comfortable life of an academic but feeling deep down that I had betrayed the most intimate part of myself out of laziness or fear or for some other unfathomable reason. But the trouble was that, as I’ve said, much as I wanted to write something extended I found myself totally incapable of doing so. For if I worked out a plot I found it so boring to flesh out that the whole business of writing suddenly seemed meaningless, while if I didn’t have a plot the impetus petered out after a few pages.

A word had come into my head: inventory. Simply repeating the word to myself gave me gooseflesh. I realised that this was because the word seemed to pull in two totally opposed directions at once: in the direction of unfettered subjectivity, invention, and in the direction of absolute objectivity, an inventory list. I discovered that they actually derived from two different Latin words, invenire and inventarium, but that didn’t matter, there they both were, nestling inside the single English word. And suddenly I had a subject I was excited about: someone has died and the family, with the help of a solicitor, is making an inventory of the objects he (it soon became obvious to me it had to be a he) has left behind. As they do so the objects lead them into recollection or perhaps even invention of the person they had known and of their relationship to him.

But though I elaborated my basic plot I could not get the novel going. There seemed to be an insuperable gap between what I sketched out in my notebooks and any actual novel I might write.

I had a term of paid leave coming up at the end of my third year of teaching, and all through that year I pushed myself to write The Inventory (I knew my title) and all through that year I found I just could not get started. The three months I would have to myself (officially to write a critical book) grew and grew in importance. This was going to be the crunch. If I failed here I knew I would have to leave academic life for good and I had absolutely no idea what sort of job I would be able to get to keep myself and my mother – all I knew was that it would be a good deal less enjoyable and satisfying than the job I had. So, once the summer arrived, I knew there were no longer any excuses.

A beloved cat of mine had recently died and I decided, to take my mind off my anxiety, to write a children’s story about him. I had no children of my own but I did know and like very much a colleague’s three little girls, who had been very fond of my cat. So I imagined myself telling them his ‘story’. Day after day I simply sat down and wrote what I heard myself telling them. He had been a large neutered Tom, already an adult when we had got him, and when he sat out in the garden contemplating the world he looked rather like a triangle with soft edges. I called the story Mr.Isosceles the King.

The advantage of a children’s story was that I had no great expectations of myself and so no inhibitions to be overcome. I also had a clear audience in mind. And so I found myself, day after day, while on holiday in Italy, writing about Mr.Isosceles, until one day it was finished and I realised I had a book there which I had had no idea I would write and certainly no idea of the form it would take a month or two previously. So, as summer turned to autumn and autumn to winter, I had a new sense of confidence that just sitting and writing for a few hours every morning would yield something. Yet that did not allay my mounting sense of panic. I would wake up every morning drenched in sweat, my heart pounding. I knew it really was now or never. But fear, I discovered, can be a very useful thing. It can push one past all the inhibitions that have been holding one back and get one across that seemingly insurmountable barrier between notebook and novel.


VB: You’d already discovered the Modernist writers you loved and your relationship to them as a critic is clear. But what was your relationship to Modernism as a fledgling artist at this point? What did you hope to explore or elaborate in creative writing?

GB: The answer to the second question is: nothing. One writes because one has to, not to explore or elaborate anything. The answer to the first is, I suppose, that I had read Proust and Mann and Kafka, and Mann had made me understand that our modern situation is different from anything that has gone before, and fraught with difficulty; Kafka had made me understand that I was not alone in my sense of not belonging anywhere or having any tradition to call on; and Proust had given me the confidence to fail, had driven home to me the lesson that if you come up against a brick wall perhaps the way forward is to incorporate the wall and your effort to scale it into the work. I had read Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and been excited by the way they reinvented the form of the novel to suit their purposes – everything is possible, they seemed to say. But when you start to write all that falls away. You are alone with the page and your violent urges, urges, which no amount of reading will teach you how to channel. ‘Zey srew me in ze vater and I had to svim,’ as Schoenberg is reported to have said. That is why I so hate creative writing courses – they teach you how to avoid brick walls, but I think hitting them allows you to discover what you and only you want to/can/must say. Not always of course. The artistic life is full of frustrations and failures as well as breakthroughs. You are alone. No-one can help you. I think that’s what Picasso means when he says that for Veronese it was simple: you mapped out the territory, started at one corner and worked forward. But for us, he says, the first brushstroke is also the last.

So: to go back to the genesis of The Inventory. I had my first scene in my head: the solicitor arrives at the house and meets the family of the deceased. I could visualise the street and the house. But how to put that down in words? Now I was sitting at the desk determined to write the book rather than simply thinking about it, this suddenly became a crucial issue. Did I use one sentence, one paragraph or one page to describe the scene? As I scribbled I found myself rejecting one effort after another: they were not in my voice, not what I wanted. They were in all the voices of all the novels I had ever read. How then to find how I wanted to say it? And suddenly, under pressure, the breakthrough occurred. I realised I was not interested in describing the scene, what I wanted was to get the characters talking to each other, to get the thing under way. And it came to me that I could simply drop all description and find ways of conveying the scene entirely through dialogue. With that the book became a challenge and a pleasure instead of a dutiful chore. I had my lists of possessions, my inventory, and I had my characters, and that was all I needed.

Years later I read Stravinsky’s account of a similar breakthrough he had experienced as a young composer (it was when working on Petrushka I think): ‘It was as though I had suddenly been given an extra joint in my fingers,’ he said. And years after too that I began to understand why I was so resistant to description, and why dialogue on the contrary seemed exciting. It was not description as such that I felt I simply could not (my body would not) do; it was that I could not countenance the introduction of an impersonal narrator who would be able to describe the scene from a privileged position outside space and time. It might seem that a first person narrator would solve the problem, but unless he was a sort of Tristram Shandy (and I found that much as I loved that book its wonderful playfulness was not something I was drawn to emulate) there would be exactly the same problem: in life things slip past us, we are always in the midst of them, we do not stop and describe, we simply take in our environment as we go. The traditional novel pretends to be doing that but in fact the first person narrator, when there is one, stands free of such pressures and simply tells the story. The descriptions he or she provides are meant to orient the reader, to act like stage directions. But I did not want such dead wood in my book. I wanted it to be alive from start to finish, from the first word to the last. And in dialogue it could be alive, for what dialogue did was provide words where (in the fiction) the characters would be providing words. Why the words are spoken, how speaking them affects the situation and what they ‘mean’ can be left as open as in any encounter in real life.

That was how, much later, I came to explain my peculiar aversion to description and my recourse, here and later, to dialogue. At the time I merely felt that I was embarked on an exciting journey and it was up to me to keep going till I got to the end.

VB: I’m also intrigued by your use of repetition – very strong in The Inventory, but also to be found in many other of your works. What is it about repetition, do you think, that brings us closer to the real?

GJ:I discovered, as I worked, that I could do without transitions. I could simply juxtapose fragments of dialogue and build up a rhythm in that way. Repetition was part of that process. As I soon discovered, Stravinsky worked in rather the same way. Instead of the development so central to the Western classical tradition he worked with small cells which he juxtaposed with others or transformed by various processes. And his descendants, I realised, were living and working in here England – Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, then young radicals setting out on their own paths, influenced by Stravinsky as well as by Varèse and Messiaen, but also harking back to late medieval and early Renaissance ways of building large works by other means than classical development. I spent many exciting hours at the concerts of the Pierrot Players, the Fires of London and the London Sinfonietta. And in the course of that discovered Stockhausen, Berio and Ligeti, very different composers, but all rejecting the linear, developmental processes of classical music and finding their inspiration in the musics of the Middle Ages, India and the Far East. It was an exciting time.

VB: What did the experience of writing this first novel teach you?

GJ: One other thing I discovered on the way was that under pressure of the situation all sorts of unexpected things occur. A writer I had not really thought about much, Raymond Queneau, became a great source of strength as I struggled with the book. Recalling his ability to maintain wild flights of fancy and yet hold on to ‘the real world’ of the France he knew, particularly in Zazie dans le métro, gave me the confidence to let go in ways I had never been able to do in my short fiction. It was frightening but exhilarating, a roller-coaster ride with no assurance that I would land on my feet at the other end. But, somehow, I did (I learned that if you let go you often do).

queneauRaymond Queneau

VB: How was it received?

GJ: Respectfully. I think it was possible to read it as a version of the English realist novel. And those were perhaps more open times, in the late sixties. Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, was, after all, dedicated to Queneau and this was the time when John Berger and David Drew, Europeans to their core, were writing in the back pages of the weeklies. Critics only turned against me with my fourth novel, Migrations, which was a break from the predominantly dialogue novels I had been writing till that point.

VB: As a critic, how would you define the role of the reader?

GJ: I’ve no idea. Perhaps we should drop such notions as ‘the role of the reader’. Reading, as you know, is the most natural of activities. I’ve seen children who can’t yet read grab the book from their father’s hand and sit there, imitating him, turning the pages, willing themselves to read, as it were. I was fortunate to grow up in a pre-television and pre-computer age, so that there was nothing else to do if you were on your own except kick a ball around or draw or read. There came a moment when my mother put down the book she was reading to me to go and do something and I picked it up and went on with it. She came back and I handed the book to her to continue, but she only smiled and said she was busy and perhaps I could go on on my own. And of course I did. I wanted to find out what happened next. And I remember lying by the pool in the sports club in Maadi, near to Cairo, where I grew up, and looking up at the big clock on the wall and thinking: soon it’ll be time for lunch and after that I can go on with my book. And I felt a tingling in my whole body at the thought. I think the book in question was Enid Blyton’s The Castle of Adventure – I’ve never read anything more thrilling, though I’ve had many similar moments of looking forward to a blissful evening with a book I was absorbed in.

VB: I ask this because Migrations is an exemplary novel in the singular effect it has on me as a reader. Your narratives have such extraordinary elasticity; they open up new spaces in my mind. I find myself drawn to the trope of migration itself, and the way your characters often walk and talk, or walk and think; their movement echoes the mental travel I undertake reading you. Do you have such a figure as Iser’s ‘ideal reader’ in your own mind when you are writing? What do you think your novels ask of the reader?

GJ: I think one writes the books one would like to read but that no-one has written. So as you write you write for yourself as reader. That figure is not in your mind so much as in your body. He is not ideal at all, he is this person: you as reader of books.

But the first part of your question deserves a fuller answer. Quite a few years ago now I received a letter from a reader of my work who told me she had had M.E. [Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, the name previously used for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, though some argue the two illnesses are different] for many years, and for a long time no doctor would take her seriously, though she had fought hard to get her condition recognised (as of course it now is). She said reading my work had a physical effect on her, actually did what medicine and therapy could not do, that while she was reading my work she started to move better, to feel more like her old self. We corresponded and it turned out she was actually in a wheelchair, but clearly a very determined lady (in earlier life, she told me, when the disease was less virulent, she had acted and even taken a small company on a tour of Africa). She asked me if I thought she should do a PhD on my work, and tried to get in to various universities to do that, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. I suggested to her that PhDs were probably not a good idea in the Humanities (a view I hold generally), and that if she felt driven to write about my work she should just do so. Over the course of the next years she did that and in the end had a substantial book. I read it with interest because I had always been fascinated by the kind of thing Oliver Sacks was doing and loved the idea that books could have a physically, not just emotionally or intellectually, restorative effect on the reader, not just on the writer. I had hoped that in the wake of Sacks’s popularity a publisher might be persuaded to publish her book, but alas no-one would and I remain one of its sole readers. But I cherish my copy as a witness to the effect art can have.

I don’t think there’s anything uniquely ‘restorative’ about my work; if she had happened to read someone else I’m sure that would also have done the trick. Not anyone else, but I have certainly found that the authors I warm to affect my body and not just my mind. And in essays and books like Writing and the Body I’ve tried to explore in an amateur way why that should be the case. But while neurologists have been (rightly) alert to the therapeutic effects of music, and even painting, poetry and fiction have not in the past been examined from the same perspective. This has, though, recently become a topic of research, and Terence Cave, for example, has devoted some of the money he received from his Balzan prize to setting up a team in Norway to look into it, while Paul Davis and a team at Liverpool are engaged in the same enterprise. Both of them though seem to me overly scientific and abstracting. I just wish the topic would find its Oliver Sacks.

As for Migrations and migration, that work was indeed another breakthrough for me. I had grown to feel that the dialogue form I had developed in The Inventory and which I had adopted for my next two novels, Words and The Present, was no longer satisfying. I had had a few plays publicly performed and been made welcome in the wonderful BBC Third Programme and the Radio Drama department, presided over by Martin Esslin, and full of great producers able to call on the best actors in the land. My play Playback, which I worked on with that great producer, Guy Vaesen, kicked off a season of radio plays exploring the possibilities of the form. I felt more at ease in my teaching role at Sussex now it was established that part of my time at least would be spent writing. Yet in personal terms 1972-5 were very difficult years for me. A good friend committed suicide. My beloved collie dog, who had developed epilepsy in a very violent form, grand mal rather than petit mal, with fits lasting all of 36 hours, had finally had to be put down, and I could not get out of my head the look in his eyes as he felt a fit coming upon him and with no idea, of course, as a human being would have, of what was about to engulf him. I had behaved very badly to a number of people who were very close to me. All I wanted to do was beat my head against the wall and scream. In those circumstances the lightness and humour of my early novels did not seem to be of any help. I wanted to be engaged in something that went deep and that (as I put it to myself) wound round and round and round, and in the writing of which somehow the shackles I felt were binding me tight might get released. I felt I needed to go down into my own life, but when I did so I found I had no ground to build on – I had no maternal country to dream about, not even a maternal language. I felt I was a sort of absolute migrant – someone on the move from my birth on, with no place to return to and no place to go to. How, in that condition, to find any solid base on which to stand to build something substantial? Yet as I thought about all this I began to wonder if perhaps my condition was more typical of the human condition at large than our culture (any culture?) was willing to recognise. Most people have a patria and a maternal language and the notion that these are primal is somehow unquestionable. But is it true? Or is it perhaps just another myth. Perhaps if one dug down deep enough one would find only shifting sands. I started to read quite a lot of French psychoanalysis (my close friend John Mepham was a great resource there), and in particular André Green. And I began to feel that perhaps I could find a fictional form for all this.

Two images came into my mind under the pressure of trying to find my form: a Francis Bacon image of a man vomiting into a lavatory, bent double over it, a painting I must have recently seen; and Epstein’s great sculpture of Lazarus rising, the shrouds that had been wrapped about his body starting to come loose, which I had discovered in New College chapel when I was a student down the road at St.Edmund Hall and which I often used to go and contemplate in my time at Oxford. I was also listening to the current work of Peter Maxwell Davies, those enormously slow, enormously long works audiences at the time were walking out of, like Worldes Blis and the Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine, which developed almost imperceptibly, like their great late medieval models, from tiny cells to monumental structures. And then I heard Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, and I knew I had to write my book. It knocked me backwards, that long long slow ritual on strings and percussion, punctuated by the piercing, beautiful descant of the clarinet. Towards the end of the huge single movement there is a glimpse of something found, then that too is swallowed up in the funereal march. Finally, I was just starting to learn biblical Hebrew in order to read the Hebrew Bible in the original language. I was also reading the Bible in English quite intensively. I came across this phrase in the prophet Micah: ‘Arise and go, for this is not your rest.’ (Micah 2.10) I loved the sound of it in Hebrew: c’mu velochu ki lo zot ha-menuchah, and I was excited to discover that the word for rest, menuchah, is also to be found in various other places in the Bible, notably when the dove is sent out of the ark by Noah but can find no rest for her feet because the earth is still covered by water. I knew then that I had found the epigraph to my book, and, after much internal debate, decided to leave it in Hebrew to give a sense of its otherness and strangeness, and since the precise reference would allow anyone interested to look it up in an English Bible.

I had been driving up and down the road that leads from Brixton to New Cross, a road that filled me with horror every time I took it, it was so endless, so run down and desperate (it must have changed dramatically, like all of London, in the forty years since I was there), and I took that as my location. I hoped that by facing that despair and the despair of the man in Bacon’s sealed room vomiting into the lavatory, by finding a way of writing it, I might regain a modicum of balance. But I was terrified that so instinctive a procedure would lead to nothing more than a mess, so that though I wrote it straight, day after day, never looking back, once that first draft was done I subjected it to more analysis and drew more grids than I have ever done before or ever want to do again. I found that the pattern 9+1 was a recurrent one, tweaked it here and there, and decided on a title with nine letters plus the sign for the plural. And so Migrations was completed.

I had been so deeply immersed in it, and it had seen me through such a bad time, that, once my only reliable reader (relied upon to criticise as well as praise, which is essential), my mother, had read it and said she was deeply moved, I felt happy to send it to Gollancz, who had published my previous three books, including my first volume of short stories, Mobius the Stripper: Stories and Short Plays. That volume had been awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, a wonderful accolade for a young writer, news I had received on returning from a brief holiday to try and come to terms with my friend’s suicide, but at the last minute the prize was withdrawn on a technicality (I had not had an English passport when I was born, a fact I had never tried to hide, but which it seemed was a stipulation by Maugham for the award of the prize, even though in his lifetime he had waived that requirement in a couple of instances, and which the publishers, who submitted the book, had overlooked) and Gollancz, who had slipped bright yellow wrappers announcing the award on all copies of The Present, which they were about to publish, had to hurriedly remove these. Insult was added to injury when the chair of the Society of Authors, which managed the prize, Antonia Fraser, wrote more or less accusing me of deliberate fraud and ended with the chilling words: ‘However, I am sure you will agree that the publicity you are getting more than makes up for the withdrawal of the prize.’ Be that as it may, Gollancz took one look at Migrations and turned it down. When it was eventually published it was rubbished by the critics, Susan Hill, for example, saying (was it in The Observer?) ‘If you like that sort of thing then that is the sort of thing you will like.’ It was my first encounter with the entrenched conservatism of the English media and especially of established English writers, a conservatism I now suspect (after the similar outburst of bile that greeted my recent critical book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?) is due more to anxiety than to anything else.


VB: The other figure that recurs across your works is the figure of the man alone in his room. This makes me think of both the reader and the writer, who are often in such a situation. What draws you to this figure, or perhaps better to ask, how was this figure thrust upon you?

GJ: I think I’ve answered this in relation to Migrations. As for its larger or deeper significance, all I can say is that my pulse quickens when I see paintings or listen to music or read books where the constraints are fairly tight – where a room hems in the figures, as in Vermeer or Hammershøi or some of Giacometti, or the musical resources are limited, as in Renard and Histoire du soldat. Why it should do so is a difficult question, better left to others.

VB: I wonder if we might bring in your notion of art-as-toy here; something material and real in its own right but invested with imagination and fantasy. Do you think, as both author and critic, that the ‘toy’ of art is different – invites different kinds of play – for its creator than for its consumer?

GJ: Not sure I understand this. Art is making, poiesis, and what I like about much modern art is that it acknowledges this, indeed, makes a virtue out of it. We may be nostalgic for the organic, for art growing as a tree grows, but to accept that art is made by someone at some moment is exhilarating for me. That’s why I love Tristram Shandy. Of course there are dangers. If one starts to think of it as simply artificial one is set firmly on the conceptual route, and though I am interested in Duchamp, who was a complicated and conflicted figure, I am not much interested in his followers. A key moment in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, to my mind, though no-one has mentioned it, is the confrontation I set up between Duchamp and Bacon. Both of them want nothing to do with mere description, nor do they want to go down the road of abstraction, but where Duchamp views every artistic gesture with suspicion, Bacon is prepared to trust the moment, to trust his painterly gesture. Duchamp has all the philosophical answers, but Bacon is a bit like Dr.Johnson confronting Bishop Berkeley: he kicks the stone. Duchamp will never be accused of self-indulgence or losing the plot, but my heart is with Bacon. And more than my heart. I believe that if we realise that a child lives the toy, lives with the toy, while never for a moment thinking it is anything other than a toy, then we perhaps have a better model of our relationship to art than the conceptual one. I at any rate dream of making a work that is like some complicated toy you can dismantle and put together again and that is always not just more than the sum of its parts but in a different dimension. So I love works like Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi or Birtwistle’s Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum and Steve Reich’s percussion pieces – but of course I also love works which are not like that at all, such as those of Kafka and Beckett and Stockhausen and Kurtág.

What ever happened

VB: Perhaps we might address the influence of Jewish elements in your works. It would be foolishly reductive to call you a ‘Jewish writer’; yet patterns of migration and exile are evocative, and many of your protagonists identify themselves as Jews (in a way that is often serious and amusing at once). How would you describe these elements in your writing?

GJ: Until well into my thirties I knew I was Jewish, knew my mother and I had survived in France during the war more by luck than anything else, yet I had no connection with things Jewish. My first books were written by someone without any contact with organised religion or with any religious tradition. So I was intrigued when, years later, a German colleague at Sussex, who was working on the way in which the Nazis took over the flats of Jews in Vienna after the Anschluss, told me she felt The Inventory was a very Jewish work: ‘It’s a book about the fragile remains of one person’, she said, ‘and the memory of that person in the objects he leaves behind and in the lives of those who survive. Surely you were obliquely writing about the war?’ I assured her that that was not the case, but of course accepted that sometimes we write more than we know.

Then, as I have said, at the time of writing Migrations I was starting to read the Hebrew Bible intensively. And what I found in the narratives there was a kind of writing that I had only come across in the work of Marguerite Duras: narratives denuded of description or psychologising, narratives which draw their power from the way dialogue and the stark description of ‘what happens’ hint at depths which evade even the speakers themselves. It was very exciting. And at the time too I became friends with a number of wonderfully thoughtful and interesting religious Jews, mainly Reform, Francis Landy, Geoff Newman, Jonathan Magonet. I found they shared one of the central attitudes I had been delighted to find at Sussex when I joined the University, a belief that one need not always have the answers, that sometimes genuine puzzlement is more fruitful than clear solutions. I admire and respect their devotion but because I never had any religious education or went to synagogue as a child I feel a little bit outside it all, but they – and they are still good friends – seem to accept me as I am. And like them too I despair of what is happening in and to Israel. The Jewishness I cherish is the one that stresses wandering as the human condition, not any sort of possession of a promised land.

So I would say that the feeling that I am Jewish is now more informed than it was, but it remains, like my awareness of Proust and Kafka, a support and a comfort rather than anything else.

VB: When I put down one of your novels, I feel that something significant and real has happened, and maybe it’s a case of Eliot’s belief that ‘mankind cannot take too much reality?’

GJ: Naturally I’m delighted you feel that way about my books. I suppose what I discovered in writing The Inventory is that I want a work to live its own life from the first word to the last. With the first word something unusual is happening, something for which there is no justification, which is a cheat, and yet which is also magical, wonder-full. I want to celebrate that, embrace it, not deny it, as do most works of fiction. I’m not interested in telling a story. I love the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the narratives of the Border Ballads and of the Grimm tales, but most so-called classical novels turn me off – I don’t want to be filled with Stendahl’s or George Eliot’s inventions, or even Tolstoy’s, all those descriptions of clothes and rooms and the rest – I want books that leave a space for me to discover myself, like Proust’s or Kafka’s, or that get my body dancing, like those of Queneau and Muriel Spark. Lots happens in Balzac and Dickens, but I’d rather read Chandler or Wodehouse, writers who know that what they are doing is neither ‘significant’ nor ‘real’. But that’s no criticism of the classic novel (or the contemporary Goncourt or Booker contender), just that it’s not for me. As Stravinsky said of Mahler: ‘Our pulses beat at different rates.’

VB: And yet, I’m not sure I’ve read anything in which you abandon full characters. I’m thinking now particularly of the monologue novels like Moo Pak and Infinity, where you have Jack Toledano and Tancredo Pavone vividly depicted by their friends and servants, Damien Anderson and Massimo, who frame their stories. Wodehouse gives his characters easy, ridiculous, robust emotions, but what touches me about these two novels in particular is the love, friendship and loyalty, the very real emotions that drive the narrative. Friendship, suffering, the drive to create; I feel your works are very rich in emotion ‒ but entirely empty of sentiment. Would that be fair to say?

GJ: I’ve always felt that while a short story can spring out of an idea or a phrase a novel has to have characters I can empathise with. You have to have something genuinely invested in it if you are to spend a year or three of your life with a piece of fiction – there has to be something you want to explore and something you are moved by. For a long time I worked with the initial conceit of Infinity, and with the figure of the eccentric avant-garde Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, but it was only when I opened myself to the human dimension of the relationship between Pavone and Massimo that the novel finally came. On the other hand I always conceived of Moo Pak as a dialogue novel with one part of the dialogue missing. ‘Rich in emotion but empty of sentiment’ – I can’t think of a nicer description of my work or one I would be happier with.

Moo Pak

VB: I’m also very intrigued by the ghosts of real people behind some of your novels – Giacinto Scelsi in Infinity, Pierre Bonnard in Contre-Jour, Joseph Cornell in Hotel Andromeda. I don’t for one second think this is a biographical urge, so what do these real figures offer you in terms of inspiration or structure or… maybe something else entirely?

GJ: I too have been intrigued by that question ‒ ever since I worked on The Air We Breathe, behind which lies the figure of Claude Monet, and which was sparked off by my looking at a book of photographs of the aged Monet and his wife – sitting on the beach in Dieppe, pottering about the garden in Giverny, etc. – and then found myself following it up with a book loosely based on the life and work of Pierre Bonnard, Contre-Jour. Enough, I said to myself, or people will start thinking of you as a novelist who only writes oblique biographies of painters. And then I found myself writing a book at the centre of which was Marcel Duchamp, The Big Glass, and fifteen years later a book in which Joseph Cornell figured prominently, Hotel Andromeda. It’s true that in between I wrote a number of novels – Now, Only Joking, After, Making Mistakes – which do not have an artist at the centre, but even so, what was going on? All I can say is that something in the life of this or that artist does more than intrigue me, it grabs me to such an extent that I cannot rest till I have had a go at discovering why, and doing so in the only way I know, by writing a piece of fiction. With Bonnard it was hearing a talk about why he painted his wife Marthe so frequently lying stretched out in the bath (because, said the speaker, she was a compulsive washer); with Duchamp it was reading about how, when he learned that the work on which he had spent so much time and energy, The Large Glass, had been damaged in transit to an exhibition, the glass panels cracked beyond repair, his response was: ‘Wonderful!’ With Scelsi it was reading the crazy remarks he made to interviewers and some of which were printed in the sleeve-notes to his CDs (‘I was born in Mesopotamia 2800 years ago’; ‘Other composers like to hold up their profiles to the photographers and to show off their noses; I have a finer nose, a perfect Roman nose, much finer than any of them but I have never let myself be photographed.’). With Cornell it was seeing those photos of him in old age in his garden or his study in the house in Utopia Parkway he had lived in most of his life, looking like a figure already passed over to the other side. But in every case I had to love the art or at least to find it highly interesting. I could not spend a year or more of my life with someone with whom I was not in some sort of sympathy.

And I think too that the combination of work that I found fascinating and a life that intrigued me and which I could identify with acted a bit like the double focus of that word ‘inventory’ with my first novel – it gave me the rudiments of a plot, and a form. Already in some very early stories I had found myself trying to find literary equivalents of paintings by Picasso, Vermeer, Dix, and others, and taking as the ‘content’ of the story what the painting represented: two large women running on a beach, a woman at the harpsichord, a mirrored room in Brussels during World War I. So it’s clearly more than a passing fad.


VB: I am particularly interested in the depiction of creativity that comes out of your work. There seems to me to be one constant feature uniting the artists in your pages and that is their absolute dedication to art. What makes this something you want to write about?

But I am also curious about the way that these characters suffer ‒ or make those around them suffer ‒ for creativity. Do you think that creativity is necessarily costly; that it always demands a measure of sanity or love or peace of mind to be paid?

GJ: That, I suspect, is the deeper reason for my fascination with these artists. Artists are the saints of our day, no? Surely, they argue by their choices, life is in the end about something other than money and status, life is a quest, a puzzle and a gift. On the other hand there is something ridiculous about this stance. Something quixotic. For already in the early seventeenth century Cervantes sensed that the dedicated life was an absurdity, whether that life was passed in dedication to God or to knight errantry or to the writing of books. I think that is one reason why I write novels and not critical books about Bonnard, Duchamp etc. Because fiction can show up the absurdity, even the self-delusion (Infinity), or the costs to others (Contre-Jour) of the obsessive artistic life, as well as its wonder and glory. That’s the beauty of art, of fiction, that it can accept and reveal complexity, even contradiction, and leave you simply pondering how life is.

VB: On that note of costly creativity, maybe we can return to you in the 80s and 90s. You’d been a young man longing to create works of literary fiction and here you are doing so, an established author. Had the experience been as you expected it would be? How had it changed you (if indeed it had)?

GJ: I’m not sure about ‘established’. After the débacle of the Somerset Maugham Prize and Migrations (1977) I had been labeled an ‘experimental’ writer once and for all and routinely abused and dismissed in reviews or else ignored altogether. With each new book of course I thought: This time they’ll get it, this time they’re bound to see what I’m after, but it didn’t happen. Publishers would take one book, swear they were in it for the long haul, then drop me when no-one bought the book, until I finally found a home in Michael Schmidt’s then expanding Carcanet fiction list. Carcanet have stood by me for the past thirty plus years, though during that time their fiction list has had to shrink and almost disappear (I think I am the last remnant of a once-vibrant list that included Clarice Lispector, Natalia Ginsberg, Leonardo Sciascia and Christine Brooke-Rose). When Contre-Jour was taken by Gallimard I thought: at last I will find a public to appreciate me. But Gallimard pushed it as a novel just about Bonnard and it fell flat and they lost interest. It wasn’t till the late nineties that a Swiss publisher, Gerd Haffmans Verlag, began to take my work and to publish it in Germany that I felt I had found a public. It wasn’t just that reviewers were kinder to the work, it was that the reviews were intellectually on a different level to the English ones and engaged with the work (Haffmans Verlag brought out Now, ContreJour and Only Joking when that book had not even found an English publisher) in ways inconceivable to English editors and reviewers. When I gave readings from my work in Germany I found people responding to it on its own terms, instead of more or less asking me to justify myself, as I felt on the rare occasions I had done readings or interviews in England. But then Haffmans went bankrupt, a seemingly common fate with any press that took me on. Finally in the new century dedicated small presses in France (Quidam) and Spain (Raig Verde, Complices) began to bring out my books in those countries, and first Zweitausendeins and then Suhrkamp and Jung & Jung in Germany. But it’s really only in the last few years (with the rise of the internet and blogs like yours and Steve Mitchelmore’s) that I’ve ceased to feel I’m there on sufferance and the sooner I disappear the happier the literary establishment will be.

Of course all that has its good as well as its bad side. I remember my Oxford friend, the composer Gordon Crosse, saying to me all those years ago: ‘For the artist there are two dangers, success and failure.’ Wise words. I’ve seen what success has done even to writers I admired (Golding and Pinter for example, even Claude Simon) and felt in a way glad it had never come my way. Failure – it depends how you define it. When all public responses are not just negative but dismissive it’s sometimes hard to keep going. We are not Buddhists, we need some sense that what we are doing is more than self-indulgence. But of course in the end we go on writing because we have to/want to. (David Plante once said to me: ‘Remember, Gabriel, no-one asked you to do this.’ More wise words.) I have now accepted that I will always only appeal to a very small section of readers, anyway in this country, but probably everywhere, but I have also come to feel in the last few years (not in the eighties and nineties) that there is a growing body of people for whom my writing really matters, and that is heart-warming and encourages me to keep going.


VB: You have written the most moving tribute to your mother, the translator Sacha Rabinovitch, in A Life, the memoir of your relationship. What do you think she gave you as an artist?

GJ: It’s so difficult to say. She gave me life, of course, and then she saved us both when we were stranded in France during the war. When I was fifteen she once again showed courage and determination when we left Egypt for good in 1956, just before the Suez crisis. She left her sister, her only remaining family apart from me, her beloved dogs and all her possessions to face a totally unknown future. She had no idea if she would be allowed into England, where I was going to finish my schooling, and, if not, what would happen to her. So my being in England and becoming an English-language writer I also owe to her forethought and determination.

All that might have been a heavy burden for me to bear, but she was also the most generous and the most loving of people, and gave me all her love without (I think) spoiling me – a difficult balance. But the real miracle was that as I became an adult (in fact from the moment I came back from Oxford, where I had been on my own for three years, for the first time in my life) we found we had a great many shared interests ‒ and even tastes – in books, in music, in art, animals, in walking – and became firm friends. Which doesn’t mean of course that we did not have quarrels, sometimes terrible ones, when people are that close it’s probably inevitable. But it was wonderful to have a friend in her to whom I knew I could always turn. When I began to write she was naturally the first person to whom I showed my work. And she was invariably encouraging though quite ready to make critical comments when she thought they were justified. Her response to The Inventory was typical. When a draft of that book was finally finished I left it with her to read and went off to London for the day. When I entered the house on my return my heart was beating. I felt that this was the moment of truth. I had no idea if what I had done was very good, quite good, or just plain rubbish. Her first words were: ‘It’s wonderful.’ And as the sense of relief flooded through my body she added: ‘I think you’ll have to work on the ending, though.’

So I suppose in answer to your question I have to say: she gave me everything. The deep confidence of knowing that, however out of step I was with the prevalent culture of the time, someone else thought the work good, someone I could trust. I would not have written what I have had it not been for her, and one of the hardest things about her death was losing my best and most reliable critic.

VB: Let’s talk about Goldberg: Variations, which strikes me as your most widely-reviewed novel to date. I also find it quite different to everything else you’ve written without being able to put my finger on why that should be so. It is such a unique piece of fiction – how did it come into being?

GJ: I think it was in the early nineties that I came across that anecdote about Bach’s writing of the Goldberg Variations. It derives from Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, but I can’t remember if I had been reading Forkel or another book on Bach or perhaps it was just a passing mention of the story in something on quite a different topic. (Scholars, it is worth saying, now cast doubt on every aspect of the anecdote.) It seems that Count Keyserlingk, a Leipzig nobleman, had insomnia, and he asked his court musician, the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play to him at nights in the hope that that might send him to sleep. Goldberg in turn asked Bach to write him a suitable piece, and that was how one of the greatest works of music ever written came into being. I thought it would be fun, as a sort of homage to Bach, to see what happened when I transposed the story to Britain and turned Bach from a composer to a writer. And I conceived the idea of an English nobleman in the late eighteenth century developing a debilitating insomnia and calling up his not too distant neighbour, the renowned writer of German-Jewish descent, Samuel Goldberg, to come and read to him, and then to insist that he read something he had written that day. It was an amusing jeux-d’esprit, and I got it written without too much difficulty. As I was finishing it I heard Judith Weir, a composer I knew slightly, talking on the radio about the importance to her and to so many modern composers, of Bach. I decided to send her the story, something I regretted doing for the next few years, because she wrote back quite soon to say she had much enjoyed reading it on a train journey to Manchester and when would I have the other twenty-nine variations to show her?

Of course once the seed has been sown in your mind it’s impossible to dislodge. I loved the Variations and every time I heard them I was deeply moved by the fact that when the Aria with which it starts returns, unchanged, at the end, we hear it completely differently, because of the long road we have travelled. I also loved the idea of a piece that would be made up of a number of discrete yet interlinked parts and that would yet be more than the sum of its parts. But I had set my initial ‘variation’ in England in the late eighteenth century, and while it was possible (for me) to write a piece of historical fiction that covered twenty pages I was not sure I could – or would want to – keep it up over a whole novel. I am not a historical novelist and am not interested in historical novels. Certainly not in twentieth century ones. Nevertheless, I thought I ought to give it a go. After all, I greatly admired William Golding’s The Spire, set in the Middle Ages, admired it particularly for the fact that Golding made the setting feel completely authentic yet hardly went out of his way to ‘set’ his novel in a bygone time. Perhaps I could learn from him.

Over the next few years I struggled with the project, periodically growing sick of it and turning to other things, yet always coming back to it. I couldn’t get it off the ground and I couldn’t quite let it go. I cursed Judith Weir. But in the end I had to let it go. I had written half a dozen ‘variations’ and roughed out the end, but it seemed terribly false and arch to me and I dropped it. I turned to contemporary subjects with relief and wrote Moo Pak and then Now, both set in present-day London. But after my mother’s death and the emotional turmoil that followed, I found myself spending more and more time in Berlin where a friend had a flat and a bicycle to lend me, and perhaps it was the distance and the unfamiliarity of my surroundings, but I found myself turning to my abandoned novel again. As I cycled along the canal or river towpath in Berlin, stopping off at beer houses with shady gardens, I pondered the problems of my book and found myself starting to work at it again. I realised that perhaps what I should do was punch a window into the present in the fabric of the building I had erected, so to speak, and let the later ‘variations’ enter the modern world. And then other things began to fall into place. I had decided from the start that I would not follow Bach’s variations slavishly, writing a very fast or a heavily ornamented variation when he did, etc. Yet there were a few landmarks in the landscape of his mighty work that I felt I would like to incorporate into my feeble effort, in particular the moving slow and lyrical variations to be found, one towards the end of the first half and one halfway through the second, and also the rumbustious knockabout variation with which he concludes. I had also, like all listeners to the work, been struck by the fact that Bach does not, after the Aria, begin with any sort of overture, but keeps that back till variation 16, the start of the second half. I decided that for that grand piece ‘in the French style’, I would transpose another Bach anecdote to late eighteenth century England. The story goes that by the end of his life Bach’s fame and his ability to improvise complex music had spread to the court in Potsdam, and it was there that the King invited him and gave him a theme which he asked him to improvise on. The result was another astonishing masterpiece, The Musical Offering. I decided that my naturalised English writer would also compose a number of variations on a theme given him at court by George III.

I had had a postcard of an extraordinary late work by Paul Klee on my desk in Lewes for some time. Called Wander-Artist, which means something like travelling showman and performer, it depicts, in stark black, a crudely drawn figure striding from left to right across a red background, itself hemmed in by a rough black frame, and waving as he goes. The whole is painted to look more like a poster than an artwork, and I loved it and was moved by it, for reasons I could not begin to fathom. But as I worked with renewed energy on my homage to Bach that figure suddenly intruded into the fiction and even began to speak. That was when I knew that finally the thing was coming together and one day I would have a book.

When it was done and I had my thirty variations I racked my brains to try and decide how to compose the Aria that in Bach starts and finishes the work. And it gradually dawned on me that that may be the difference between our age and the age of Bach, that his can have an opening and closing Aria, which anchors the piece and set the parameters, while ours can only have variations. In other words, there was a good and profound reason why I could not find it in me to write my Aria. And with that thought came the further thought that for this book the Aria would have to be the Klee Wander-Artist, which I would ask the publisher to put on the front and back covers, as though the only Aria for us to countenance today would have to be a collage onto mine of someone else’s work, and would be a work that itself cast doubt on the notion of the artist, suggesting as it does, like other works of Klee, such as Ghost of a Genius, that today the word can only be used mockingly, artist reduced to artiste, genius to ghost.

With that my work on the book came to an end. But my feeling, after working at it for far longer than for any of my other novels, was mainly one of relief, not of triumph. And of course it was the first novel of mine that I could not show to my mother. As to whether it’s all that different from my other works, I’m not sure. In some ways of course it is, and I’ve tried to explain why. But the central figure of the Wander-Artist is another of my walkers, isn’t he? His roots I think probably go back to Migrations. But it’s really not for me to say.

Goldberg- Variations

VB: Goldberg was received wonderfully well in France. Reading the reviews, I feel they really ‘got’ you, if you know what I mean. As you mentioned with the German reading public, they responded so deeply to what you are doing in your fiction. I wonder why your writing works so well with a European sensibility that seems lacking in the Anglo-Saxon temperament of the British?

GJ: But it took twelve years to appear in translation. Haffmans Verlag had commissioned a translation but the firm went bankrupt before they could publish it, and so far no other foreign publisher has dared take it on, apart from Quidam, my intrepid and wonderful French publisher, who brought it out last year. I did finally feel then that I had found my public, something, as I said earlier, that I had hoped for with Contre-Jour but which never materialised at the time.

As to why my books get more intelligently reviewed in Germany and France, there must surely be many reasons. There is now a clear divide between the cultural life in England and America on the one hand, and on the continent on the other. You go into a French bookshop and the main table is spread out with books on philosophy; in an English bookshop, with books on food or gardening, or with biographies of footballers. The Net Book Agreement holds in France and hardly anyone uses Amazon, preferring always to buy through their local bookshop. And there are still several of these, independent bookshops, in every quarter of Paris, each with its devoted band of readers. Bernard Hoepffner, my brilliant French translator, and I read together from Goldberg in a small Paris bookshop last year. We occupied the only two seats they could get into the small space, but it was packed with people who had already read the book, listened attentively, and asked good questions, standing for over two hours. And that’s not just true of Paris, but of most French towns. With Bernard we took the train to Tours and read in a bookshop there (the tickets and our hotel paid for by the bookshop owner). Same story, except that the place was big enough for seats to be brought in. Drinks were served afterwards. When we did the same in Brussels, the owner said he couldn’t stay to have dinner with us. He had made his money, it turned out, in business, and then at the age of 30 retired and started the bookshop. At ten that night he was taking part in a 160-kilometre bicycle event. So he was living the life he wanted to live. In England I suspect someone in his position would have opened a wine-bar. So it’s a whole cultural thing. Proust, Blanchot, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Mann, Heidegger, Celan, are living presences for most educated readers in France and Germany. In England? One just has to ask the question to see the problem.

It’s a shame, though, because I feel a dose of English irony and even scepticism would sometimes be useful when French or German intellectuals ascend into the stratosphere, and I love the deflationary irony of the best of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. But it can so easily become a cheap and sneering cynicism, which is really a kind of schoolboy panic in the face of what they feel is beyond them. In their disciples only the cynicism is left.

VB: I’d like to mention a couple of your novellas, now, beginning with Everything Passes, the first of your books I read and still one of my favourites. The pliancy of this narrative astonishes me every time. Can we talk about white spaces? They’re a feature of several of your works and give them a particular, striking effect. What does that blank space bring to your narrative, do you think?

GJ: Not sure I can answer your questions, but I’ll have a go. First of all, ‘novellas’. I don’t know when the term was invented, but it is clearly helpful when the expected length for a novel was between 500 and 1000 pages. It helps us distinguish Bartleby from Moby Dick and The Death of Ivan Ilych from War and Peace. But I’m not sure it’s helpful with the modern writers I’m interested in – Woolf, Spark, Duras, Bernhard, Appelfeld – very few of whom write long books. Proust wrote one enormous work of fiction, basically, but the many short novels of Woolf or Bernhard can also be seen as parts of a single project. Whether my books should be seen like that or not it’s not for me to say – they certainly feel like that from the inside.

I’m glad you responded to Everything Passes – I had been thinking about it for a decade or two before I wrote it and a great many different elements went into it – hearing Schoenberg’s late String Trio, that extraordinary expressionist work which, he said, attempted to describe what he felt like when he technically died and had to be resuscitated with an injection; a photo of Francis Ponge looking out of a dirty window with a broken pane I once saw in a newspaper and could never forget; much else. But you are asking me about the way it is written. One of my earliest pieces is a long ‘story’ called ‘Distances’. I think the epigraph is from Rilke: ‘those feelable distances’. I am drawn to the idea of the distance between people, and even between ourselves and ourselves, as a space that is vibrant with unspoken feeling. The works of art that touch me are those where that is in play – in Vermeer’s painting, in Velazquez’ Las Meninas, in Hammershøi’s silent rooms – works which have an enigmatic quality, a sense of waiting for something to happen, where the waiting is more important than the happening. I love the idea of a work of fiction which can catch that. And as I discovered with The Inventory, you really don’t have to spell out the transitions, and you can use repetition to convey rhythm. I love the border ballads for that reason, and the late medieval ballades and many of Dunbar’s poems. As with the Aria in the Goldberg Variations, these refrains and repetitions are never exactly the same when they return, precisely because now they have been heard before. And I suppose I’ve never got over my first hearing of those long slow works of Maxwell Davis and Birtwistle which seem quite static but where something is slowly stirring and by the end you find you have travelled a long long way, even if that way is not linear.

Does that start to answer it?

VB: Also in Everything Passes, your protagonist, Felix, discusses Rabelais and the moment in European culture when Rabelais understands that he has ‘gained the world and lost [his] audience’. I wondered what you felt about that in relation to contemporary audiences. Do you think we are undergoing another seismic shift in terms of the reader and his or her capacity for attention and understanding?

GJ: You know, I wanted Felix to sound pompous and just gave him something pompous to say. Schoenberg, who is vaguely behind Felix, lost his first wife to a much younger friend. I suspect she could not bear his ponderous certainties, his propensity to lecture one at the slightest opportunity. But of course I stand by the gist of his comments. I do think Rabelais and the whole tradition of which he is the head – Cervantes, Sterne – wrote out of just such a sense of print as both liberating and crippling. But whether this is being repeated today – are you referring to the internet etc? – I wouldn’t know. I still read books and trust that anyone who bothers to read me will do the same. And, interestingly, Patrick Wildgust, the director of the Laurence Sterne Trust who runs Shandy Hall, tells me he is sure the renewed interest of young people in Sterne has something to do with the internet. People blame the internet, he says, for sapping readers’ ability to stick with a linear narrative for several hundreds of pages, but by the same token Sterne, who is all digression and no linearity, is the ideal author for the internet age. Of course there are few works with the originality and zest of Tristram Shandy, and I suspect one needs to know how to commune with a book in silence to respond to Woolf or Duras or Bernhard.

VB: After is an extraordinary novella (published in a Carcanet edition with Making Mistakes). There’s an exchange in it that thrills me: ‘genuine puzzlement is much more productive than false clarity’, your protagonist says, to which comes the reply: ‘I wonder if your theory is not a little dangerous when applied to life and not to the problems of the mind.’ What gave you the idea for this story with its profound exploration of memory and knowledge?

GJ: I’m so glad you like After – and was so moved by your review of it when it came out all those years ago. It was another of those books which just refused to come. I eventually forced my way through to the end in a rather tense period of six months I spent in Paris, teaching once a week at the American University. I had had a bad two or three years in my personal life, compounded by the fact that my German publisher had gone bust and Carcanet were uncertain whether they would be able to go on publishing fiction at all. Writing it was a kind of lifeline for me. I felt I just had to write it to stay sane, and in fact it’s a pretty mad novel. I don’t know what I think of it. In a way it’s a reprise of The Echo-Chamber. At times I feel deeply embarrassed by it and ashamed of it, at others very proud. I can’t say any more than that.

VB: We haven’t really talked about your short stories. Would you like to say a few words about them?

GJ: There are writers like Bellow for whom short stories are really shards dropped from the novels or ideas for novels that never quite developed. And there are writers like Beckett and Robbe-Grillet who used the short story form to test out their style and vision in their early years. There are also writers like Borges or Ambrose Bierce whose fictional output consists of nothing but short stories. And finally there are those, like Hawthorne or Malamud, who have written both short stories and novels and recognised that these are rather different forms, each with its strengths and its weaknesses. I feel I belong to this group. I’ve always loved short stories, enjoy the fact that you can control every word in them in ways you can in a poem but not a novel, and some of my happiest moments have come when I realise I have finally nailed one. This happened with one of my earliest, ‘Mobius the Stripper’, with a small group of stories I wrote in the eighties, ‘Second Person Looking Out’, ‘He’, ‘That Which is Hidden is That Which is Shown…’, ‘Steps’ and ‘Volume IV, pp.167-69’, and with a couple of more recent ones, ‘He Contemplates a Photo in a Newspaper’ and ‘Heart’s Wings’. In fact, I’m not sure, if I were asked which of my books I feel happiest to have written, if I would not plump for ‘Heart’s Wings’ and Other Stories, a volume of recent and selected earlier short stories which Carcanet published in 2010, with a fine cover designed by my son.

Hearts wing

VB: You used to write stage and radio plays. Why did you stop?

GJ:After my first two novels had been published a theatre was built in the new University where I had gone to teach, at Sussex, and the students asked me to write several plays for them. The challenge was very exciting. I wrote a monologue for Nick Woodeson, who later rose to become a distinguished actor, one of those Pinter regularly turned to, and two plays for a group of students. Then I worked very intensely on a collaboration with the Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe, who had come to the University as a visiting professor while he was trying to get started on an opera commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Our collaboration came to nothing, but as a result of our discussions and my immersion in things Australian I wrote a play, Dreams of Mrs Fraser, which was premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs. Then for a while I wrote for the little theatres which were starting to proliferate in Britain in the early seventies. Unfortunately they soon started to concentrate on more overtly political kinds of drama, and I found that my plays fell between two stools: too ‘avant-garde’ for the conventional stages but not political enough for the little theatres. Later, and for several years, I teamed up with a Brighton-based company, and wrote a number of lunchtime pieces for them, but they eventually disbanded and commissions dried up. I find that while I will always write fiction, which I do on my own in my own time, and which, thank God, I have always eventually found publishers for, with the theatre you have to have a specific commission, to know what kind of company and space you are writing for, even though you always hope that if the work is good enough it will find other homes elsewhere after a first outing.

I did have one very exciting commission at the time. The newly-formed Actors’ Company, which included Ian McKellen and Caroline Blakiston, invited me to write a half-hour play for five actors, with minimal props as they were short of funds, to be performed at lunchtime in Edinburgh where they were doing a season of Shakespeare and Chekhov. In half an hour you can’t really waste time having people go in and out, so this forced me into attempting something I had only ever half-thought about: a play of five intertwining monologues performed by actors seated facing the audience. I had always felt that my trouble with most post-Renaissance art is that you are meant to face it head on, while it stands still, so to speak, and stares back at you. Yet in life things are constantly slipping past us, just caught out of the corner of the eye, or only half-heard. I liked the idea of an audience trying to hold all five monologues in mind at the same time but of course being unable to do so, and gradually letting go of some in order to make sense of one or at most two. The rehearsals were very exciting, my brilliant and virtuoso cast rising to the challenge I’d set them. The trouble was there was no room for hesitation, and if you lost your place there was no way of finding it again. And invariably one or other of the cast would lose their way. In the end the director, Edward Petherbridge, had to decide whether to keep going with rehearsals to the end and hope for the best or cut his losses and set up lecterns in front of each so that they could read the words. And this is what he did. The result I felt (and Howard Hobson in The Sunday Times, agreed with me) was unnerving and powerful, but it was not nearly as powerful as it had been in rehearsal, where the actors’ anxiety and fear of not getting to the end without coming unstuck, became part of the tension of the whole and where their very vulnerability in front of the audience made for very powerful theatre. The play has been done once or twice since, but always with lecterns, and I long to see it done without. It would have to be a young and fearless company to do it though.

Flow, as I called it, and Comedy, the second of the plays I wrote for the Sussex students, and which almost got done professionally in a boxing ring, which would have been perfect (the backers pulled out at the last moment) – these are the plays I’d most like to see revived in really bold productions.

Though work in the theatre dried up by the end of the seventies, I was starting to write quite a lot for radio. I had always loved the idea of radio drama and in the radio drama team at the BBC, I found I had people who believed in me and were prepared to commission work with absolutely no strings attached. The result was a series of very happy collaborations, from Playback in 1973 to the mid-eighties. When Guy Vaesen retired (though he returned to produce my 90 minute monologue, Vergil Dying, written for Paul Scofield and performed by him on radio) I teamed up with another fine producer, John Theocharis and together we worked on a number of productions, two of which were chosen by the BBC as entries for the Italia Prize, AG, a mad and highly irreverent reworking of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and Mr.Vee, an attempt to find an audial equivalent for the play of mirrors in Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Many of them were also translated into German, for Germany has a rich tradition of the Hörspiel. But by the nineties the BBC had begun to change, The Third Programme had become Radio 3, a mainly musical station, and had lost its glittering array of distinguished producers, while in Germany too the effects of reunification were felt even in the rarefied world of the Hörspiel, and there was a severe reduction in their transmission of foreign plays. I greatly miss those intense two or three days of working with dedicated actors and producers of the highest calibre, but it looks as if the days of really innovative radio drama are gone for good.

VB: I have concentrated on your fiction in this interview, because I feel that that is where you’ve done your most important work. But there is a question anyone who has read your criticism as well as your fiction will want to have answered, and that is what you consider the relation between the two to be. You’ve pointed out again and again in your answers to my previous questions that fiction certainly does not spring for you from any desire to make critical or theoretical points. But where then do you see your criticism, which is fairly substantial, with books on subjects as diverse as the Bible, the sense of touch, the notion of trust, and Modernism, fitting into your oeuvre as a whole?

GJ: I said at the start, talking of the genesis of The Inventory, that I thought I would have to give up teaching because living with books, talking about books all the time, made me unduly self-conscious and made it impossible for me to write my own fiction. But I wrote that novel and stayed on teaching at Sussex for 35 years, the last fifteen or so part-time, teaching from October to March and having April to September to myself. This actually was ideal. I did something I enjoyed doing and that I felt was worthwhile, so that even if I got nowhere with my writing I could still feel, at the end of the year, that I had made a contribution of some kind to the country that had after all taken me in and given me free university education with a job at the end of it. On the other hand come April I was not exhausted mentally and physically, as I had been by the end of June when I taught full time. In fact I had a free conscience and I felt I had earned my time to myself, so that those months of April and May were utterly blissful and a time of great creative upsurge. Since I’ve retired completely I don’t get that lift and if the work is not going well I have nothing to take its place, while I rarely feel I’ve earned any sort of break.

But teaching literature and writing criticism are not the same thing at all. I have always felt that writers make the best critics, and love the critical writings of Proust, Woolf, Auden and Mann, and the comments on books and writers one finds in the letters of Lawrence and Eliot and Beckett. Writing about the books and authors you love seems a natural extension of writing your own fiction or poetry, a little less fraught of course, since the threat of failure is not so imminent – I will always be able to finish an essay on a writer I love or a topic that interests me, but that is certainly not true of a story or a novel. In fallow periods Pinter turned to writing film scripts. They are often very good, and clearly by him, but obviously not of the same importance as his major plays. Alas, no-one asks me to write film scripts, and that is why in fallow periods I have found myself accepting reviewing and other non-fiction commissions or even following up an idea and writing a whole non-fiction book, as with Touch.

The book on the Bible [The Book of God] was a little different. It’s more bound up both with my personal life and with my teaching. As I think I said earlier, I was not brought up religiously in any way, but on the other hand I always had a strong sense of being Jewish. Nevertheless when as an adolescent I had my religious crisis it was a Christian religious crisis. After all, I had been reading Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, not Buber and Rosenzweig. Did I believe in Jesus Christ? Could I commit my life to such a set of beliefs? Like most adolescent religious crises, this one passed. I went on teaching Donne and Herbert, Dante and Dostoyevsky, but in my thirties I began to think again about my Jewish roots. It was really a cultural thing. At Oxford and then at Sussex I had felt that the friends I made shared a European outlook with me, but at some point it became clear to me that there was a part of me, the part that had its roots in my family and in Egypt, which was not catered for by the idea of Europe. Perhaps that point came when I received that ill-fated Somerset Maugham Prize and decided to use it (it was a travelling grant, but when the prize was taken away from me the University, in the form of its then Vice-Chancellor, Asa Briggs, generously insisted I take a term of paid leave, so the effect was the same) to return to Egypt with my mother to see my aunt and any old friends who might still be there. I had begun to teach a course on The Bible and English Literature with a remarkable Anglican colleague and friend, Stephen Medcalf. At Oxford we had often been told: ‘You can’t understand English literature before the twentieth century if you don’t know your Bible’, but no-one did anything about it. It seemed to us that Sussex, always open to new courses, would be the ideal place to try to fill that gap. It was a fascinating course, both in itself and for the variety of students it attracted – from those whose parents, reacting to their own parents, had brought them up in ignorance of the Bible and who now felt the need to find out about it as we at Oxford had felt the need to find out about Kafka or Kierkegaard, to those steeped in this or that version of a Bible-based religion and found it difficult to treat the text as the narrative it after all primarily is.

But I soon realised that to teach the course I really had to learn biblical Hebrew. So Stephen and I and several of our colleagues sat at the feet of a new recruit to Religious Studies, an Anglican priest called Michael Wadsworth, who was also a semiticist and had just completed a thesis under Geza Vermes at Oxford, and learned the rudiments of biblical Hebrew. We also found ourselves gathering informally to discuss books such as Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, which had just been published, and which excitingly married biblical criticism with modern theory, and to revisit the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s extraordinary Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the war and one of the founding texts of the School of European Studies. And gradually I found myself lecturing and writing on the Bible and on why (as it seemed to us) both the theological and the archaeological approaches to it, the two predominant scholarly approaches, left so much, perhaps even the essence of that strange great book untouched. And we found ourselves part of a movement that took in America, Britain and Israel, a movement with roots in the writings of Buber and of Jewish scholars like Umberto Cassuto, as well as Auerbach, but which had taken wing with the publication of Robert Alter’s Aspects of Biblical Narrative. We were a tiny minority in the sea of biblical scholarship, but nevertheless, a vocal and significant one. It is the only time I have understood what it means to feel part of an international scholarly community, and it was a very nice feeling.

I remember a walk over the Downs with my composer friend Jonathan Harvey in which I said to him: ‘I feel I have a book on the Bible there somewhere, but I’m not sure I want to devote the time to it it’s clearly going to need when I have so much fiction I want to write as well.’ And he said: ‘No, you’ve talked about it enough, and it sounds important to me, I really think you should do it. It will feed into your fiction, don’t worry.’ Over the next few years, as I tried to balance the teaching, writing fiction and thinking and then writing about it, I often cursed the moment when I had fallen under the spell of the Hebrew Bible, but in the end the book got done and, looking back, I’m glad I did it. Whether Jonathan was right about its feeding my fiction, I’ve no idea.

Book of God

VB: Looking over your collected works and the experience I’ve had reading them, I’m reminded of Barthes and his comment that some of his best reading occurs with the book face down on his lap, staring into the middle distance. There is something so potent that happens when your writing comes into contact with my imagination. There’s a concept you may have heard of – the ‘unthought known’ – created by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. It refers to the immense store of knowledge that we own unwittingly, having never put it into words because we became aware of it in a wordless fashion. Bollas says: ‘There is in each of us a fundamental split between what we think we know and what we know but may never be able to think.’ Some of it will never be articulated and so, he says it’s important to ‘form a relationship to the mysterious unavailablity of much of our knowledge.’ And somehow, this is how I feel reading you. You take me towards the unthought places without ever speaking them yourself. It’s the spirit of the Between, if you like, who has his own chapter in Goldberg. Does that make any sense to you?

GJ: Yes, it makes a lot of sense. It’s what I look for in my writing, what I want to read and can’t find in the writing of others. I’ve never read Bollas, but what he says makes perfect sense to me. I wouldn’t even call it a ‘fundamental split’ – I think rather that our bodies know more than we do and that the task of art is to find forms and words that will allow the body to speak.

VB: Finally, Hotel Andromeda, which I read for the first time a few weeks ago. Your most recent novel and, for me, one of your finest. How did you come to bring together Joseph Cornell’s artworks and the trouble in Chechnya?

GJ: I began to think of writing a novel about Joseph Cornell back in the eighties. I think it may have been the show of his work at the Whitechapel in 1981 that set me thinking, but I’d also seen some photos of him in old age taken by Hans Namuth. In his back garden. In his ‘study’. He was living alone by then in the house in the wonderfully named Utopia Parkway he had lived in all his adult life with his domineering mother and his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy. He looks haunted in those photographs, on the threshold between life and death. I longed to do something with those photographs.

The problem for me was that there seemed to be no ‘centre’, to either the works or the man in the photos. And from what I could find out about him he seemed both utterly focussed, knowing exactly what he wanted and yet strangely ego-less. I’m drawn to such figures. Kafka, obviously, but Vermeer too, and Bonnard – the opposite of such dynamic artists as Lawrence, Rembrandt, Picasso. And it seems to be a minor but powerful American type: Melville’s Bartleby, Emily Dickinson, Hopper – to set against the Whitmans and Mailers and Pollocks. Fascinating, haunting figures, but in their emptiness, their stillness, their lack of forward thrust, going against the very nature of the novel. Anyway, I dropped the idea and went on to other things.

However, Cornell went on haunting me and towards the end of the nineties a biography finally appeared, Deborah Solomons’ Utopia Parkway. It’s a brilliant example of the genre, sensitive to both the life and the art, neither obtrusive nor evasive. Cornell comes through as an even more curious figure than I’d imagined, neither quite an outsider artist like Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor in whose apartment, after his death, was found an enormous stack of vast paintings telling the epic story of a group of little girls with penises pursued by hunters, nor quite a professional artist like Duchamp and de Kooning, both of whom he knew. The catalogue for the recent wonderful Royal Academy exhibition of his work is silent on all this, or rather, makes a conscious effort to show us Cornell as a mainstream artist. I can see why – you don’t want to present him as a freak. The Royal Academy is a serious institution with a deservedly high reputation. Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that Joseph Cornell was decidedly odd. He was infatuated with one young starlet or ballerina after another – and not just starlets. Susan Sontag was one of his brief passions, and young waitresses in their uniforms too cast their spell upon him. He would make them boxes which he would send them, befriending them and even occasionally helping them financially, but he remained a bachelor and probably a virgin all his life, living out his days in the house in Utopia Parkway with his mother and his sick brother Robert. He found it difficult to communicate with people yet had a huge number of acquaintances and admirers; he made avant-garde films and works of art that have lasted better than those of his more famous contemporaries, such as Pavel Tchelitchew, as the RA exhibition testifies, yet he never put pen to paper or held a camera. And so on. My feeling is, that like Glenn Gould, say, he was at the Asperger’s end of the spectrum, odder than fellow-artists but not totally cut off from society.

And it’s not just the biography that shows these contradictions: the art does as well. Many of the boxes and collages are rather twee, with their dolls and ballerinas and the evident longing for a world of lost innocence. This is an aspect of nineteenth century sensibility I am not overfond of, and I rejoice at its deflation by the Modernists. On the other hand there are plenty of works that are to my mind among the greatest of the twentieth century: the Hotel series; the aviaries; the beautiful abstract homage to Emily Dickinson, his films, which you can see on YouTube – and I would urge everyone to have a look at the beautiful, original and haunting three-minute film, Angel.

Solomons’ biography renewed my interest in Cornell and made me keener than ever to write a novel about him. But it also laid out starkly the inner problems of such an undertaking. I couldn’t write it in the first person because there was no ‘first person’ there. A film like Angel is so haunting because it is so still, so directionless, not just lacking human presence but making us question human anguish and striving by its very form and content – how then could I have a first person at the heart of my novel? And it’s the same with the third person – Le Rouge et le Noir and The Adventures of Augie March present us with the same thing: a young man, freed from ancestry and tradition, out to make his way in the world. This is what the novel was created to depict, and it does it supremely well. But I am drawn to its opposite – the small un-American novel, if you like, the opposite of the Great American Novel. And Cornell is my perfect subject – except that for that very reason it seemed impossible to write about him – as if to do so was a violation of his very being. Yet I’m a novelist because narrative is what I love and can do – even if it is unorthodox narrative.

Anyhow, though I tried to write my Cornell book I just couldn’t. There is an anecdote in Solomons about Cornell, who, late in life, when he was living alone in the house in Utopia Parkway, loved to entertain his young and beautiful female friends to tea. But he was exceedingly mean. Once, having invited three young artists and starlets to tea, he produced one tea bag, which he passed from cup to cup, talking all the while.

These conversations of his were like those of Glenn Gould, long rambling mumbles, barely comprehensible. He would, like Gould, call friends up on the phone and talk to them for hours. They would grunt every now and then, go off to prepare a meal or answer the door, and when they returned to the phone he was still talking. And for a while I toyed with the idea of writing a novel about just such an occasion, with my hero taking his friends round his house, meandering off into the past, barely aware of their presence. But it didn’t work. Cornell is not the stuff of Bernhard-like novels. His oddity and his genius does not express itself in words.

So the project stalled again. But this time it wouldn’t let me go. Once again Proust came to my rescue: if you reach an impasse try incorporating the impasse into the novel. I had been toying with another idea, a novel with a form I am very fond of, what I call the X form, where two people in firmly established positions at opposite ends of the spectrum, slowly change sides in the course of the book, each in some sense becoming the other. I had tried it with two couples in In a Hotel Garden and again in Making Mistakes, and I had tried it out with just two people in a little story called ‘Brothers’, and I had been thinking of a larger canvas, a novel about two sisters, one in some sedentary job in bourgeois London, the other a nurse or perhaps running an orphanage in some war-torn country like Chechnya. And it came to me that the sedentary London-based sister could be an art historian writing, or trying to write, about Joseph Cornell. And then might the house she lived in itself become a sort of Cornell box, filled with other voices, other lives?

And so the book got written.

VB: What lies ahead for you? May we hope for a new novel?

GJ: I hope so too. I can’t conceive of a life without writing and just hope I can go on till I drop.

—Gabriel Josipovici & Victoria Best


Victoria Best small photo

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Josipovici’s mother was born in Egypt and living in France at the time the Second World War began. She and her son narrowly survived, as Jews, the Nazi persecution. She managed to return to Egypt in 1945.
Nov 162015



An almost lethal dose of high school anxiety, peer pressure, and girl gangs courses through the veins of Sofia Coppola’s second short film “Lick the Star.” Coppola, best know for films like Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and The Virgin Suicides, throws us into a terrifying world called the seventh grade via a protagonist with a broken foot (her father ran over it by mistake and she’s been out of school for a few days). Our wounded protagonist arrives at school via car, in an opening driving shot reminiscent of the French New Wave’s Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, with the streets of Paris replaced here by suburban driveways.


Seventh grade is a feral fighting pit where the young women are on the brink of enacting a plan to poison the boys in the school inspired by the book they love, V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. As the protagonist / narrator notes, a lot can happen in a week (“Missing school is like a death wish”) and she’s arrived back to the fighting pit with a broken foot. It does not look good for her, and vicariously us, the wounded gazelle(s) on the edge of the herd.

In one of the more endearing moments in the film, the teen girls study the boys, what the boys eat, attempt to learn the numbers to their combination locks. All ostensibly to poison them, but there is something about the boys that intrigues them, so they seem undecided about which one to poison first. Indeed, their intent may not be to murder, but just to slow the boys down a little, assert an ounce of control in this volatile and unpredictable high school world.


There’s something here too that subverts typical gender constructions of young women, repressive constructions to be sure, so that when young women do rebel in films or act out they become a site of horror or something to be feared: Ginger Snaps, Heavenly Creatures, Pretty Little Liars. So much for the sugar and space and everything nice; Chloe and her rat poison have other plans.

The girls’ anthropological stakeout anticipates Coppola’s later film The Virgin Suicides in which the boys are the ones fascinated with the five mysterious Lisbon sisters. Both films construct the other gender as an unknowable, unpredictable and almost threatening place just out of reach. A longed for, unapproachable truth.


In “Lick the Star,” the young women seem equally perplexed with their own gender, in awe and fear of the antagonist, rat-poison wielding queen bee of the seventh grade, Chloe. She is the one girls give up their seats for, shoplift for and play minion to. Sparkly eyelids, a noir-lipsticked assassin’s smirk and ironically coy ponytails all caught in slow motion as she arrives at the school, her kingdom.

Even in this early film, Coppola’s sense of style finds flourishes. As Anna Rogers notes about Coppola in Senses of Cinema, her mise-en-scene “creates an affecting and primarily visual style, often at the expense of extended dialogue, this same style also serves to cover, but only partially so, the spectre of something dark and insidious.’

Stylistically the film resembles Truffaut’s 400 Blows in other ways too: the film is shot in black and white and the classroom shots recall its school shots. There, however, teachers and adults of all sorts provide the tyranny to revolt against. Here, the other seventh graders are the ones to fear. Thematically, too, the film has an anti-establishment air and flirts with the criminal impulse (they steal the rat poison, they break into the boys’ lockers and they plan to poison them and they smoke behind the bleachers, a crime so great that when our protagonist is caught the principal changes her status to “non student.”


What unfolds for Chloe and our one-footed protagonist suggests power and popularity are fickle and flux. Ultimately this plays out as the tension between the desire to belong and the fear of becoming an individual, isolated. This anticipates Coppola’s later explorations of isolation, in Tokyo hotel rooms and beside Hollywood pools. Yet after this short, all that adult ennui looks like kids play next to having to eat lunch alone in seventh grade.

— R. W. Gray


Nov 152015


Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist,
and nothing about his world is meant to be. — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel and Grau, July 2o15
176 pages, $24.00


Ihave been pulled over by police twice, and during neither occasion was I afraid for my own safety. This minute fact of naïve privilege alone marks me as a person who thinks he or she is white—boilerplate borrowed by Ta-Nehisi Coates to describe those who plunder, or at least pursue the Dream, or at the very least do not have to waste costly energy on worrying about the physical sanctity of their body because of its skin color.

The celebrated Atlantic National Correspondent’s recent book Between the World and Me is an epistolary pseudo-memoir that strikes chords faster than they have time to reverberate. It is pamphlet-like in size and scope, poetic and lyrical at times, while delivering a series of theses to his teenage son Samori on how to grow into consciousness as an American black man.

Coates is wary of and disgusted by me, as well as anyone who thinks s/he is white, and also anyone who thinks slavery is merely an unfortunate legacy of a country’s rich history. Of those who are aware that the history of the United States is steeped in bloody injustice, many will write this fact off as analogous to any other empire’s national narrative. Ironically given the mythology, Coates makes the case that America really is exceptional—in how dependent was its nation-building on the backs of black bodies. Where Coates’ mesmerizing treatise strikes deepest is in his reminder that still today we live the legacy of slavery, that we build financial centers on unmarked black graves. Coates would no doubt agree that even the public embrace of his pseudo-memoir carries strands of paternalism. But he wrote this book anyway, no doubt aware of how it would be received. History rolls on—or pretends to; even as I write this I am exploiting Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Rather obviously, many reviewers have focused on Coates’ assertions that racism still exists today. When not in the crosshairs of police officers’ guns, young black men serve as cogs in the prison industrial complex[1] But to stop there is to have read superficially in both senses of the word. Coates delivers here a powerful book about race, but also a treatment of the universal challenges of growing up and raising a child.

His polemical memoir, brief but expansive, consists of three parts, embedding miniature essays within anecdotal scenes. Part I is the most didactic, offering at least four major arguments:

Thesis 1: “Your life is so very different from my own. The grandness of the world, the real world, the whole world, is a known thing for you.”

A very real generation gap exists between today’s young African-Americans and their forebears—Coates’ son can almost, occasionally, forget for a second his racial identity. His grandparents and parents could not:

“When I was about your age, each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not. […] I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things. […] I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.”

Thesis 2: “You still believe the injustice was Michael Brown. You have not yet grappled with your own myths and narratives and discovered the plunder everywhere around us.”

The generation gap is connected to the fact racism has become even more insidious, and schools are complicit in this. The schools vilify Malcolm X and praise nonviolent Freedom Riders, white folks whose consciences comfort those who feel the score has been settled.

One of the highlights of Between the World and Me is the provocative treatment of the U.S. public education system. It is impossible for a teacher or administrator to read Coates’ account and not feel something—ashamed, indignant, inspired, depressed.

One question I ask my students is which they think came first, race or racism. Sadly, much of the struggle for consciousness Coates describes is lost or nearly lost before children have reached the age at which they can distinguish between history and propaganda. “Race is the child of racism, not the father,” he states. This should no longer be controversial, yet it will ring hollow to so many who believe racism a mere wrong turn in the road of racial history.

All good educators should likely acknowledge the force of Coates’ incisive assessments of weak schools, and the powerlessness of earnest teachers: “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense—ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. […] The point of this language of ‘intention’ and ‘personal responsibility’ is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”

Part of the problem, Coates explains, is of course social—teaching French to a 7th grader is pointless if that student is worried about hunger. But Coates’ educators never bothered to present school as an intellectual experience, making it instead another test the like of which he encountered in the streets:

“Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later […] I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers. But I cannot say that I truly believed any of them. […] Why—for us and only us—is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies? This is not a hyperbolic concern. When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

Thesis 3: Privilege reeks no matter the color—the growth of the black middle class engenders a risk of poor blacks being forgotten. Samori’s generation must fight harder than ever to combat the mythologizing of slavery as a necessary evil in America’s history:

“The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. […] You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Thesis 4: This third argument segues fluidly into a somewhat existentialist, somewhat Marxist section that employs universal language of exploitation, alienation, and struggle.

“What matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable. […] Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

Despite the obvious connection between Coates’ language and Jean-Paul Sartre and Karl Marx, his primary influences are the thoughts and poetry of Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, W.E.B Dubois—who knew a thing or two about consciousness. And these writers come through not only in the politics but in the style of this book. Coates’ writing has a searing, poetic quality:

“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. ‘Slavery’ is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved.”

The dangerous streets, Howard University and its eye-opening library, the immense cauldron of New York City, the attack on the Twin Towers, and a visit to Paris all feature in Coates’ evolving education. In France, Coates momentarily believes himself rid of his American burden. Of course, though, he realizes his experience of injustice is replicated elsewhere, across the globe. This last he connects to how the Dreamers’ plunder has contributed to global warming—which could not be more salient in a letter to the next generation.

And we never forget that this brief but broad book is also a letter to a son. Particularly touching are Coates’ descriptions of the women who furthered his self-education. He writes of a young Howard undergrad: “I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear. There was no room for softness. But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else—that love could be soft and understanding; that, soft or hard, love was an act of heroism.”

Part 2 and Part 3 flesh out the ideas and imagery of Part 1. Focusing more on police violence and the deadly shooting of Prince Jones, Coates connects the legacy of slavery to today’s dysfunctional body politic, one in which white and black bodies are not equal except in some (not all!) legal texts. Samori witnesses the horrific acquittal of Michael Brown’s killer, just as his father did the killer of Jones.

Coates’ deft image patterning helps structure the letter beyond his life’s chronology. Plunder and the Dream are the two most prominent. Plunder appears a dozen times, loaded with references to slavery and to capitalism. The Dream appears as a confluence of the classic “American Dream” and the dream/illusion/fantasy of those who “think they are white” (originally Baldwin’s phrase). Coates describes white suburbia, which some readers will confuse as purely an image of whiteness—it is actually an image of wealth, which rests on the backs of whiteness and blackness: “I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” Coates uses the image of a “galaxy” to illustrate the distance, the chasm between the Dreamers and himself. With the shooting of Prince Jones he ties in the plunder, the Dream, and the policies that keep ghettos and the legacy of slavery alive even today:

There were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, of our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. And there is no difference between the killing of Prince Jones and and the murders attending these killing fields because both are rooted in the assumed inhumanity of black people. A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and traditions, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.


Earlier I bemoaned those whose reading of this as a “race relations” book is superficial. But the scariest thing about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ masterful Between the World and Me is the patronizing response from some reviewers, a frankly frightening response—that Coates is too mad, too unforgiving, and that he is somehow in the wrong when he paints all whites, all cops, all Dreamers, with the same brush. For crying out loud, the whole point of the book is that many cops, many Dreamers, continue to this day, subconsciously or not, to paint black bodies with the same brush.

These responses veer dangerously close to the implication that the reviewers see Coates as an “angry black man” whom the establishment will patronizingly compliment for his articulateness. Others write that Coates does not sufficiently acknowledge how far the country has come. They scold him for not proposing policy solutions. The book is full of and is itself a solution—a rejection of gerrymandering, of stop and frisk, of stereotyping disenfranchised black youth as somehow more dangerous than a white man with a gun. These reviewers reek of liberal white guilt being challenged. Deeply embedded in their critique is either a lack of understanding about how history works; an ignorance about how U.S. policies continue to ghettoize, threaten, and rob undereducated people of color; or a lack of self-awareness and racial consciousness.

By the end of the letter, Samori has changed slightly, from Coates’ son to his brother—from pupil to fellow combatant. Those who misunderstand or underestimate this powerful book should reread passages like the one in which the author redefines the struggle:

“We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own. Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world.”


“Do not speak to me of martyrdom,
of men who die to be remembered
on some parish day.
I don’t believe in dying
though, I too shall die.
And violets like castanets
will echo me.
—Sonia Sanchez, quoted in Coates’ epigraph to Part 1

In a rare move, Random House pushed up the book’s publication from September to July after the June 17 shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, SC, allegedly by a young white idiot. I could not take my mind off the Charleston massacre even as we learned of the carnage meted out on Paris’ nighttime revelers this Friday, allegedly by young non-white idiots.

I was born in Suresnes, France and work at a French-American school. I have friends and family in Paris—my uncle works not too far from the Stade de France. Colleagues and students at the school I work for are mourning. As the profile pictures of my Internet friends turned blue, white, and red, I thought of Coates, Charleston, and Paris, and felt ashamed of such symbolism. The Internet giant’s employee who dreamed that one up will probably cash in a wonderful bonus. The plunderers’ flag flies on.

Of course I weep for France, but that is separate and private. What I weep for publicly is the blatant exploitation of ignorance, sentimentality, and/or privilege. Trying to make sense of human violence and suffering is probably pointless, but as I went to bed Friday night, I looked to Coates’ book and wondered what colors would have adorned the flag of those massacred in Charleston. There are no colors, no flags, to protect the world from itself.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Waxwing Literary JournalZocalo Public Square, and Splash of Red. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The U.S has the highest incarceration rate in the world 716 per 100,000 in 2013 [via Wikipedia]; in 2009 there were 2.1 million male inmates in the U.S. and 60% were black [via Wikipedia].
Nov 142015



I have three bookcases full of poetry books in my house, one whole bookcase taken up with hefty anthologies like The Oxford Book of American Poetry, along with classics (thank you, Homer, Chaucer, Blake, Hopkins, Dickinson, Whitman) and Collected Works (thank you Auden, Moore, Brodsky, Merrill, Heaney) and books about the craft of writing. The other two cases, however – a total of twelve shelves, 30″ each shelf – are filled with individual “slim volumes” by poets with a few books out and with, often, long teaching careers and honorable but minor reputations.

A remarkable number of 1/4″ spines can fit into 360 inches, especially when they’re mostly paperbacks, as mine are. There are a handful of poets whose early hardcover books I’ve lusted after and, bit by bit, collected (thank you, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Richard Wilbur) and another bundle of hardcover books written by professors and mentors whose work I love (thank you Richard Kenney, Heather McHugh, Linda Bierds.) I have a nice stack of books by friends (thank you Walker, Wing, Hoogs, Whitmarsh, Cornish, Arthur) and I have my own poetry books for children plus copies of reviews that my adult work has appeared in.

The remaining space is filled with books by poets who have won some fine contests, gotten published, gotten some buzz, earned teaching positions, generated enough excitement to establish a loyal (usually regional) cadre of followers, but never really become “major” poets. Each one of those books has elegant, finely crafted poems in it, poems which are idiosyncratic in the best way, that is, with an identifiable, strong voice. Just as most books by well-known poets can be uneven, these books by lesser known poets can be uneven;  that’s as true for the reading of an individual book by Auden as it is for any one of these many “slim volume” poets. There are poems I pass by after one reading, but there are also poems that reach out and grab me by the collar and shake me to my bones. There are poems I share with friends – a grassroots effort that mimics my approach to politics: support who and what you love. Buy their books. Talk them up. Cross fingers.

I wonder sometimes whether, if submitted to a blind “taste test,” some of the best poems that stay quietly within the covers of these slim volumes  might not be mistaken for the writing of poets with much heftier reputations. And, as usual with this series about “undersung” poets, I wonder about the whys and wherefores of “success” in general. Did (or do) these poets long to be well-known, or were they satisfied professionally? Did they dedicate themselves to mentoring and thus forget (or express contempt for) the process of self-promotion? Did they battle with good-old-boy systems? Did they know the right people, and – if they did – did they use the right people in order to get ahead? Did they quit poetry and move on to anything less disappointing or better paying or fresher or simply different or…? Did they suffer poetry fatigue? Were they simply in the right place at the wrong time, wrong place at the right time? Did their gender or ethnicity present stumbling blocks? Were they shy? Were they, ultimately, satisfied by poetry, or would they rather have been fishing, playing the trombone, painting? Was publication enough? Did they – or do they, for those who are still alive – want more? “Success” – is it really counted sweetest by those whom it bypasses? Does it really interrupt that “sorest need” which Dickinson said was required in order to “comprehend a nectar”?

Here are five poems, one from each of five separate books I pulled randomly off my shelves. I’ve purposely left out biographical details about the five poets, though you can easily click on their names to get further information about them. Some were winners of the National Poetry Series competition or the Walt Whitman Award, several earned fellowships like the Guggenheim, one was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize,  most earned residencies at respected workshops and retreats, as well as State Arts Commission awards. Some are still publishing and can expect their reputations to continue developing. But for reasons that continue to elude me – and, of course, the reasons are multiple rather than simple – the names of these poets are relatively unfamiliar to most poetry readers.

Yet I think these five poems measure up to most of the contemporary poems in the Oxford Book of American Poetry – they are precise, original, layered, large, and full of leaps that take the breath away. They use language beautifully and, though not formal in terms of rhyme or meter, they are “musical” – like the best musical compositions, they care about the sound they make, and like the best humor, they increase in appeal when spoken aloud with just the right emphasis.  In what way do the poems in well-recognized anthologies surpass these five? I haven’t figured it out. Can it be as simple as personal taste – is that what the best anthologists do, insist on including what they like? If so, are we unduly influenced, are we struggling to “like” work we don’t actually like (and what is that thick volume of John Ashbery’s Collected Poems doing on my shelf if his work doesn’t appeal to me; is it there because J.D. McClatchy likes it? Because Harold Bloom likes it, David Lehman likes it?) “Success” – is it counted sweetest, Emily, by those who go all out trying to achieve it? I’m curious to see what the readers of Numéro Cinq think.

—Julie Larios



Throughout the night the sky
had been wild with stars.
Then in the morning came an instant
when the hills sharpened, and grew shadowless,

and the world seemed no casual
enterprise of creation. From beyond the hills
rose the soft pillars of light,
until, as if caught by high winds,

they wove and interwove, and became
the bright, close fabric of sky.
Later came a burst of warm rain,
but by sunset the light had cleared,

and at the tip of one needle of the white pine
that shaded the front porch, a drop of rainwater
trembled. It was clear
as ice. It contained a fierce,

quivering image of the sun.
The light drew back, and back,
and with no further evidence of breath
the sky was precisely as it had ever been.

John Engels (from Cardinals in the Ice Age (Graywolf Press, 1987)


John Engels


Language with Pony Track

You’d think the rich stink of pony
would rule the senses, but violets, sunflowers,
hollyhocks draw the eyes which dart
from the shaggy Shetland’s horrible privates,
a-drop and a-swing like the backstage works
of St. Ag’s, to a bank of tiger lilies, those carroty stars.
Two girls, the sides of their sneakers
worn away, wearing tattoos of water paint
rubbed on with spit, check it out:
the heaven of leather, fried onions, and music,
five houses from where, with no eyes for flowers
or horseflesh, their father’s face reaches
the texture and twitch of skinned hare.

Catherine Doty, from  Momentum (CavanKerry Press, 2004)


Catherine Doty


Saint John of the Cross

He is not here in Fontiveros, Spanish Nebraska
of his birth. The red brick granary fills
with nothing but wheat, and the empty plaza
has forgotten the name of Juan de Yepes,
grandson of Jews, though it contains a statue
of his alter ego, Saint John of the Cross.
Even bound by the thinnest of golden threads,
the soul’s inexplicably bound. Leashed
in the cell, the whips of the holy friars
scourged him as he knelt, three times a week,
at dinner hour, nothing to eat but cruelty.
When he finally saw Christ, He was
falling toward him, His arms stretched back,
coming out of their sockets for love of him.

It’s clear why he left Fontiveros —
his love for mountains conceived by this
dreary view — but no one knows how he escaped
from prison. Or why love finally drove
him back. Sick, he asked to be treated
in Ubeda, for he knew no one would cure him,
the bishop would curse him: he could die
inferior, die unknown, die suffering greatly.
Only love can heal us, opening our hands 
to a darkness that we keep trying to let go…
How happy he was, always leaping free of the cell —
Fontiveros, Salamanca, Ubeda, the World —
singing softly, no longer having to tear out
the feathers that kept sprouting from his limbs.

Rebecca Seiferle from Bitters (Copper Canyon Press, 2001)

Rebecca Seiferle

Rebecca Seiferle



Glossy ibis, says the guide setting her tripod
on pavement, training the lens for the birdwatchers
to fix the downward curved bill and spindly legs
of the wader. I can’t help but itch
to get closer than this tailored birdwalk. Once

I rode to low marshland with a friend. The horses
mucking up to their knees, parting the brushy alders
where there wasn’t any trail. We gave them their heads,
trusting their instincts to get to dry land.
On the far side we rested, the woods

glowing with rust and lemon. We sat. Reins dropped,
the horses leaned to fidget the leaves.
Wind thickened in the evergreens. Then the quiet cracked —
wings that loud slapped the air — brittle legs
arrowed through weeds to land not five feet away.

The great blue heron, eye fired toward shore,
where we held our breath. Even when
we began to speak, edging slightly closer,
she stayed. And something in her lack of fear,
the fix of one black iris on us — horses,

woman and man alike, kept us in our place.

Alison Hawthorne Deming from Science and Other Poems (LSU Press, 1994)

Alison Deming

Alison Deming


The Arbitrary Angel

It’s born in that sudden
spark between things: a yolking
of oxen and egg, the music
of shells and high seas.

And so it rises, of course
capriciously, a sexless
Venus from a salty meringue
masticating your good mind

until you’re determined
to do it justice — even as
the microwave sounds
like a garbage truck in reverse,

the pencil a small animal
filled with lead but still
running, running, running
everything down.

Gilbert Allen, from Driving to Distraction (Orchises Press, 2003.)

Gilbert Allen

Gilbert Allen


Nov 132015
Harper Lee

Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Sometimes, iconoclasts are far more valuable than the creaking icons they destroy. Harper Lee has done well to disillusion her readers—. — Jeremy Brunger


Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee
288 pages ($27.99)
ISBN: 978-0062409850


Early on in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise, now grown into worldly womanhood since her juvenile escapades as Scout in Maycomb County, Alabama, is being chastised by her aunt Alexandra over her potential marriage partner and childhood sweetheart, Henry Lincoln. Alexandra, earlier glimpsed in the Pulitzer-winning To Kill a Mockingbird as the family bitch, says “We Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash, which is exactly what Henry’s parents were when they were born and were all their lives…You can’t call them anything better. The only reason Henry’s like he is now is because your father took him in hand when he was a boy, and because the war came along and paid for his education. Fine a boy as he is, the trash won’t wash out of him.” Atticus, Jean Louise’s lawyer father, is now crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, though he remains as spry as ever. Her brother, Jem, is dead of a bleeding heart. The most absurd thing in the world is always its people. Jean Louise is an image of the Southern version of The New Woman, several decades displaced from the Northeast’s Jazz Age cultural eruptions. Jean Louise prefers to reference Freud and the married men who take on psychiatrists’ couches instead of taking up mistresses, rather than referencing the Bible. The novel opens with an image of modernization: the black residents of Maycomb County finally have television antennae. But, alas, Maycombians are people who have never experienced the narcissistic injury of Charles Darwin’s biology, who think the “white trash” epithet was a meaningful term replete with the gravity undue to it, who reckon not the deep time of geology but the all-too-ephemeral time of family lineage. Time has caught up with Alabama’s most famous residents, who rank with Jesus, Harry Potter, and Karl Marx as the most recognized figures in the literature of the West.

The central tension in Harper Lee’s novel is the meshing of old with new, of experience with memory, of reality with romance. It isn’t badly written, either. The prose does not read like a first draft; but if it did, that fact would only solidify Lee’s reputation as a master writer of the Southern region. Images from old Southern culture—now largely displaced by standardized Hollywood and New York boilerplate, as with the rest of the country’s bygone eccentricities—constantly appear in the dialogue: the Israel of the prophets is as alive as ever, as is the concept of sin (though Jean Louise takes it in stride). The sum of human misery is measured in theology, not metrics. Shakespeare is coincident with the law. The metaphysical age has not yet dispersed into the Federal Materialism. Life has not yet succumbed to the utter cheapness of our twenty-first century, though its depth is built on the facade of social grace of people who have nothing better to do. One wonders, with a raised eyebrow, whether our time is better than their time; and no viable answer of worth can possibly be forthcoming. The clean churches of Maycomb strike most of us as strangely as the soothsaying, snake-handling pits of the Pentecost, as do the quiet rages of its people, who could probably name the Founding Fathers but not Jefferson’s slaves. Perhaps the exception to this time warp is Dr. Finch, Jean Louise’s uncle, who feels more at home in the Victorian era than in Maycomb’s. Because of his wide, nigh-insane learning—he is a racist of the books, while his brother is a racist of the heart—he defies the silly and sheer localness of the town’s prejudices and predilections toward the temporal and the mundane.

But Go Set a Watchman is not merely a novel of time and place. It is a time-paradoxical bildungsroman six decades in the making. Although it was written before Mockingbird, it is the proper sequel to that classic, since tragedy—and this is a tragic novel, for even the Finch family’s house formerly belonged to a “a renowned lady poisoner”—is the necessary consequence of human life, something which only fools manage to escape. Decay happens, as does disillusionment. No family is truly happy, because whatever binds families together is made of the stuff of pathology and myth, not mythology and pathos, though once synthesized they come to much the same thing. Lee writes with the slow verve of a woman who grew up in the same South she writes about, where the Christian doctrine of degradation pervades nearly everything. Now a New York woman, eminently modern, she comes back to Alabama to find that her roots are dirtier than she suspected, though she finds them more real than life in the big city. Having exchanged the soul of Israel for the soul of Athens, she finds the mire of Southern heritage burdensome: she cannot interact with her backwards family with the easy grace others manage (not that the tomboy Mr. Peck knew ever did), with the sole exception of her father Atticus, whose benevolent patriarchy remains intact. There is no music in Harper Lee’s novel, though its music is implied.

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning…

So writes Eliot of St. Augustine, in The Wasteland, as he depicts the ancient trip from countryside to city center, which has so long underwritten the young person’s mental revolution. Augustine, too, came to the city from a backwater; but, unlike Jean Louise, he came to regret his praise of novelty and reverted to the intensity of his native religion. Jean Louise did no such thing. Of course, Atticus, like all of our parents, proved not to be the man she thought he was when she was growing up. He is just a country lawyer who at one time thought the human spirit was universally benign and who came to think so no longer. The Southern progressive family man, who defended the honor of Tom Robinson—to no avail, as Tom was shot to death—turns out to regret the integration of the black and white communities. At one point Jean Louise sees a “carload of Negroes” careening around a bend, and Henry Lincoln—the replacement of the father in her Oedipal series—remarks that they assert themselves because they finally have enough money to buy used cars and thus constitute a public menace. Of course, Jean Louise and Henry later go skinny-dipping in the heart of God’s country. Elsewhere, Lee references the repressed and the “Young Turk faction” of Maycomb’s Methodist church choir, no doubt slyly winking to a contemporary and left-wing audience. In other times and other parts of the country, the New Lights would have been received more gently; but not in the South, where social and official politics remained savage for far too long, despite such internal contradictions as liberal tendencies. When even the anti-dogmatic liberals are racists of the brightest stripes, one wonders how human society prospers.

The religious overtones of the Southern culture of Jean Louise’s childhood come out in full force with the concept of revival. Lee writes, during a flashback to Jean Louise’s days with Jem and Dill, that “revival time was a time of war: war on sin, Coca-Cola, picture shows, hunting on Sunday; war on the increasing tendency of young women to paint themselves and smoke in public; war on drinking whiskey—in this connection at least fifty children per summer went to the altar and swore they would not drink, smoke, or curse until they were twenty-one; war on something so nebulous Jean Louise never could figure out what it was, except there was nothing to swear concerning it; and war among the town’s ladies over who could set the best table for the evangelist.” This is small-town religion, divided among “Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian” congregations, not unlike today’s right-wing support for spiritual warfare. So goes a passage about a church briefing:

From the time of Jean Louise’s earliest ecclesiastical recollection, Maycomb had sung the Doxology in one way and in one way only: Praise—God—from—whom—all—blessings—flow.

Coca-Cola—metonymic for the psychotic churning of pan-regional capitalism—was on par with the demons as sex was, and perhaps more destructive, since the churches could condone the one under certain conditions. Atheism was not the exercise in humanism it is today; it was the locus of “disrespectful quarters,” presumably the whores, drunks, and tax-cheats of the town, who did not uphold the civic mythology of little Maycomb. Lee inserts a sly reference to the counting of angels on pinheads in this scene, painting the Baptist Reverend Moorehead as a pedant more concerned with philologic accuracy than a social message: “the wages of sin is death or the wages of sin are death?” This bores the children, of course, because Christianity was not concocted for disputation, but for the veiled utility of social control; its worth could never be boiled down to the job security of argumentative pastors from the northern parts of Georgia or from below the line of Dixie. It does not matter that medieval theologians never actually worried about angels on pinheads, since the wages of sin themselves proved ethereal. Success, as it has always been, was a result of accident, connection, and talent, not a matter of human goodness. Corruption was already rampant even in the decent households of Maycomb. Judgment, vicious classism and racism, and God-bothering were already the chief specters haunting these parts. Jem and Jean Louise are one-parent children (Dill, the doppleganger of Truman Capote and later an Army ensign, is a no-parent child)—the fact of which makes even Atticus shed a tear, a fact with which we are now quite familiar—whose religion pales in comparison to their need for security. Much as how Tom Robinson, a Christian man par excellence, would die at the hands of no-account racists, the deliverance unto justice would be grounded not in God’s law but in man’s. Transcendence could never be doctrinal for these provincial people, since the doctrines were no more than a long game of scofflaw.

At one point, Jean Louise finds one of her father’s books, The Black Plague, which he brought home from a Maycomb County Citizens’ Council. She compares it to the literary taste of the Nazi Goebbels and expresses the deepest shame that her father would read such a thing. Of course, her father was steeped in the law classics of the ancient world—Tacitus, the literary founder of national racism, would not be out of place in his library, nor would rationalists like Socrates and Cicero. The Black Plague is nihilism masquerading as systematic reason in a world that still believes in racial essentialism.  Dr. Sussman’s The Myth of Race, a study of the history of scientific racism published by his Harvard anthropology department, is a good contemporary foil to such pseudoscience as The Black Plague. Nevertheless, Harper Lee is—contra criticism—only being realistic in describing Atticus as a scientific racist, as such ideas then permeated Western culture, from the centers of science to the most time-warped counties like Maycomb. Even the progressives believed in racial segregation as a means of progress, since inferior races could not but help themselves from being determined by genetic and social death; the paternalism, and the patriarchy, of the work is but a literary expression of what posed then as the scientific mind. People would be hard put to think of macroeconomics instead of personal failing, and what could be more personal than the color of one’s skin? Jean Louise was not raised in chaos like so many in the impoverished South, then and now, but the thinking that produced her milieu was. After all, people still named their children after General Lee or President Lincoln. Citizens’ councils are for people with nothing better to do than to conceive of themselves as citizens in the polity; Atticus, an old man, is exemplary of the type; Henry Lincoln is only following suit. These are the people who would go on to buy into suburbia and white flight, for the lack of understanding of macroeconomic trends. These are the people who could not recognize evil where it stood, if it stood gasping in whiteface in the homes of the agricultural middle class.

The same people are now denying of senility, with their own families raiding their accrued fortunes, rather than the oft-despised tax officials, in the modern day. Jean Louise “wished she had paid more attention” to those citizens’ councils, “but only one glance down a column of [New York] print was enough to tell her a familiar story: same people who were the Invisible Empire, who hated Catholics; ignorant, fear-ridden, red-faced, boorish, law-abiding, one-hundred percent red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, her fellow Americans—trash.” In short, the Klan lived in Maycomb, whether it opted for the white hood or the white, pressed suit. Jean Louise, upon learning of this development, falls into a mental spiral and runs to the same courthouse where Atticus had defended Tom Robinson. Such a scene is beyond reality, of course; it reeks of a winking author in search of emotional profits, though it is one of few such graspings in the novel. In reality, Jean Louise would have nodded at such a development and thought it normal; she never would have doubted that her father found more meaning in paranoia than in justice. One is more apt to think of parentage as a form of preternatural death, as a spectroscope of what is to come. In the courthouse, Jean Louise reminisces on William Willoughby, a judge “bleeding slowly to death in the midst of abundance, for his life’s blood was poverty.” The dialectic of misery and the law has perhaps never been put plainer. Harper Lee ends the chapter with a wanton admission of the theme of childhood loss, but such loss would have been plain to Jean Louise by such a point in her life. To have even gone to New York from Alabama suggests the thing in the first place: she was trying to escape the clutches of her youth for the full vigor of modernity the Big City represented. Such a narrative is daily recounted by the women of the South who dare to get away from the scarred and bony hands of history, even if they do tend to return to its storied pages. Rarely do they do so innocently.


Harper Lee writes of Jean Louise’s father that “Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its reward were the respect and devotion of all who knew him.” He was no prophet of damnation (the Old Testament is today lived out by the Christian Fundamentalists and by certain of the Marxist ideologues who wish above all for earthly vengeance); he was a simple country man, a lawyer by practice if also by accident, who lived a human life how most human beings do: because he had to and to the best of his ability. What some might call baggage and others flaws, he lived with as his fallen nature as a man. He had fallen in love with a woman fifteen years his junior—with no regard for the streak of unhealth or white trashiness—and produced children by her. She died of her heart, as her son Jem would later die by his. The viscera of the scene belies its sentimental content, since people really do die by heart defects all the time; it is one of human health’s ticking clocks that rings especially loud in the South’s Tobacco Belt. As if Jorge Luis Borges had increased the population of the world instead of its copyrights, “Atticus killed several birds with one stone when he read to his children, and would probably have caused a child psychologist considerable dismay: he read to Jem and Jean Louise whatever he happened to be reading, and the children grew up possessed of an obscure erudition. They cut their back teeth on military history, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, True Detective Mysteries, The Code of Alabama, the Bible, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.” They were literary children no matter their aspirations. To be raised in deep thought is to be raised to think deeply. Such is the situation of brooding progressives. Jem of the Mockingbird era achieves adolescence and begins “slicking back his hair with water and dating girls,” no longer having time for his younger sister, though his heart beats on the clock.

All Jean Louise has for company is her father—perhaps the loneliest man in Maycomb County and brother to the most learned, Dr. Finch—an Alabaman Freud—who teaches her the value of thinking of herself as a sexual being, rather than as a permanent child. Her father had sent her to a women’s college, but such an entity was misfit for her: it could only teach her the surface of manners, not the depth of human being. “What would Atticus do?” In one of the strongest passages of the novel, Harper Lee recounts of Jean Louise’s thinking that “All she knew was that she felt sorry for the people her age who railed against their parents for not giving them this and cheating them out of that. She felt sorry for middle-aged matrons who after much analysis discovered that the seat of their discomfort was in their seats; she felt sorry for persons who called their fathers My Old Man, denoting that they were raffish, probably boozy, ineffectual creatures who had disappointed their children dreadfully and unforgivably somewhere along the line.” What better, and bitter, few sentences to describe the Southern condition than these last? How many people were born Southern in place but not of soul, who wanted to experience the newer things of the world and yet refused to, who grew used to hating life too young, who blamed their accident of birth, rather than the agency of their conscience? It is not destiny that snares and damns some people. It is peace. Knowing that the people she grew up around were little better than that which they condemned—there is at one point a reference to mother-daughter incest and the intrusion of the welfare state—convinces Jean Louise that whatever moral superstructure she thought governed the little world of her childhood was but a figment of convenience.

The human being is born for conflict. It is in our very biology, already prepared for death at birth. Give us a gathering, and we are prepared to witness an execution: we smile not for pleasure but to flash our shortened incisors. “Had she insight,” Harper Lee writes of Jean Louise, “could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.” But color blindness is a fiction, even in fiction, when it comes to the old South. Young people were taught by elders to reflect on race, to reflect on history and the desert of damning of subaltern people. Women were warned that to consummate sex with black men was to enter among the devils; men were warned that to make friends with black men was to ruin their sexual readiness for marriage and to ready themselves for the taint of alcoholism. To sight blackness was to sight the color of criminals, of American outlaws, before a time when Americans accepted “outlaw” as a vision of deliverance from illegitimate constriction. In this, Harper Lee is disingenuous, though her prose style is immense. She once represented the future of American race relations in the realm of art—though Richard Wright did it better with Native Son and with more obvious courage, two decades before Mockingbird; to repent from such a forward view for her supposed color blindness suggests Harper Lee is mistaken in her characterization of Jean Louise’s own progressivity. No Southerner of that era was really color-blind, as few are now, not least the author or her fanbase at the time of Mockingbird or her imagined characters in our time of Watchman. Perhaps she can be forgiven this sleight of hand, since she is an author of fiction, but it certainly does not strike the reader as realistic. Griffin’s experiment in color blindness, Black Like Me, was not written as medicine for citizens of the North. Jean Louise, no matter her later education in the anti-Fascist canon, would have grown up a racist in Maycomb, no matter how liberal her bent. As she says to Henry Lincoln at one point of flirtation, “I just don’t want my world disturbed without some warning.” Who ever did? Like many resentful children of the white middle class, Jean Louise feels her birthright is sold from under her—her birthright to a just world, in which all things balance—but such a balance proves for her as false as it ever did for the trash of the county or its racial minorities. In the real world, one must believe to the point of delusion to believe that all is just; the gifted know the world is an incremental mountain of wrongs upon wrongs. Even the young men who read Harper Lee’s original novel or watched Gregory Peck’s classical intonations of the Ciceronian type became lawyers who largely gassed themselves to death in the garages they had mortgaged on hope.

Later, Jean Louise meets Zeebo, one of whose sons is facing charges for murder, and his lawyers. Atticus has consulted with him for legal work numerous times—in cases of bastardy, the text implies—but he has since given up the ghost because of all the racialized trouble inflaming the South. Atticus believes the NAACP to be a troublemaking entity rather than an entity of law and order. Jean Louise, to her credit, thinks of it as a saving force in Southern life and jurisprudence. Frank, Zeebo’s son and her family’s servant Calpurnia’s descendant, is “on a waiting list for the Tuskegee Institute,” a message doubtlessly included for Harper Lee’s knowledge of Tuskegee’s infamous experiments with syphilis. Jean Louise does not even know how old Calpurnia is, and neither does Calpurnia. Barefooted Helen, Zeebo’s wife, remarks that he has “done got old,” as though a great fatalism pervaded the lives of the poor in Maycomb County. Entangled family lives of the sort with which we are now familiar existed then, as they do now; recognition of them was another matter entirely. Harper Lee’s conscious nodding toward such shifts in culture gives the reader too much cognizance where there should be plot. But, just as her first novel was one of social message, so is this one, and sometimes plot gets in the way of message. After all, our world has its plots and will always have them, but, when the messages dwindle, those plots might very well be entertained for the worse. The Blues was invented by such people, who knew America for what it was and what it largely remains.

It is little wonder that scholars often remark the one true musical form of America is the Blues. Where most Americans are chattel—and always have been—in service, if not in name, music can transcend the divisions which law cements. If there is proof of God, it comes to man in music, for such proof carries little weight otherwise. From Billie Holiday to Langston Hughes, tragedy built upon tragedy has informed the country’s artistic conscience. Holiday died a drug addict, a Jewish sympathizer, and a rape victim, and gave us some of our most beloved songs. Her tastes were thoroughly American, as ecstatic as the High Church beatifics of the pitching Presbyterians of her era, recording lung-work for the Divine (compare both, and bother God as to whose art was higher, the quietest of sinners or the loudest of the pious). Of this treasure alone did one gain Southern merit. Hughes—a gay man permanently at odds with civil society—was a fellow traveler with Marx and Lenin, who announced African-American entry into the disunited worlds of labor strife and irreligion. Harper Lee, a woman of great learning in literature and law, no doubt intended for such connotations to appear in her novel. To mention Tuskegee is to mention social revolution without mentioning it. She mentions Coca-Cola about as often as James Baldwin did, which is to say Coca-Cola capitalism had more power over people than their own consciences. The sprawl of modernity had its victims, and it had its products: Jean Louise became one of them. Calpurnia—a practical slave, like many motherly black women of the era—has more dignity than the white trash of Maycomb. “Had the earth stopped turning, had the trees frozen, had the sea given up its dead, Jean Louise would not have noticed.” I confess my own family, during the 1960s, long before I was born, had such a woman in domestic thrall, her name now forgotten to anything but state funeral registries. My grandfather earned six-figures working for a motor company and thought a black servant an appropriate form of surplus. Calpurnia is not just a relic of Harper Lee’s imagination; she is a reflection of the real life of the era’s white middle class who, it turns out, died deaths just as miserable as anyone else’s, despite their grandstanding pretensions. Heart attacks kill even the weary who thought they had behaved in strictest measure with the Dispensations. Écrasez l’infame.

Calpurnia does not hate the Finch family for having the power to do good and failing in that power, at least according to how Harper Lee paints it. But one can only wonder how deeply bitterness can reside before it begins to present symptomatic good manners. The British socialist Bertrand Russell once wrote that barbarians have the best manners. I have known men of Southern breeding who, once they clear six-figures for the first time in their family history, denounce the rest of humanity as trash because the stamp of their lowly origins might show through. Their horse teeth show through nevertheless. Human dignity is born of suffering, not of breeding, nor of pretense: the dignified often have no other proof that they are human in an inhuman world. Calpurnia is the novel’s figure of Christ, who bears her cross in peace. Perhaps such symbols should be spurned. The region is worried about race war, Jean Louise learns. Had there been a race war, justice might have learned to spurn symbols and to quash its prejudices. This is an era where one learned Santa’s Little Helpers were really exploited proletarians from far, far away and from nearby, who—from fear of being thought shiftless—engaged in shift work. What slave to racism ever gained from politeness, even in the gain of dignity?


The issue of marriage comes up, and Harper Lee’s treatment of the problem leads the enlightened reader to think she is a Marxist feminist of the respectable variety. She depicts the “Perennial Hopefuls” of the not-yet-married quadrant as people who do not conform to Maycomb’s small-minded conception of human union. Who can blame her? The wives Jean Louise knows are more concerned about the husband’s bottom line (and their own) keeping up with the Joneses’—just as ignorant of everything worthwhile as the rest of the county and just as miserable, except for the reasons behind the civic charade. These women marry because manners demand it. They are repressed beyond the line of ill health. They marry because they have nothing else to do and know no other manner by which to feed themselves. They count themselves the courtiers of Maycomb’s rituals: do how they do, or do no other. But Jean Louise, fresh from a civilization so diverse it hurts with it, cannot help but look upon these country dunces as but figures in a time warp. Even the women who took time getting married, and so took on the “strays,” find little comfort in her worldview, though these last most mirror her own standing. These are people who think of Mobile, Alabama, as a center of culture. It is little wonder Harper Lee degrades them so, as with the light of time they should be degraded. Even the “Amanuensis Club,” a no-lipped venue for the lonely bookish to come together, is based upon the legal practices of slave sympathizers who thought black letters equal in essence to white letters, but for their reading public.

Compared to New York, the small hometown and its social ripples must seem like former centuries demanding countenance in the newer. Small people—who can easily be good people, but who choose not to be good people—often choose to be small people who do active evil. Goodness is a product of leveling borders and of sharing minds, not of damning some and profiting from others. These women of Jean Louise’s acquaintance, so tiny in the universe it did not even recognize them, probably went to sleep at night knowing they counted for nothing of more gravity than their husband’s ejaculations. Their flesh counterparts thought the era eternal—their culture, their references, their values, their children and grandchildren—and aged as Harper Lee did. They died with as much history in their graves as the people they abhorred and with the barbs they heard hissing at them as they were lowered at their wakes. Many mortals mourned them, but many more will mourn Harper Lee.

When one differentiates between ignorant Southern gentlemen and ignorant Southern strays, one can little hope for value between such similar poles, for the mainstay of one culture is the straying of another. “All that is solid melts into air,” as Harper Lee no doubt recognized some several decades between the publication of Mockingbird and that of Watchman. What is so intense to some isolated people is so silly to others who are more learned in the ways of the world. The small women of Maycomb may not be devils in cheap dresses—their limitations are their own, as all of our limitations are—but some, like Jean Louise, dare to break such absurd codes. Inevitably, those who break them return to a world so alien they know not where they come from or to where they return. An estranged world is a world as cold as a married one, to which any aging spouse of 2015 might admit. The values of old are always the evils of today; if this function is not one of biology, it is one of culture. Anyone bored in Maycomb might have desired a “good nigger trial,” because why watch shooting stars upon the hills generously arranged by God? God was absent from the get-go. The women who cried over a wedding of selfsame Janes and sob-story Joes would not have cried over a funeral of niggers, and on such shiftless sands the South of Harper Lee ought to be damned entirely. The only Job she ever knew was a black woman named Calpurnia. Human suffering was so commonplace these innocents could only paint it on the palette of folk knowledge, for thereby alone could they displace it. Barbarians do have the most elaborate of manners, having nothing else: even Atticus, whom time has caught in its clutch, aspires to his grave soon enough.

Atticus engages in a deep conversation with Jean Louise concerning the Constitution and states’ rights—one a reasonable defense of the body politic, the other the tiredest of rhetoric. Having never read Schopenhauer on the immaturity of the Christian religion, Atticus declares the black people of the South remain ever yet in their childhood. Paternalism is one thing when it comes to minorities, but it is another thing entirely when it comes to the Federal government: Dr. Finch, his brother, tells Jean Louise that the source of conflict over civil rights is the intrusion of government into local affairs. Of course, the Federal government produces problems and is an example of injustice in itself. But such injustice pales in comparison to the normal prejudices of Maycomb and every county like it. Backward people announcing the backwardness of their neighbors ought to elicit the laughter of Jean Louise, now that she has received a New York education. It only serves to enrage her: she curses at her father for the contradiction of his intellect and his sentiment, since his logic, once cast iron, has become unapologetically repellent. The machine of selection has come home to roost with Maycomb’s most famous lawyer. Although its local color is childish in the eyes of the rest of the country, its own peculiarities become coincident with the will of God. Such places have always fostered such delusions. These are the same people, Atticus included, who would now moan about states’ rights on the issue of gay marriage. Having little of worth in their lives except the rote repetition of biological sustenance, Maycombians would construct a grand narrative outlining why their lives were undermined by the activity of Big Government and its formal sponsoring of deviance. One could as soon imagine the humbly clad denizens and wage slaves of Maycomb reciting “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” were they around today. These are people who retire after having spent their lives in boring work, around boring people, and having boring children. Then they die even more boring deaths. They are the salt of the earth, which has been sold from underneath them, for their lack of empathy—a concept relatively newer than brimstone—with people just as damned as themselves. Their lack of empathy need only issue from the Hell that is other people.

The novel’s ending is the weakest part of Harper Lee’s efforts. It is not only weak, it is unconvincing. Jean Louise makes up with her family—her “spleen and vapors” disappear—after realizing that she has to disengage herself from Atticus, because she alone can develop her conscience. But racism is not so gentle a family trouble as that. It ruptures families, and it does so permanently. The bitterness and cynicism it implies do not exist in a vacuum: racism speaks to a way of thinking so absolute and sociopathic that one can either live with it in bad faith or one cannot. The sheer ease with which the Finch family discusses racial segregation and Anglo-Saxon history ought to surprise readers from without the American South and liberals within. The theory of social control behind such ideas is Draconian and deadly; that they historically pervade the social fabric so thoroughly—and still do, on the lower frequencies—speaks to the nightmarish culture that fostered them. Ask an elder about the good old days and hear the frank reply “What was so good about the good old days?” Like the Baadher-Meinhoff complex, the liberals of Jean Louise’s generation knew the epistemology they inherited was so rank it had to be discarded, not synthesized. Though her uncle cautions her that there is no such thing as collective consciousness, she finds more truth in Jung than in Moses.

Laws produced by corrupt people are themselves corrupt, inevitably. Walter Benjamin once wrote about “The Destructive Character” who, rather than reform, prefers the destruction of codes that do not conform with moral reality. Sometimes, iconoclasts are far more valuable than the creaking icons they destroy. Harper Lee has done well to disillusion her readers—many of them now in old age, who in their youths went on to battle injustice with either law practice or drugged bohemia—because illusion can only ever serve the interests of power. Law is that which prevents terrorism, but it does disfigure people. Liberals would do well to note that novels can change this world no more than the canons of law can, that most people are born serfs and shall die serfs, and that hope without the fatalism born of misery is but the sigh of wishful prophets. Were there justice in the human species, it would not take decades to accrue, but instants to occur. However, Harper Lee has written a good novel—one deserving of note, certainly, and, above that, study. The Mockingbird novel that purported to change the consciousness of middle class Southerners did just that; its published hindquarters, long in the issue and overmuch controversial in coming to daylight, will, too.

— Jeremy Brunger



Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at

Nov 122015

Radojkovich pic


Milk Teeth

“GOT A JOB FOR YOU, Ruby,” Uncle said.

“What is it?”

“Cleaning an old woman’s house.”

“Will she be there?”

“No, she died. Can’t rent out the house til it’s sorted,” he said. “A hundred a day in the hand.”

“I’ll get my overalls.”

We drove along past renovated bungalows with new stone fences, and turned down a street leading to a cul-de-sac of shabby square-front cottages.


“Needs a coat of paint,” Uncle said. “First things first. Throw everything out, then we’ll fix it up.”

He drove off. I walked around a rubbish skip left on the verge and went up the path past a huge lemon tree with a plastic chair underneath. A silvery cat sat on the chair.


The cat jumped down, fixed its round gray eyes on me and began kneading the ground.

I opened the front door a crack. The cat slipped inside. The hallway looked as if the guts of an op-shop had blown in on a storm. Tiny flickerings caught my eye – things too small to be seen. I gave the door another push: a handful of white beads dropped to the floor. The beads unfurled then squirmed away beneath a blob of newspapers. I picked up the newspapers, squashing the maggots under my boot.

The sooner I got stuck in, the sooner I’d be done.

I filled the skip with bundles, books and broken bits of furniture. By lunchtime I’d cleared the hallway. I sat under the lemon tree eating a sandwich. The cat nipped at my ankle.

“You hungry?”


I put a piece of cheese on the ground. The cat turned up its nose.

The next day I brought milk for the cat, pouring it into a dish. It didn’t touch it. It followed me into a bedroom, silent as a fish.

I hauled a stack of boxes across the floor scattering cockroaches. I squashed as many as I could underfoot.

A bird whistled outside. An icy trickling feeling crept down my arms. I turned. The cat drew up, staring at the top box.


It didn’t move.

For some reason, I grabbed the box, setting it down on the floor and looking inside. Balled up sanitary pads! The cat leapt away as I strode off to the skip.

“Hoho,” said a man walking past carrying a miniature dog. “About time that place got cleaned up.”

“Did you know her?”

“Bitter cow. Slipped and fell on her arse. Should’ve been put into a home years ago.”

Grrrrr, said the dog. The man bent down, kissing the top of its head. “Good luck to you. You’ll need it.”

I went back inside. The cat waited by the boxes, it hissed when I picked them up. I was about to toss the lot when I noticed a bright blue embroidered flower on a rag stuffed in the box. I pulled the flower – it was the corner of a knotted cloth. I untied the knot and a pair of little woollen mittens dropped on the floor.

I knelt down picking up the mittens, folding them back into the cloth, leaving the bright flower on the corner just as the old woman must have done. The cat’s eyes were on me as I slipped them into my overalls.

I opened the bedside cupboard, dragging free a bundle of crepe bandages. Three pairs of secateurs tumbled out. Next came huge knickers, hairbrushes, a fur-lined slipper. Where was the other one? I was rummaging through socks and apple cores, when I felt a pressure at my back as if the old woman were actually standing behind me.

“How’s it going?” asked Uncle.

I swung around.

He laughed. “Didn’t mean to give you a fright. Thought you could do with a lift home.”

We went down the path. He inspected the skip. “Reckon we’ll get it all in one.”

I glanced back at the house, the cat was watching from the porch. “When’s the SPCA coming?”

“What for?”

“Her cat.”

“She didn’t have one.”

The following morning I went into her kitchen. It reeked of stale piss and cabbage. I opened the window, breathing in fresh air. Clouds swept past. Sunlight burst through. There was a flash behind me. I saw a glass vase on the table, it looked as if a candle was flickering inside. I picked it up. A gold change purse lay at the bottom. I unzipped the purse, turning it upside down. Four tiny teeth fell into the palm of my hand.

I stood stockstill, staring at them.

The cat swished against my leg, meowing.

“Jesus, god!” I dashed outside as if I knew where I was going.

I stopped by the lemon tree, quivering with cold, although it wasn’t a cold day.

The cat stood beneath the tree, kneading the ground.

I picked up a stick and dug. I lay the teeth and mittens in the hole, covering them over, patting the earth flat.

I rose and stepped back.

Sunlight soaked into me.

That night, a little girl came to me in a dream. “Thank you,” she said, and then she was gone.

Head in the Leaves

I REACHED THE RIVERBANK before Mum and crept under the willow tree we always sat next to. Sunshine shot through the leaves lighting golden cicada shells stuck to the trunk. I carefully plucked off the lowest one, the next highest, then gave a start. A man’s head trembled in the leaves, a shimmery see-through head that looked as if it had been made from jelly.

“Eric?” Mum pushed aside the branches.

I pointed at the head.

“What is it, love?”

Couldn’t even squeak a response.

“Best have a swim before afternoon tea.”

I rushed off.

“Not too deep, now.” She sat on the blanket and opened a book.

I waded in up to my stomach and felt chopped in two; my top half sweltered, my bottom half was so cold I couldn’t feel my feet.

When I looked, the head was still in the leaves.

I went in deeper, to my armpits, my neck – until I was just a head, too. Then I sank down and an oily brown silence covered me. I felt swallowed, drowsy. The current slowly spun me round…my chest burst and I thrashed to the surface.

I ran to Mum who wrapped me in a towel and hummed to me.

From that day onwards, the man’s head was always in the leaves like a piece in a picture puzzle.

“Can you see anything in the willow?” I’d ask playmates.


“Oh, nothing – thought I saw a nest.”

Then we’d run to the river. Around the curve to the left, the water pooled in rusty shallows. We’d look for elvers that sometimes slithered over the stones like strings of silver glue. Around the curve to the right, the water rushed to the sea, a hundred miles away, which I’d never seen. I’d sometimes stare at the vanishing point, wishing Mum and I could go there – even though my friends said men caught ten foot eels upriver.

Mum wasn’t a swimmer. She liked sitting by the willow, reading biographies of singers and composers.

Even in winter, when no-one else did, we went to the river. We’d huddle in our heavy jackets, noses turning pink, eating egg and parsley sandwiches. I’d throw my crusts at black swans who’d lumber over stinking of slimy reeds.

I always felt the head watching us.

I’d walk along the river’s edge until Mum was a dark dot.

It was icy on the plains in winter and in summer they were dusty and stunk of silage. If the wind came from the west, it brought the groans of cows and shrieks of fencing wire. If it came from the east, it brought the clickety-clack of the afternoon train. When you’re twelve years old, stuck in a small town, the loneliest sound in the world is the whistle of a departing train.

I’d trudge back to Mum, train wheels turning in my chest, wondering how on earth I would ever get to the city?


Mum did bookkeeping for local farmers. We were poor, yet she made me feel like we were rich. Her opera records, a stomach-sinking embarrassment in front of the other boys, felt luxurious when we were on our own. She’d stand at the sink peeling potatoes to Delibes’ Flower Duet. She’d neatly feed the stove with wood, shell peas and move the frypan back and forth to stop our lamp chops burning – all the while practicing trills, slowing down the two notes then gradually increasing the speed until the trill made me think of a hummingbird hovering in one spot.

She often mentioned my father – Bill planted the jasmine, she’d say. Bill bought the radiogram. Bill never warmed to Wagner.

She made it sound as if Bill was about to open the door and step inside.

Water off a duck’s back to me. He’d died before I was born.

Occasionally I’d look at their wedding photo in the lounge. His face was half-hidden, the brim of his hat shadowing his jaw.

Eventually, I got a scholarship to study engineering in the city.

On my last day in town, Mum had the flu so I walked to the station by myself. I passed Susan Frost outside the dairy. In a loud whisper, she turned to her friend and said, “His Dad topped himself down by the river.”

My head swam, but I put one foot in front of the other all the way to the train and climbed aboard.

The whistle blew.

The wheels turned.


My life transformed in the city.

I lived in a house of students. I went to lectures in the day and worked in a pub at night. I discovered nerdy girls – and that they were keen on nerdy boys like me.

Some mornings when I was shaving and the mirror steamed up, I’d draw the outline of my head in the mist. My heart would speed up. I’d think of going to see Mum.

She came up when I got my degree. “You’re launched, son,” she smiled and sang La Traviata’s Libiamo – mortifying in front of my flatmates.

A week later, she died in her sleep.

I caught the next train.

The house was overgrown by jasmine, it had tumbled through her bedroom window leaving countless flowers turning brown on the floor. The kitchen reeked of rancid butter and the fridge no longer shut. I couldn’t fill the jug because the sink was full of dishes soaking in grey water.

I was shocked at the degradation. How little help I’d been.

I trudged to the riverbank and glimpsed Mum sitting by the willow.

Trick of the light.

No head in the leaves, either.

I heard her singing the Flower Duet – long liquid notes that swept into a sustained trill, and pivoted back into melody.

I went closer to the water. Ducks turned in half-circles on the current.

Sunlight caught the river where it turned to the sea just as the chorus faded away.

—Leanne Radojkovich

Leanne Radojkovich was born in New Zealand and lives in Auckland.  Her stories have been widely published online and in print, and have won or been commended in various competitions including Ireland’s Fish Short Story Prize and the National Flash Fiction Day NZ contest.  She also shares her work on YouTube and SlideShare and posts flash fiction street art – PinUps – in phone booths, shop windows and public spaces.


Nov 112015


What surprises the most is where other writers might conclude their stories, Joy Williams pushes forward, downplaying a major event in a character’s life for a more nuanced, indirect, mysterious insight to rest her uncompromising ending upon. She has summed up the short form this way: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived.” —Jason DeYoung


Joy Williams
The Visiting Privilege
Knopf, 2015
490 pages, $30.00


“Life is an eccentric privilege” is a misunderstood comment in Joy Williams’ story “The Wedding,” but it might do as the pithiest of credos for Williams’ fiction. Life is an eccentric privilege…and then you die, because her stories never let you forget that because we have life, we also have death. It might be the clearest meaning her fiction imparts.

Bleak, nervy, unsentimental, hilariously at times, The Visiting Privilege combines three of Joy Williams’ previous short story collections with thirteen new stories, for a total of forty-six tales. The hangover from mainlining these stories over the last few weeks reveals an overwhelming array of narrative talismans, inimitable plot strategies, and philosophical undercurrents, the latter of which Joy Williams delights in undercutting, exposing our dumb, fragile humanness. “There are philosophers who maintain we are not our thoughts and that we should disassociate ourselves from them at every opportunity. But without this thought, I would have no experience or the world and even less knowledge of my heart,” the narrator says in “Dangerous,” one of the new stories.

Joy Williams has been up for just about every award an American writer can get but has brought few of them home. Her first novel, State of Grace, went toe-to-toe with Gravity’s Rainbow for the National Book Award; her most recent novel, The Quick and the Dead, was nominated for a Pulitzer. I bring this up not to shame Joy, but to urge those who haven’t read her work to do so. She’s worth it. Strange and dark, her stories and novels make their foundation in realism, but then you never know quite where they will lead to. Most stay firmly planned in the “manifest world,” while others drift off toward the uncanny. What surprises the most is where other writers might conclude their stories, Joy Williams pushes forward, downplaying perhaps a major event in a character’s life for a more nuanced, indirect, mysterious insight to rest her uncompromising ending upon. She has summed up the short form this way: “A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived.”

The Visiting Privilege is a hefty retrospective of Joy Williams’ short fiction. Just about all of the stories from her previous collections—Taking Care (1982), Escapes (1990), and Honored Guest (2004)—are included. Some stories have been edited out, some rearranged from their original order. All told, it’s nearly fifty years worth of fiction. Dipping into the collection will get you if not a masterpiece, a guaranteed peach of a short story. But viewed as a whole, The Visiting Privilege tells a kind of narrative on its own, that of Joy Williams’ development as a published writer.

The collection opens with “Taking Care,” a story she as said was her first “good” story, one that Rust Hill, her future husband, would accept for his literary journal Audience. Many of the narrative fetishes and tics that will follow Joy Williams are present here. The focus is on the one character most stuck in his current situation—a minister/father. He is worried about his wife who is dying and his daughter who is truant—gone to Mexico to have the nervous breakdown she’d seen for herself in the “stars.” Clearly the daughter is having the more dramatic and busier life, but Williams chooses not to follow her. The protagonist is held duty-bound to his community and church, he is responsible for the “care” of his grandbaby and wife. It’s a story about the human family, with the specter of death always in the background. Like all Williams’ stories, it also honors the inscrutability of existence, as she describes the old mother’s illness: “Her blood moves as mysteriously as the constellations.”

The prose of the early stories is tightly wound, often with the simplicity of subject-verb-object as its underlying foundation. Take for instance these few sentences from “The Lover,” a story about a young woman trying anything to keep a rather disinterested man from leaving her:

The girl becomes a lover to a man she met at a dinner party. He calls her up in the morning. He drives over to her apartment. He drives a white convertible that all rusted out along the rocker panels. He asks her to go sailing. They drop the child off a nursery school on the way to the pier. She is two years old now, almost three.

This humble pattern pulls the story along with lines that so aptly describe the human heart that they’re often hard to move past: “The girl thinks about the man constantly but without much exactitude.” These early stories frequently derive their structure from thematic or temporal iterations instead of a single conflict, effectively building an uncommon density in short story form.

As the collection progresses, the prose loosens, and becomes more and more chatty. ‘Off-plot’ sequences become more daring. The horror intensifies. Insidious and scalding stories like “The Little Winter” and “Rot” speak to the outlandishness of life. In one a girl asks to be kidnapped by her mother’s ailing friend and succeeds; in the latter, a young woman recognizes her future will remain in stasis after her much older husband rebuilds a rusty Ford Thunderbird in their living room. He calls it a work of art.

In “Cats and Dogs,” a story appearing for the first time in this collection, Joy Williams offers up this blistering (and hilarious) paragraph, which is a good example of her more recent longer, looser style of writing:

She had no admirers at present. Since leaving her parents’ home at eighteen she’d experience two brief marriages—one to a Ritalin-addicted drywaller, the next to a gaunt, gabby autodidact, brilliant and quite unhinged, who drank a pound of coffee a day, fiddled with engines and read medieval history. After their parting, he flew in a small plane he had built to Arizona and found employment as a guide in a newly discovered living cave. Daily, he berated the tourists by telling them that every breath they took was robbing the cave of its life, even though each of them had gone through three air locks and was forbidden to touch anything or take photographs. People didn’t mind hearing they were well-meaning bearers of destruction, apparently. According to him, he was the most popular guide there. She was amazed to learn that people liked him. She certainly hadn’t.

It’s hard to think of another writer who could venture as far afield as she does in this paragraph, most of which has little bearing on the actual plot.

Typical protagonists in these stories are wayward girls, or older women, both invariably made strange by life and circumstances. Often the women are cranky drinkers, some are attenders to community groups or patients; the children are spoiled, hyper-intelligent with imagination to spare. They are pretty much all looking for a way out of their current condition. Williams’ male characters don’t fair much better. They come in the form of secretive adolescents, older husbands, abusive fathers, aloof lovers, and enablers. One of the more interesting threads in these stories is how many yardmen there are—“The Yard Boy,” “The Other Week,” “Another Season,” “In the Park.” The progression of their depiction is somehow telling in itself, from the erotic, to the threatening, to the stoic, to emotionally lost. They are always shown as slightly simple men but with a profound touch for nature and plants.

The stories of gardeners and nature-lovers are important also because they make a common theme in Joy Williams’ stories and nonfiction. In 2001, she published a book of essays called Ill Nature, most of which she had written for Esquire the years before. They are harsh, deliberately incendiary essays on the environment with titles like “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp,” “The Case Against Babies,” “Sharks and Suicide,” and “Audubon,” with its indictment that “though his name has become synonymous with wildlife preservation, [Audubon] was in no manner at any time concern with conservation. He killed tirelessly for sport and amusement.”

In The Paris Review interview Joy Williams gave a few years ago, she said this about avant-garde writing: “real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens.” Although the tone of her environmentalism in her fiction isn’t as strident as it is in her nonfiction, it’s an essential part of it—she has taken our world’s “destruction” on. It generally appears in the form of denial. Characters want to deny or tame nature, such as in “Another Season,” in which the main character is given a small stipends and a truck to drive around a resort island to clean up all the dead animals—to make it “appear as though death on the minor plane” didn’t exist. In “Charity” its enchantment is spoiled by over-labeling: “The road led past the toilet and ramadas through a portion of landscapes where every form of plant life was explained with signs.”

Williams is wise enough, however, not to sermonize. The drama of her characters is still her foremost concern. In a little essay called “Why I Write,” Joy Williams says: “The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct or advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb.” And that’s The Visiting Privilege. Williams’ eye is on the spiritual and there’s an ever-present willingness to go ‘wild’ in these stories. While reading, I kept wondering when is she was going to pull back, when would she reveal it’s all fantasy or a dream. She never does. And because she doesn’t withhold, when she writes, “we’re all alone in a meaningless world,” I believe her and don’t discount it as posturing nonsense.

But here’s something small and anticlimactic: I’m unconvinced a review can do right by all these stories. There are simply too many, too much variety, too much change and range. A review of a book this formidable can only provide insufficient glimpses and peeks at the ineffable within its covers. So, I offer my personal response to this collection as a testament to its importance: At home, I have a shelf of novels and short story collections I consider vital—they are books that provide me not with clarity, but with a kind of fundamental thinking about the murkiness of human motivations, desires. I return to these often. On that shelf are books by Mavis Gallant, J. M. Coetzee, Clarice Lispector, Melville, Kowabata, others. Recently, I made space on it. The Visiting Privilege is in there now.

 Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), 3:AM, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.


Nov 102015

Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Dylan Brennan first moved to Mexico upon finishing his undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin and moved back and forth between there and Ireland a number of times before settling in Mexico in 2011. The poems in his first book, Blood Oranges, were written and primarily located there.

In the prose piece below, “Roma Walking Around”, Dylan and his wife, Lily Pérez-Brennan, walk the streets of the Roma district in Mexico City on a “psychogeographical odyssey” checking out places where writers had lived: “foreign writers” like Burroughs & Kerouac, Mexican writers like Ramón López Velarde & Juan Rulfo. Talking about his collection, Blood Oranges, and one of its central themes, the foreigner in Mexico, Brennan stated, “the idea of the foreigner in Mexico is more personal than the idea of an Irishman in Mexico”. The Odyssey of course is not just a journey but a journey home (and one with a violent return before peace ensues). Writing is a bit like that too, a foreigner in a strange land looking for home. In Blood Oranges, the historic and present day violence of Mexico are an integral part of the collection. Brennan is all too aware of the peaceful and violent intersection. Indeed in his translations of Salvador Díaz Mirón, a Mexican poet born in the port city of Veracruz in 1853, we read how, “The exposed corpse lay rotting on the branch/like some weird fruit dangling by its stalk”. An image that sadly resonates still through the murderous actions of the contemporary drug cartels. But despite the “waste” and the “stench”, we also read how “the sun ascended through impeccable blue/ and the landscape was lifted from the lyrics of Tibullus.”

Brennan as translator, journeys too through a strange land — the foreign terrain of a different language — but despite the savagery and cruelty necessitated by linguistic contortion, his words ultimately reclaim beauty and peace – a homecoming even.

—Gerard Beirne


So they say he wrote Junky here. And Queer. Now the food doesn’t look too appealing. The coffee is dire. Weak and watery. There are a couple of altars. One is for Our Lady of Guadalupe, naturally. The other for a Niño Jesús, a boychild Jesus wearing a white robe and maybe a crown. Both are adorned with candles and fruit. Rotting yellow shrivelled mangoes and some light green-coloured apples. On the walls are abstract paintings of naked women with large thighs and buttocks, each one of them engaging in different ways with a sort of geometrically constructed multi-coloured snake. The peach liquor on the table in front of us is blue. I excuse myself and make for the toilet. It stinks. It’s disgusting. Maybe it smells like the kind of place where a heroin addicted writer would slap around a piss-spraying cat. No. 10, Orizaba. Was there any point to this? Let’s get out of here.


I walk with my wife Lily south down Orizaba and soon come to Plaza Río de Janeiro. In the centre of the square there’s a statue. A replica of Michelangelo’s David. And scouts and dogs. Trendy people come here to walk their pure-breeds or to let them play in the fountain. Scouts turn up on the weekends and do their scouty things. On the east side we look up at the Casa de las Brujas — The Witches’ House. Stories of a woman called Pachita and her necromancy aside, it’s easy enough to see how it got its name. Built in 1908 the architecture seems European, Germanic or French. The entire Roma district was built at the beginning of the last century as a European style residential area to support the overflow from the city centre. Hard to believe this was the edge of town back then. There’s a kind of turret that sticks out above the corner of the building and looks like a witch’s head. The dark coloured peak like a hat and the windows like a mouth. Lily tries to take some photos but it’s hard to get a good shot. Go far back to get in the whole building and the trees of the plaza get in the way. Go closer and only get that witch-head turret in addition to risking getting knocked down by passing cars.


Witches’ House. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Sergio Pitol lived in The Witches’ House at one point and I believe it crops up in his Desfile del Amor. I have yet to read his novels, but his non-fiction is full of wonder, his tales of youthful wanderings, the sad delight of nostalgia. How he goes on a cantina crawl round Old Havana, enjoyable lost and inebriated. Best of all, how he loses his glasses before arriving in Venice. Everything a blur of watershapes. The stench from the canals and the smell of incense from churches. Impossible not to be put in mind of Francisco de Icaza’s lines: Give him alms woman/for there’s nothing in this life/that can be sadder/than being blind/and in Granada. Or something like that. Not too long ago I saw a plaque with those words on a wall in Granada, Nicaragua. Wrong city but equally true. Carlos Fuentes lived up there too with the witches (Aura?) and the house is the possible location of a hidden Nazi sect in José Emilio Pacheco’s Morirás Lejos. Another novel I have yet to read but I have read his Las batallas en el desierto, an astonishing work of poetic simplicity. Schoolboy meets his friend’s exotic foreign mother. Falls in love. It’s obviously never going to work. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The novel’s epigraph. A novel that is as much about location as it is about plot. It’s about Mexico City. It’s not about Mexico City, it’s about the Roma district. City in half-light, mysterious suburb of Roma way back then.


This has aniseed in it was my first thought. The place seemed upmarket enough and 90 pesos for a sandwich is steep in this town. But marlin in a chilli and tomato sauce with a beer seemed like a good plan. It wasn’t. While the aniseed, real aniseed, added a nice touch, the sandwich was thin, soggy and flimsy. A waste of money and an appropriate end to a disappointing walk. The idea was simple enough. To head down to Plaza Luis Cabrera, for the first time, and to check out one of the houses Burroughs lived in while in Mexico City and also the house, just across the street, where Kerouac wrote Tristessa. Or at least where much of the events of Tristessa took place. The Burroughs house, this time No. 210 Orizaba, looked like a newish red-bricked squat apartment complex. The original must have been knocked down. Across the street the Kerouac place, he lived on the roof, was newly plastered white and was festooned with estate agent announcements. Completely refurbished or knocked down and rebuilt. A sofa abandoned on the pavement. I don’t know what I was looking for but it wasn’t this. Try it again next week.

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Kerouac’s residence (rooftop). Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

This time the route would be planned. There would need to be a breakfast and lunch and coffee. We would walk down Orizaba, stop in on the Junky/Queer house, continue on down Orizaba, passing Plaza Río de Janeiro, turn west onto Álvaro Obregón and stop at the Ramón López Velarde house before heading back down further south towards the other Burroughs residences and lunch. Lunch at a different place. No marlin sandwiches or overpriced beer. That was the what. The why was slightly more complicated. A psychogeographical odyssey? I’d been reading The Odyssey with my 4th year students and talking a bit about Joyce’s Ulysses, about voyages, saudade, nostos, about charting territory, about the journey not the destination being the thing, about psychogeography. They cared as much as anyone else in their position would care. I wanted to get to know my newly adopted city better. By choosing a set of coordinates, by pinning down the points on the computer screen and obliging myself to walk them I would create a circuit I’d never taken, combining areas I knew well enough with streets I’d never had any reason to walk down. As simple as that. Many famous people have lived in the Roma district—Leonora Carrington, José “Cosmic Race” Vasconcelos, Padre Pro, Fidel Castro—it’s a long list. But I chose writers. Foreign writers that lived in the Federal District and wrote about the city. Writers for whom the city was their protagonist. Just walking the streets of James Joyce’s novel, the streets of his city, my own city, that has to beat any desktop commemorative plaque. To see where Stoker wrote Dracula would be interesting. Nothing more. To walk the streets of Victorian London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is. Well, that would be something more.

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Burroughs’ House 10 Orizaba. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

But of course Burroughs and Kerouac were off their heads most of the time and their Mexico City was all bars and houses, rent boys, whores and drugs and alcohol. No matter, it still holds interest for me. This city is a brutal work of art, a place where everything can be found. I understand, however, that the symptoms of peyote poisoning and polio are identical. Kerouac ran down Orizaba to the Plaza Luis Cabrera to lie on the ground after having a negative reaction to peyote. I walked around the little park with its dancing fountains that look great when pumping water and look like a sad abandoned swimming pool when turned off. Hard to imagine the stinking (he must have stunk right?) Kerouac lying with his face to the stars in the night-time square. Hard to imagine stars these days. Roma is gentrified now. No doubt about it. Cold brew cafés and hipster barber shops abound. Not fifties hepcats though. The new kind.


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Lopez Velarde House. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

After the Witches’ House we turned right onto Obregón and found the Ramón López Velarde (1888—1921) house, large and sky-blue. It was the second time I’d been in a López Velarde house but the first time in this particular house. Last December invited to take part in the Festival Internacional de Poesía Ramón López Velarde in the exquisite silver-mining northern city of Zacatecas we were bussed out to his house in the nearby town of Jerez. The Mexico City version is a museum and also houses the Casa del Poeta, a small venue for book launches and readings. We were shown to his bedroom and admired his sturdy old little bed and his little shoes placed neatly at its foot and a selection of his books. We were told to open the wardrobe and stand inside it. You’ll wake one grey morning/and will see, in the moon of your wardrobe…The lines of a poem written on the inside of the wardrobe. That’s cute. He’s good. His Suave Patria is his most famous work. We were told to open the back of the wardrobe and nothing could have prepared us for what was on the other side. A funfair hall of mirrors and coloured lights. Papier maché figures and dioramas. Literal interpretations of the poems. Kitsch and grotesque. El viejo pozo de mi vieja casa—The old well from the Jerez house. Told to look inside we see the bloated mad guffawing face of a carnival mask. And so on. Who did this? Whose fucking idea was this? We were told his name. He’s a theatre man. He has a flair for the dramatic. We were told.

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Closet Lopez Velarde. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Across the street to Bisquets Obregón. Seventy years old this year the establishment started right here in the Roma district on Obregón street, hence the name. Bisquets—not what we’d call biscuits back home in Ireland, more like a scone. But the coffee is good and is served estilo chino, Chinese style. Bucareli street isn’t far from here and was known for its abundance of Chinese cafés in the previous century. Just like in Café la Habana—Bolaño’s “Café Quito”—they all serve the coffee Chinese style. They pour you a small amount of essence of caffeine, a strong pitch coloured liquid, and warn you it is strong every time. You tell them when to stop and when to start pouring the milk from a long, curly metal-stemmed jug which they frequently raise and lower to create a foam, producing at the end a tall glass of strong milky coffee. And sweetbread. Bisquets Obregón have franchises spread out across the country. But this one, in Roma, this is the original. The coffee leaves a ball of fire to cool in your centre. We stepped back out.

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Juan Rulfo. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

Further west along Obregón we hit Monterrey. Where Monterrey, Obregón and Insurgentes almost converge there’s a little traffic island park called Jardín Juan Rulfo. There have been recent heavy rainfalls and the sunken park is flooded. I’ve been here a few times before. The first time as a kind of pilgrimage as I wrote my doctoral thesis on Rulfo’s cinematic and photographic work. Rubbish floats on the scummy water and a rat runs away from our footfalls. There’s a sculpture of Rulfo and a few seats. The sculpture shows him with his head stuck in a book, literally. In 1985 a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 10, 000 and, of course, injured many more. It also changed the face of the city. A well-known washing machine seller, on the corner of Insurgentes and Álvaro Obregón was brought to the ground and could not be replaced. One year later Juan Rulfo died. The spot was chosen for his posthumous park. Borges called Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo one of the greatest novels in world literature. Now rats and homeless people sleep on the benches around his head. The tiny garden smells of piss. I once saw a 1976 short film by José Luis Bolaños called Que esperen los viejos. It focuses on a young couple seduced by dreams of a better life in the big city. At the end of the film the male protagonist wanders through the dilapidated streets of the megalopolis and a voiceover is heard. This is the land that they’ve given us. But what land did they give us? The words are from Rulfo’s story Nos han dado la tierra. Rulfo’s original is about peasant farmers who have received their government-allotted portion of land in post-revolutionary Jalisco. The land they have received is good for nothing, hard and arid. The promises of a better life have dissipated. And so it is for the characters in the Bolaños film. The lure of the big city resulting in extreme poverty, worse than before. It’s hard not to think of this when walking by the Jardín Juan Rulfo and it seems fitting. The squalid cardboard beds, the shit, the rats. But Rulfo deserves better. And so do the people who sleep in his park.

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Jardin Juan Rulfo. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

From Rulfo’s park we headed down Monterrey and soon came to Krika’s bar and restaurant. It’s a decent simple place and I had a beer at the bar. Burroughs called this place Ship Ahoy in Queer and spent plenty of time and money sitting at the bar annoying strangers and friends alike with his bizarre flights of fancy he liked to call ‘routines’. I’ve only read two of his books — Junky and Queer. Like Kerouac these were memoirs disguised as novels or, at least, that’s how they seem to me. The brutality of the writing is exhilarating at times and still shocking now. The filth, the despair and, of course, the incident. The moment that moved him to write. I once drank about half a bottle of Oso Negro (Black Bear) vodka in Mexico City and got into a fight with a friend over nothing. Later on in the week, the same friend and I overheard a couple of young Irish businessmen chatting in a bar about how one of them downed a load of Oso Negro and went completely off the rails, uncharacteristically aggressive. It rang a bell. Well, thank fuck it wasn’t the gin. Burroughs drank a bottle of Oso Negro gin and, in an apartment party above “Ship Ahoy” shot his wife in the face. Shot her dead as an apple fell to the floor. William Tell. Not quite. Her name was Joan Vollmer.


Ship Ahoy. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan

We were starting to get hungry for lunch so decided to keep heading south down Medellín this time to find one more Burroughs house. The street was called Cerrada de Medellín and the house was number 37. I think Kerouac crashed there at some stage. He must have. He wrote Cerrada de Medellín Blues, a poem that, typically for Kerouac and his Mexico City Blues poems, has absolutely nothing to do with Mexico and reads like a stream of gibberish. His novella/memoir Tristessa is a strange case, for me anyway. I like its depiction of the city at night, of his platonic lover friend Esperanza. It contains virtuoso impressionistic tours through the dark streets and moments of revelation. It also is punctuated by Kerouac’s inane Buddhist rhetoric (he talks of tethers while drinking himself to death) and stupid comments about Mexicans, who he seems to want to call brown Aztecs or Indians at any available opportunity. And changing her name, that was the worst. Esperanza means hope. A lost drug-addled prostitute called Hope. A poetic gift of a name ruined when changed to Sadness. He must have been insufferable. His fans tend to be too. Anyway, this house looked like it was abandoned. Like it was on the verge of total collapse. A neighbour, an old lady, came out to stand in the doorway and look at us with suspicion. Lily took photos of the house and we went closer to read the sign on the door. It was from the authorities. The building was split up into various apartments, all of then looked tenantless. The sign said that the owners of at least three flats were being prosecuted for the sale of narcotics on the premises. We needed to eat.

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Burroughs’ house – 37 Cerrada de Medellín. Photo by Lily Pérez-Brennan.

So what were hipsters before they were hipsters? Lily has asked me that question before. I don’t know. I suppose they were what they are now, the upper class alternative artsy crowd. I’ve been called one myself and I don’t like it because I just tend to equate the word with ‘talentless misguided dickhead’. That’s something I might just very well turn out to be and probably why I don’t like being described so. I have a beard and I write poetry and I like good coffee. I seem to fit the requirements. We queued outside a place called Porco Rosso for an hour. Essentially it sells what I imagine to be typically American food—pork ribs, mac and cheese and good beer. It’s a container with wooden picnic tables. The toilets are also made from containers and the upkeep seems minimal. On the way there we passed a beautiful early 20th century house with a plaque outside informing us that Fernando del Paso once resided within. I was about to launch into a riff about how the Beats lived in tenement style accommodations while the Mexican writers seemed to have all resided in large colonial style mansions on leafy boulevards. Then I remembered tales I’d been told of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (re-imagined as Ulises Lima in Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes) and the conditions in which he was purported to have lived. They eventually seat us and we order what seems to me to be a massive quantity of ribs and I drink an IPA from the state of Colima. Craft beers, that’s another thing. Plenty of good ones around Roma these days. When I come back from washing my hands the man and woman sharing our table congratulate me on our recent wedding. They must have been chatting to Lily. I thank them. Has anything changed they ask. No, nothing at all we both agree.

I lived in Mexico City in 2009 and wandered its streets on my own. But walking with Lily was different. The imaginary conversations I had with her were now real. We both love Woody Allen movies, even the shit ones. Midnight in Paris is a particular favourite. Eating ribs and drinking ale it hit me, what this was all about. Walking around with no particular purpose. I don’t really care where these Beats lived and got high. I care about this city and its seemingly limitless layers and possibilities. Its dirt and glimmer. Its poetry and dusk. Its smells and sounds. What I had been trying to do was to walk the streets of somebody else’s city. Burroughs, Kerouac, Pacheco. If I could dive head first into Ulysses like Kugelmass in Allen’s famous story, it wouldn’t be my Dublin in which I would find myself. If I could transport back in time like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris I could meet Frida and Diego, Rulfo and Bolaño…but it wouldn’t be my Mexico City. I mean, I can’t even enter Valeria Luiselli’s city outside of her Sidewalks and she’s my contemporary, give or take three years. The circumstances are different. A woman from a Mexican family that has grown up in South Africa—of course it will be different. No, my Mexico City must come to me naturally. What about the route I walk every day after work? From Cuauhtémoc metro station across Chapultepec down Abraham González past those magnificent closed lane streets of the La Mascota building, one hundred years old this year. Or a trip to the Oxxo past the young girls on Sullivan for a beer on a Saturday night. Sadi Carnot and the young lads that will mind your car or offer to sell you parts of another car they once minded for some other poor fool. This and so much more. So enough of planned walking. Enough of the maps and guidebooks. Enough of the footsteps of others. How is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture than can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form. It’s hard to disagree. And when you find your city you should walk it. And the city that you walk should be yours. And then, if you’re lucky, you find someone who will walk its streets with you. And then you don’t need much else.

—Dylan Brennan



Though Made Of Jade

I Nezahualcóyotl ask the following:
Do we really live rooted in the earth?

Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.
Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.

Though made of jade it gets
smashed to pieces
though made of gold it breaks ,
even quetzal feathers
get ripped apart.

Not forever upon this earth:
just for a while down here.


I Observe A Flower

Finally my heart understands:
I listen to a song,
I observe a flower.
May they never wither!


Where Will We Go?

Where will we go
when death is no more?
And is that why I live in tears?
May your heart be settled
nobody down here lives forever.
Even the princes came to die,
people get cremated.
May your heart be settled
nobody down here lives forever.




The exposed corpse lay rotting on the branch
like some weird fruit dangling by its stalk
a witness to an implausible sentence
a pendulum rhythm swaying in the road

The lewd nudity, the lolling tongue,
just like a cockscomb a high tuft of hair
all this made it seem quite funny, at my horse’s
hooves whippersnappers lazed and laughed

And this funereal waste with a drooping head
swollen and scandalous up there on green gallows
allowed its stench to carry on the wind

It swung in the solemn way of the censer
and the sun ascended through impeccable blue
and the landscape was lifted from the lyrics of Tibullus


The Dead Man

Like a mountain tree-trunk brought to earth.
Impressive clean forehead proud and pure.
Furrowed black eyebrows drawn by a fine line
curved to trace the flight of a sketched bird

suggesting a sky. Nose just like a hawk’s
beak, egg whiteness of hair.
The fir now greenless that fell to earth
is partly ringed in frost.

The half-closed eyelid’s opening shows
a grim and glassy twinkle of sorrow.
A gloss of wellwater rigid in depth.

I scare and scatter the flies with my scarf
and on the face of the corpse
floats an unsure shadow—
it’s the flight of a condor as well as a shroud.

—Translated by Dylan Brennan



Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

Nov 092015

SengesPierre Senges. Photo credit: Philippe Bretelle


Many ways to stuff a watermelon, many ways to fill a library — you can write one, as Pierre Senges seems to be doing, turning out about a book a year since 2000, along with countless radio plays; or you can buy (or steal) books to fill your library with; or, not really any easier, if you are able you can translate them, and perhaps get a small collection going. Slowly I am making some headway into Senges’s library, studiously Englishing it, and thus growing my own. There are lots of ways to farce up a library, and lots of ways to fill one too. Here are just a few.

                                                                     —Jacob Siefring



Somewhere Jean-Paul writes: “I have forty odd libraries in my
possession that I myself — this strains credulity —
conceived and wrote in their totality.”

The library of Maria Wutz

In 1793, this same Jean-Paul brought his character the schoolmaster Maria Wutz into the world (he joins Fibel, the inventor of the abecediary, and the trader Vagel, who sold his pustules for a bargain when he contracted smallpox). Poverty has an important role to play in these adventures, it combines with the desire to read and the imaginative faculty (should one exist) to create a personal library in the style of Jean-Paul. Since he has not a single kopeck, nor a thaler nor a maravedis with which to buy the first chapter of the first volume of a popular anthology, Wutz decides to write the books of his literary patrimony himself. “Each new book whose title he assigned he was able to consider as belonging to him”: willful appropriation becomes the poor man’s revenge on the free market, the refutation of his wretched lot, making use of the means at hand.

By over a century, this schoolmaster anticipates the author of the Quixote invented by Borges: well before Pierre Menard, Wutz parasites a book, a title, and an author whenever he feels an urgent desire to compose, as soon as it is published, and on the double at that, The Philosophical Fragments of Lavater. No sooner has an editor announced the good news to booksellers, than Wutz the omnipotent sits down to his desk to start writing — as if his private library were the proof of his responsibility: the proof of little Wutz’s authority over every written thing: Wutz, at the center, as first cause, with his manuscripts for effects, and then, all around his Original Library, all the other books, displayed in bookstores as so many fraudulent editions.


The library of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

The poverty of Maria Wutz is a poverty of fables, it calls to mind that of the shoemaker who goes off into the woods with his family to abandon there his seven children, born in a time of steady work; the poverty Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky inflicts on his character is that of Russia at the start of the twentieth century (chilly or freezing, most likely): split-soled shoes, queues, famine in the Ukraine, and artificial beets (and yet, not for everyone). An intellectual lives in a tiny room: in that room, a bed, a chair, a stove (a cold one), a bookcase, “four long boards running the length of a wall that sag beneath the burden of the manuscripts.” This cold-stove poverty apparently doesn’t preclude the possession of four shelves of books, but it’s a bliss that doesn’t last: for, in the middle of winter, Krzhizhanovsky requires his character to trade in all his books for four banknotes.

What comes next in this first chapter of The Letter Killers Club is a delicate variation on the theme of absence: with many repetitions, the dispossessed student reaches out his hand towards one of the four shelves to take down a book — a gesture implying familiarity, fraternity, and an almost leisurely routine. The first time the hand meets the absence, the effect is sad, not the less painful for the gesture’s banality — but by the twentieth time, it demands passionate spiritual exercises: now it becomes a question of inventing the vanished book. At that instant, the totally denuded library not only signifies poverty, it somehow asserts its force as library, it replaces the books’ actual presence with a potential presence, upheld by memory and experience; it permits the intellectual to pursue his work by means of his memory… oh well, so much the better if memory is approximative. The book that is present is always the exact copy, always fixed and unchanging unto itself; the absent book, like a poem in a dead language translated from other translations, or like the voyages of Ulysses, will yield various recombinations of itself from one day to the next, condescending to exist in many versions, all true, all flawed, all unfinished, still unstable, as if, by vanishing, it returned to an earlier stage of its development.


The library of Giacomo Casanova

A century before Captain Nemo would find refuge among the books he kept aboard the Nautilus, another adventurer, representative of a certain society fashionable during a certain, superannuated century, also found refuge in a library: in Bohemia, at Dux, in Count von Waldstein’s castle. Giacomo becomes the librarian there at the ripe age of seventy: the exact opposite of adventure: sedentariness instead of stagecoaches, the rules of order instead of fugues, the status of a subaltern replacing the motto Follow your god, reading by candlelight replacing romantic caresses, the dusting of book bindings replacing theatrical bluffs proffered to young girls and Emperor Joseph II alike. Casanova did not fail to oversee his own decline (the brutal metamorphosis of the skirt-chaser into a bookkeeper), but he must have remembered having been tempted many times already, over the course of his youth, by libraries: he used them as rest stops. (He even once tried priesthood — but to be a priest is to wear a half-mask, as Da Ponte surely knew.)

No one knows whether the books in the library made it any easier for Casanova to pass the time, it would have had to contain an Orlando Furioso or maybe a Quixote for that; but we at least know how writing saved him from hanging himself from the Bohemian ceiling. The stay, not at all the first, was granted when he consented to be a provisory appendage to a giant book — namely, the twelve volumes of the Histoire de ma vie.


The Library of the Congress

Borges postulates the existence in Buenos Aires of a Congress of the World representing all of humanity; the Congress is of course endowed with a library, a serious library, as serious as Argentinian intellectuals trying to compete with the letters of Old Europe — and because a library springs to mind when we need to represent the universe on a more practical scale (the size of a city block). During an initial phase, the library acquires only rare and serious books (Pliny’s Natural History); second, the library avid for totality fills up with “classical works of all genres from all countries”; finally, in the last act, when the library is overflowing, raising the principle of representation to an exact paraphrase (as impossible as a map existing at a 1:1 scale), it welcomes all books in without restriction, the good and the bad alike: the Prensa, 3,400 copies of Don Quixote, university theses (sic), account books, theater programs. Later, we will see how a library can be rich with books that do not yet belong to it — Borges, who knew how necessary forgetting is to the intelligence, recalls that a library finds its meaning in the items it lacks: lacunae without which librarians would be unable to breathe, or move.


The library of Bouvard and Pécuchet

The one thousand five hundred books Gustave Flaubert read in Croisset, or at the Rouen library, or  at the Nationale in Paris, steadfastly devoured to the point of having one’s brain metamorphosed into soft cheese, are also the books in the Chavignolles library — Bouvard and Pécuchet preside over it, just as they preponderate over their vegetable garden, spades in hand: proud in anticipation of the duty done. For Gustave, the one thousand five hundred books meant afternoons of misery in poorly heated rooms; for these two gentlemen, one thousand five hundred books assembled in a farmhouse are the promise of knowledge, accession to knowledge, or, better yet, the promise of the layman’s conversion into a savant — they contain pedagogic virtue, they are receptacles for truths, before long they will be objects of critique and renouncement: little does it matter, venerated or tossed into the ditch, books are the attribute of comfortable people: yes, people who reflect on when they will nap and have the means to show off shelves of beautiful bindings to the neighbors.

To these two gentlemen, the contents of a library are: books to read and possess, authors to boo once deification is over (booing being the amateur’s free will in the professionals’ library), a mélange of indispensable classics and stupefyingly dull volumes, teeming with pignoufisms. Like the library of the Congress, Pécuchet’s farm simultaneously contains a Pantagruel, treatises on hygiene, and the sermons of some priest — and when it comes time to buy up paper by the kilo, the dream of universalism will be fulfilled tenfold: to choose, to weed out the good from the bad will require a nerve which, thanks to their intimate knowledge of failure, these gentlemen have learned to mistrust. In the end, this will be Everything, the admirable, consolatory, formless Everything, exhaustivity joined to nothing, if not to the right edition, and the eternity of unmoving things.


The library according to Émile Borel and Arthur Stanley Eddington

Exhaustivity in writing is a dream or a nightmare wrought in the Pécuchetian style, that of a totality abolishing judgment — or in the style of Maria Wutz, simultaneously obeying the desire to read and the desire to write. Those who dread Bouvard’s old papers as much as Wutz’s graphomania will always be able to fall back on the combinatorial arts when they want to access the Great All in one of its many forms. Many years before the library of Babel, built of hexagons and exhaustion, in 1913 in Le Journal de Physique (5th series, volume 3, pages 189-196, these details admitted with a librarian’s taste for precision), Émile Borel, the mathematician, invents a metaphor that will go on to enjoy a certain success: a million apes randomly typing away on the keys of a million typewriters for ten hours every day will eventually, “before the year is up,” compose “identical copies of books of every sort and in every language kept in the world’s best-stocked libraries.” Fifteen years later, in the mind of Arthur Stanley Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World), the million monkeys become an army and “the world’s best-stocked libraries” the singular library of the British Museum. It remains to be seen if the substitution of the British Museum for all the world’s libraries is a British riposte to the pretentions of the little Frenchman Borel, or if it’s  rather a question of the intrinsic plasticity of stories, which are passed along only by mutating (mutation being a consequence, and perhaps also a cause). In other versions of the fable, the British Museum becomes the work of William Shakespeare; in still others the work of Shakespeare becomes the ensemble of the sonnets, or a single sonnet, sometimes even a single line of verse — the monkey, for his part, is ever present.


The library of Thomas De Quincey

A library no single man could ever exhaust: it might become proverbial, it represents an infinity of books compared to the reader’s smallness — it belongs to the British Museum, it might be the equivalent of the library composed by a million chimpanzees over the course of a single year. Infinity signifies humanist generosity, the incontinence of editors, and the strike force of the public authorities (when libraries are a cultural affair of the State). The reader’s tininess signifies the brevity of our lives: it follows that the impossibility of reading everything takes the measure of our mortality, provoking frustration and vertigo at the same time — to Thomas De Quincey, in any case, one hundred thousand forever unknown volumes brought forth tears which he compared to those of Xerxes countenancing the death of his soldiers: not some “fanciful case of misery,” but “as real a case of suffering as ever can have existed.”


The library of Thomas Browne

Being a catalog, it must take the form of a book, but the library building could be deduced from a certain number of pages found between Urne Buriall (a meditation on death and funerary receptacles) and The Garden of Cyrus (in which it is the quincunx in question). Its title is Museum Clausum, its more explicit subtitle Bibliotheca Abscondita: the reader finds therein (to quote Browne himself) “some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living” — and among these remarkable books, a poem in the Getick language by Ovid, a detailed account of Hannibal’s march across the Alps, a fragment from Pytheas, instructions to create a demon, Seneca’s letters to Saint Paul, and many other marvels. (To add dubiousness to dubiety, a contemporary edition of the Museum includes a translator’s extrapolation: a fraudulent addition, the opposite of kleptomania.)


The library of Seleucos

According to an Armenian tradition passed down down to Mar Ibas and reported by the philologist historian Luciano Canfora, as Xerxes’ successor Seleucos “ordered all the books in the world to be burned, so that time could be reset to begin with him” (we recognize all the books in the world as an imperial or puerile exaggeration, just as we know that wiping the slate clean is in men of power a sign of weakness). To all the libraries assembled since Alexandria, small and large, authentic and spurious, we must then also add the many absent libraries: a perimeter traced in the soil, the residuum of a catalog, footprints of soldiers stamped in the ashes. Canfora notes that the idea of the library is inevitably tied to the idea of its destruction — or to put it more clearly, obliteration is part and parcel of our way of understanding libraries. He mysteriously adds that the conflagration arises “as if a greater force were intervening,” to destroy an organism that has become impossible to control: “uncontrollable, because it reveals an infinite capacity for growth, and also because of the equivocal (often forged) nature of the material that poured into them.” This hypothesis of an expiation of the fake by fire has a seductively romanesque quality to it, seductive like the apocalypse of Sardanapalus, as it links counterfeiting to the fires of ancient Rome and Alexandria — but it can also leave us feeling perplexed.


The library of Don Quixote

Sardanapalus organized his own private apocalypse, dragging maids, mistresses, and gold pieces all into the same pyre — against his will Señor Quijano organizes one of these expiatory fires too, in his farmyard: his library was the occupation of his lone nights, it was the vehicle of his hallucination, it was his merchant marine and the description of Spain from a certain point of view, but then, it was consumed in a cloud of smoke. But, however unhinged he is, Don Quixote knows that books sometimes outlast their auto-da-fé: that’s the advantage of existing in numerous copies in various locations, the libraries repeating themselves here and there, with variations.


The library of Aristotle’s inheritor’s inheritors

By turns, conservation can prove destructive, even fatal: I’m referring to those elderly archivists who were suffocated under a mountain of books, and the paradoxes of conservation too: after a certain point has been passed, conservation runs counter to reading. The heirs of Neleus, who inherited Aristotle’s library, set out to save their master’s treasure, lest it should end up one day on the shelves of the royal library; those clever, obstinate fellows had the idea to dig a hole somewhere under the house, and to bury the scrolls there, then forget them, quite purposefully, with the sense of a job well done — the humidity, rodents, and other vermin hoarded the bequest, which is to say, reduced it to dust.


The library of Diodorus

Bibliotheca historica is the title he gives his book, an honest way of owning that his chapters are a compilation of other chapters taken from elsewhere, and that Diodorus is one of those historians at the table, or geographers hunched over their atlases, a habitué of the libraries like the rest (Pliny, that other compiler of talent, gives Diodorus credit for not lying about his work’s contents as much as he did about his working methods).


The library of Moby Dick

Melville, we know, compares whales with books; he begins his Moby-Dick with ten pages of extracts taken from a universal patrimony. The white whale on one side, an entire library consecrated to cetalogy on the other, suffering from their distance, demonstrate the difficulty of establishing a link between a series of words and a thing. (Anyways, according to William Faulkner (William Faulkner according to Pierre Michon, that is), Moby Dick never read Sigmund Freud’s books, nor William Shakespeare’s  plays — to swallow them, contain them, that’s a whole other story, though.


The library of Réjean Ducharme

He used to visit the municipal library on his bicycle, or the bookstore rather, in a landscape singularly rare in books, so far from Alexandria (his inventions might be born from these hours spent sifting, these treasures for his island life). The extracts at the start of Le nez qui voque compete with, or parody, or pay homage to the library of Moby-Dick: we would think we were hearing a transcription of the New World Symphony for a single ukulele (the exact same ukulele played by Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, directed by Richard Fleisher).


The libraries of François Rabelais, Alfred Jarry, and Gilbert Sorrentino

The first is Saint-Victor’s in chapter VII of Pantagruel, it contains the Pantofola decretorum (The Slipper of the Decrees); the second belongs to Doctor Faustroll and contains the first; the third is in Mulligan Stew, and contains a 1001 Ways to Stuff a Watermelon (the character who catalogs it “makes no claim to completeness, since there may well be other materials in those rooms that do not exist”).

(The stuffing is contained in the watermelon, the watermelon in the 1001 Ways, the book of the 1001 Ways within the library, the library in a house of indefinite form, the indefinite house within a novel with the title Guinea Red — the novel Guinea Red floats in Mulligan Stew, Mulligan Stew takes its place on a library’s shelf, and the library, who knows, maybe among the ingredients for a watermelon stuffing.)


The library of Miklós Szentkuthy

Twenty-five thousand volumes, twice what the Nautilus’ library contained, were how Miklós Szentkuthy got through half a century of Hungarian Communism, with that manifest autarky which an abundance of reading secures — and to those twenty-five thousand volumes Szentkuthy had time to add the one hundred thousand pages of his journal, now preserved in the Archives of the literary museum of Budapest, entrusted to the conservators to guard their secrets and reveal them only a quarter-century after the death of its author, which is to say — now.


The other library of Alexandria

Ptolemy, who spent pharaonic sums to have masterpieces copied and fill up his library, was once informed by a man of letters, a half-idealist, half-jokester, that much of the world was still full of books to discover and hoard — which shows how a library is rich, too, with the books outside its walls.

—Pierre Senges translated by Jacob Siefring

“Plusieurs façons de farcir une pastèque” was originally published in French in fall 2013 in les écrits, a Québecois literary journal, issue 139.


Pierre Senges is the author of fourteen books and over sixty plays for radio. His erudite fictions often unfold in the margins of other texts as historical commentaries and hypothetical reconstructions. He is the recipient of prizes for Ruines-de-Rome (2002) and Veuves au maquillage (2000), as well as for his radio work. His longest novel, Fragments de Lichtenberg (2008), is forthcoming in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. His most recent book, Achab (séquelles), is published by Éditions Verticales and considers the lives of the white whale and Captain Ahab in the aftermath of Moby-Dick.



Jacob Siefring is a Canadian-American translator. His translations have appeared in Gorse Journal, Hyperion, The Brooklyn Rail, and Vestiges. His criticism and reviews have been published in The Quarterly Conversation and Golden Handcuffs Review and other outlets. His first book-length translation, The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges, is forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press. He keeps a blog at



Nov 082015
xAnne_Hutchinson_on_Trial Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey via Wikipedia



Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum) via Wikipedia

Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841 (Peabody Essex Museum) via Wikipedia


There may be no more eloquent contemporary defender of Calvinism and the Puritan tradition than the 2012 National Humanities Medal recipient, Marilynne Robinson. In prize-winning novels from Housekeeping (1980) through Gilead (2004), and Home (2008), to Lila (2014), Robinson swims against what Yeats called “this filthy modern tide.” She does so more explicitly in essays, collected in The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010) and The Giveness of Things (2015). Her 1994 essay, “Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry,” appeared in the Summer 2015 special issue of Salmagundi, celebrating that magazine’s 50th anniversary. I encountered it there at the same time that I happened to be reading, also for the first time, “Mrs. Hutchinson,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1830 sketch contextualizing and dramatizing the 1637 civil trial of Anne Hutchinson. It seemed to me that one remark of Robinson was refuted by both sides involved in what Hawthorne rightly calls the “remarkable case” of that  multifaceted woman—variously described as an antinomian dissenter, pioneer proto-feminist, trouble-making rebel, and champion of religious liberty. The Puritan civil court pronounced its verdict on Anne Hutchinson on the sleety evening of November 8—378 years ago this very day.

In “Puritans and Prigs,” Robinson distinguishes between shallow contemporary values (fashionable, judgmental “priggishness” in various forms) and the richness of an ancestry some progressives contemptuously spurn as “puritanical.” That misused adjective, itself an example of linguistic “priggishness,” has had the unfortunate effect of causing far too many Americans to glibly dismiss a civilization which, while it flourished in North America, established, as Robinson claims, “great universities and cultural institutions and an enlightened political order.” Puritan civilization achieved unprecedented levels of literacy, longevity, and mass prosperity; in short, what Robinson summarizes as “happiness,” at least as it was conceived of in pre-modern days, before being reduced to mass consumerism and sexual liberation. Not, not at all, that the actual as opposed to the caricatured Puritans were opposed to sexual happiness or, for all their seriousness, to joy in general. But whole volumes of scholarship devoted to the history of New England Puritanism (and of the related Quaker tradition in Pennsylvania) have been trumped in the popular imagination by H. L. Mencken’s witty, unforgettable, and (ever since he uttered it in his 1949 Sententiae) widely accepted definition: “Puritanism—The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Marilynne Robinson’s antithesis between Prig and Puritan sets an advantaged, judgmental contemporary “elite,” distinguished by politically correct discourse, in stark opposition to the old Puritan Elect, “chosen by God in a manner assumed to be consistent with his tendency to scorn the hierarchies and overturn the judgments of this world.” Though Robinson’s social and ecological agenda, stressing responsibility to others and to the earth, seems “liberal,” it is, she insists, in the tradition of Calvin, whom she cites on our responsibility to our neighbors, and whose imperative she quotes directly: to “embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love.” No political conservative, Robinson is nevertheless telling in targeting liberal smugness, one of its distinguishing marks being disdain for those who have failed to keep up with every nuance of ever-changing politically correct language. This exclusionary tendency of progressivism leads her to the following sweeping claim (defensively hedged by a double qualifier regarding Calvinism): “I have not yet found a Puritan whose Calvinism was so decayed or so poorly comprehended that he or she would say to another soul, I am within the circle of the elect and you are outside it.” Really?

Since I was reading these words at the very time I was engaging Hawthorne’s “Mrs. Hutchinson,” it occurred to me that Anne Hutchinson, hardly an obscure figure, would have provided Robinson with a preeminent example of her sought-for-in-vain Puritan. For Anne Hutchinson most certainly did say to others—indeed to the male Elect governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony itself—“I am within the circle of the elect and you are outside it.” And there is a related but far wider point on which I disagree with Marilynne Robinson. Her cogent defense of Calvinism in general and of the Puritan tradition in particular, though it provides a contrarian and tonic corrective to some mushy secular thinking, passes over the somber, brutal cruelty of which the Puritans were capable. Worse yet, she implicitly accepts much that is theologically inhumane and repellent, above all, the doctrinal insistence, derived by Calvin primarily from Augustine, on original sin and the eternal punishment of most of humankind: the ultimate and everlasting exclusion from the “circle of the elect.” But it is time to turn from Robinson’s defense of Puritan tradition to the subject indicated by my title: the dramatization of the trial of Anne Hutchinson by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American writer most ancestrally and thematically haunted by the darker aspects of that tradition.


Born on the 4th of July in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne came into the world  associated with two major events of colonial history: the 1776 declaration of the colonies’ independence from England, and, almost a century earlier, the Salem witch trials. His earliest American ancestor, William Hathorne, who arrived in Salem in 1630 with John Winthrop, was a magistrate noted for persecuting Quakers; his son, John, another prominent Puritan judge, tried and condemned Salem witches in 1692. In his writing, Hawthorne (who probably added the “w” to his family name in part to distance himself from such ancestors) is unsurprisingly preoccupied with hidden sin, guilt, and the individual’s confrontation both with the larger community and with evil. A loss to his biographers, but a benefit to his art, his own religious views remain ambiguous. He later characterized his forced attendance as a boy at Salem’s Meeting House, where his ancestors had worshiped for nearly two centuries, as “the frozen purgatory of my childhood,” and, as an adult, he attended no church, subscribed to no orthodoxy.

Yet it’s no wonder that perhaps his most perceptive admirer, the author of Moby Dick, famously singled out in Hawthorne “his great power of blackness,“ finding in his friend that “Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.” Hawthorne’s was indeed, as Melville recognized, a “deeply thinking mind,” and it produced fictions (sketches, short stories, novels) rising from mere “romances” to some of the most profound psychological explorations in American literature: texts in which there are seldom simple answers, and several modes of perception and interpretation remain open to attentive readers. The origin of these multiple perspectives is, of course, the open or inconclusive point of view of the author himself, both as a man of his particular ancestry and psychological temperament, and, more importantly, as an artist.

To cite the most notable example: after 165 years of general perusal and scholarly study of his masterpiece (and the first great American novel), The Scarlet Letter, it is still difficult to determine precisely what Hawthorne himself, caught between the Puritan and contemporary worlds, believed regarding Hester’s behavior. He is unwilling to commit himself: either to fully approve of her sexual rebellion against unnatural restraints, as many romantic Transcendentalist individualists did and as most contemporary readers do, or to align himself with the strict moral code and harshness of Puritan judgment. The aesthetic result is to simultaneously liberate and burden us, his readers, with the task of interpretation. Though also true (despite their symbolic names) of the characters of Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, even of little Pearl, it is this suspended or divided judgment regarding Hester that makes this novel, somber but no moral tract, an endlessly fascinating work of art.

The same is true of Hawthorne’s ambivalent stance toward Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), another woman subjected to Puritan judgment. His admiration of her intelligence and audacity is mingled with criticism and at least partial concurrence in the verdict of the court. In both texts, Hawthorne seems as conflicted, or as adroitly balanced on the historical wind, as Andrew Marvell in his magnanimous description of the doomed king on the execution block (“He nothing common did or mean/ Upon that memorable scene…”) in that greatest of public poems, the “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” or in Yeats’s equally public and equally double-minded group-elegy, “Easter 1916,” which, like “The Second Coming,” consciously echoes Marvell’s imagery and dual perspective.

Hawthorne’s perspectivism (Marvellian, Yeatsian, almost Nietzschean) seems nothing if not modern; and yet, at the same time, those “visitations” Melville mentioned characteristically took, in Hawthorne’s fictions, the “shape” of parables and allegories—devices seeming to some, even at the time, rather old-fashioned. The same might be said of his prose. Hawthorne’s literary style, very much in the opulent rhetorical mode of the 18th century, is too often syntactically complex, inflated in vocabulary, over-loaded with latinates. Sometimes such rhetorical inflation was employed, as in Jonathan Swift, in the service of wit. Of a clergyman who had predicted that the world would end in 1843, Hawthorne mockingly observed that he appeared to have “given himself up to despair at the tedious delay of the final conflagration.” At other times, the humor was inadvertent or misplaced. The simple description, in an early draft of his story “Ethan Brand,” of a “great, old dog,” was heightened in revision so that the poor creature became a “grave and venerable quadraped”—precisely the sort of “poetic diction” Wordsworth had ridiculed four decades earlier in his famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

It must be added, of course, that Hawthorne’s formal and highly “finished” rhetoric is usually as lucid as it is orotund. Employing an answerable style, he produced two fully realized novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, and, writing in his distinct and unmistakable manner, such wonderful shorter fictions as (to choose a dozen) “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Snow-Image,” “The Wives of the Dead,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Birthmark,” “Ethan Brand,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” and “Feathertop.” Nevertheless, and not infrequently, Hawthorne’s tendency to linguistic expansion led—as F. O. Matthiessen noted three-quarters of a century ago in American Renaissance—to diffusion of detail and consequent confusion for the reader. Though he laments and chuckles over Hawthorne’s “grave and venerable quadraped,” Matthiessen never mentions “Mrs. Hutchinson.” But we need look no further for an example of misplaced elaboration than the dreadful opening sentence of that sketch: “The character of this female suggests a train of thought which will form as natural an introduction to her story as most of the prefaces to Gay’s Fables or the tales of Prior, besides that the general soundness of the moral may excuse any want of present applicability.”

The opacity is less attributable to literary allusion than to convoluted rhetoric. Even for readers familiar with Gay and Prior, this introductory sentence is a syntactical dragon at the mouth of the cave. Hawthorne is trying to say that, as in John Gay’s Fables (many of them aimed at moderating the behavior of the “female sex”) and in the format occasionally adopted by Matthew Prior (a poem followed by “The Moral”), there is a “moral” in Anne Hutchinson’s “story,” indeed an instructive precept of such “general soundness” that it supersedes the absence of any particular details that may not seem immediately relevant. But if the author were someone less notable than Hawthorne, and the case of Anne Hutchinson of less intrinsic interest, only the hardiest reader would forge on to the next sentence.


That didactic opening initiates the prologue to the specific case of “Mrs. Hutchinson,” a preamble which, whether making the prosecution’s case or meant to provoke dissent, raises questions of perspective. Is the “we” here Hawthorne speaking in propria persona? or the voice of an unreliable “narrator”? The content and tone presumably reflect some of the author’s own complaints about “female” writers. What are acknowledged to be “slightly exaggerated” forebodings—that these “ink-stained Amazons” will assume an even more public role, in a “period” from which the speaker hopes he will “be gone hence ere it arrive”—are surely to be taken, as the wit and hyperbole suggest, with a pinch of salt. He seems considerably more serious about the dangers of women obeying “the inward voice.” The long “Introductory” to The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom House,” is integral to an understanding of that novel. In his preamble to this sketch is Hawthorne loading the dice, or inviting resistance? What light, if any, does the prologue, with its apprehension about inspired women going public, cast on Hawthorne’s presentation of the character of the most public, inwardly inspired female Puritan dissident, and on her trial as portrayed in “Mrs. Hutchinson”?

We’ll return to the preamble, but our main interest is in the story it ambiguously precedes. Historically, and as recreated by Hawthorne, this “remarkable case” is part of an archetypal conflict: between individual and community, rebellion and conformity; between an “inner,” higher law, signaled by the “inward” voice and light, and society’s external law; between truth and delusion, freedom and thought-control. And there is a subtheme—from Antigone through Joan of Arc to the present—of the lone woman among male antagonists. Like his Concord neighbor Ralph Waldo Emerson (the great champion of self-reliance against the forces of conformity), Hawthorne was fascinated and frightened by the formidable Margaret Fuller. As already suggested, he had similarly mixed feelings about Anne Hutchinson, whose civil trial in November, 1637, he dramatized in this sketch (The later religious trial, on 22 March 1638, simply confirmed the guilty verdict.) The same ambivalence evident in “Mrs. Hutchinson”—fascination and admiration mingled with reservation and judgment—reappears two decades later in Hawthorne’s depiction of Hester Prynne, the half-Calvinist, half-Emersonian heroine of The Scarlet Letter. We may devote a few moments to the central figure of that 1850 novel before returning to the central figure of “Mrs. Hutchinson.”


Hester Prynne2

However well we may think of her, Hester considers herself stained by sin and justly burdened by shame and sorrow. This is hardly the case with Anne Hutchinson. At one point, however, Hester characterizes her adultery with the inadequate Dimmesdale as an act of mutual “consecration.” The community around her at the time condemns her transgression; Hester regrets rather than repents of her sin, and, significantly, it is in her mouth that Hawthorne rightly puts the visionary anticipation of a future female “angel and apostle” who will—“when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s good time”—reveal a “new truth,” establishing “the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness,” and “showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!” Anne Hutchinson, who had fifteen children, knew all about marital sex, and would certainly have endorsed Hester Prynne’s establishment of “sacred love” on the foundational concept of a “new truth” superior to received dogma on sex and on the treatment of women.

But seeking parallels for Hester, we are as likely to look forward as back, and to fiction as much as to history. Hester anticipates Hawthorne’s own (Margaret Fuller-based) Zenobia in The Blithesdale Romance (1851) and Miriam, with her mysterious past, in The Marble Faun (1860). Hester is also a precursor of Henry James’s magnetic Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, and of the bold heroine of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. There is no question that Hester’s self-reliance, greatness of spirit, and balked but still brave and vital sexuality impressed her own creator, winning enough of divided Hawthorne’s admiration to turn him from a “mere” romancer to a novelist of almost unparalleled psychological depth.

The first great heroine of American fiction, Hester is infinitely superior to the men with whom she is involved: her sensitive, conscience-tortured and cowering lover Dimmesdale and the cold Chillingworth—the elderly husband from whom she had been separated when they sailed in different ships for the New World. Having survived shipwreck, he emerges from the forest disguised, driven by diabolical vengeance, and determined to expose the secret father of Hester’s child, Pearl. The corrosive impact of Chillingworth on the life of Arthur Dimmesdale is a significant aspect of the novel. But it is, of course, Hester herself who matters most to Hawthorne—and to generations of readers, even to most contemporary younger readers for whom Puritan moral strictures and sexual guilt may often seem more quaint than compelling.

The communal condemnation of Hester Prynne is “puritanical” on overtly sexual grounds; the communal condemnation of Anne Hutchinson was on overtly theological grounds. Gender, however, was a huge factor in both cases, cases  linked by Hawthorne. For in the very audacity of her self-reliance, Hester is a fictional analogue of the admirable if unrestrainable Hutchinson, specifically alluded to in “The Prison Door,” the short opening chapter of The Scarlet Letter.

At the threshold of that prison, the “black flower of civilized society,” there grows, we are told, “a wild rose-bush,” its fragrance and fragile beauty suggesting to the entering or condemned prisoner that “the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him.” One of its flowers, imagined presented to the reader, might, in the chapter’s final sentence, “symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.” The rose-bush had “survived out of the stern old wilderness…long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally over-shadowed it,” but what was its own origin? Perhaps, “as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Anne Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door.” Before being banished, Hutchinson had indeed, between her two trials, civil and religious, been imprisoned, as had Hester, by the Puritan authorities.


Unknown artist. Anne Hutchinson Preaching in Her House in Boston. From Harper’s Monthly, February 1901. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. LC-USZ62-53343From Harper’s Monthly, February 1901. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

How had it all come about? Husband and eleven children in tow, Anne Hutchinson had emigrated from England three years earlier, following to Massachusetts the dynamic minister John Cotton—grandfather of Cotton Mather of the Salem witch trials and an ancestor of the mother of Emerson’s second wife. There she quickly became the most famous or notorious woman in American colonial history: the fiercely independent and charismatic religious dissenter who, along with brother-in-law John Wheelwright, defied the male elders of her Puritan community. Hutchinson emphasized not only salvation through divine grace rather than good works, but individual intuition and a rejection of that primal Augustinian-Calvinist concept: original sin. Denouncing the colony’s clergy (with the exception of Cotton), she threatened divine judgment on the leaders and the land itself were she to be hindered in her ministry. Under questioning on the final day of her civil trial, she claimed to be directly inspired by God, heeding an “inward voice,” illuminated by an “inward light.” Judgment was passed, and she was banished from the colony.

Wheelwright.John.AmAntiquarianSocJohn Wheelwright, Hutchinson’s brother-in-law. Attributed to John Coles Sr. (1749-1809) who copied the image from a c. 1677 portrait by an unknown artist. via American Antiquarian Society via Wikipedia

Drummed out of the Bay Colony and finding refuge in Rhode Island, Anne, her husband, children, and some of her followers established a religious community. After the death of that husband (dismissed by Hawthorne as, “like most husbands of celebrated women,” an “insignificant appendage of his mightier wife”), and restive in Rhode Island, Anne Hutchinson pushed on to the Dutch territories, “where, having felled the trees of a virgin soil, she became herself the virtual head, civil and ecclesiastical, of a little colony.” But followed, “her enemies believed,” by “the anger of Heaven,” she came to what Hawthorne calls an “awful close.”

With fourteen of her followers, Anne Hutchinson perished in an Indian massacre in what is now the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx (hence the Hutchinson River and Parkway). The mistaken slaughter (the Algonquians, including a group called the Siwanoy, intended vengeance against the Dutch) occurred during an evening prayer-session at her home, with most of the Hutchinson children among the victims. “In the deep midnight, their cry rang through the forest.” The one survivor, Anne’s nine-year-old daughter Susanna, was captured, adopted, and raised by Wampage, penitent chief of the Siwanoy war party. That “circumstance” did not, Hawthorne concludes, go “unnoticed by our stern ancestors, in considering the fate of her who had so troubled their religion, that an infant daughter, the sole survivor amid the terrible destruction of her mother’s household, was bred in a barbarous faith, and never learned the way to the Christian’s Heaven. Yet we will hope, that there the mother and the child have met.”

John Cotton Hutchinsons mentor original unknown - Samuel Drake, History of Boston Antiquities, 1856, opposite p. 158. via WikipediaJohn Cotton, Hutchinson’s mentor. Original unknown – Samuel Drake, History of Boston Antiquities, 1856, opposite p. 158. via Wikipedia


That is the final sentence of what is less a short story or historical account than a “sketch,” a