Saturday, December 3, 2011

Douglas Messerli "Prophets of the Ordinary" (on Jane Bowles' Two Serious Ladies)

prophets of the ordinary
by Douglas Messerli

 Jane Bowles Two Serious Ladies in My Sister's Hand in Mine: An Expanded Edition of the Collected Works of Jane Bowles (New York: The Ecco Press, 1978)

 The two serious ladies of Jane Bowles' title, are, in many ways, as different as they could be; and, although they know one another slightly, they are not good friends. Bowles presents us with a brief history of Christina Goering, daughter of a wealthy American industrialist. Even as a child Christina was not appealing, most children refusing to play with her because of in the puritanical religious games she demanded along with a bizarre series of punishments, in one case involving being packed in mud before swimming in a small stream.

      Yet, as with almost all Bowles' women, she is strong-minded, opinionated, and feels no regret for speaking forthrightly. She is, in some senses, an absolute monster. Yet, throughout her life, she attracts people to her, or at least they are attracted to her because of her money. Lucy Gamelon, despite having any real connection to Miss Goering, visits her one day, only to move in with her the next day. At a party, Miss Goering meets a sweating, overweight man, Arnold, who soon also moves in with her and Miss Gamelon.

     But hardly has this tale begun, with its completely unexpected results, before Bowles interrupts it to tell another story, about Mrs. Copperfield. The two meet momentarily at the party, but other than that, there seems to be little connection, and one can only wonder at the structural logic of Bowles' fiction.

     For all that, we do, however, sense a link between the two other than the authorial declaration of them both being "serious" ladies. Mrs. Copperfield is far more hesitant in doing new things than is Miss Goering, yet it is she who actually travels, with her husband, to Panama. And once she is ensconced into the run-down hotel in the middle of town to which he has taken her—determined to forgo the expense of the more popular tourist hotel—she appears far more adventuresome than anyone else in the fiction.

      Certainly her first foray into Colón street life is characterized as a Kafka-like nightmare:

                      They were walking through the streets arm in arm. Mrs. Copperfield's

                      forehead was burning hot and her hands were cold. She felt something

                      trembling in the pit of her stomach. When she looked ahead of her the             

                      very end of the street seemed to bend and then straighten out again...

                      Above their heads the children were jumping up and down on the wooden

                      porches and making the houses shake. Someone bumped against Mrs.

                      Copperfield's shoulder and she was almost knocked over. At the same

                      time she was aware of the strong and fragrant odor of rose perfume. The

                      person who had collided with her was a Negress in a pink silk evening dress.

                            ..."Listen," said the Negress, "go down the next street and you'll like it

                      better. I've got to meet my beau over at that bar." She pointed it out to them.

                      "That's a beautiful barroom. Everyone goes in there," she said. She moved up

                      closer and addressed herself solely to Mrs. Copperfield. "You come along

                      with me, darling, and you'' have the happiest time you've ever had before.

                      I'll be your type. Come on."

                          ....The Negress caressed Mrs. Copperfield's face with the palm of her hand. "Is

                     that what you want to do darling, or do you want to come along with me."

                          ....:Wasn't that the strangest thing you've ever seen?" said Mrs. Copperfield


It is precisely scenes like this, or even more normal-seeming meetings wherein the characters say totally unpredictable things that entice us into Bowles' story and helps us to comprehend Mrs. Copperfield's actions. For no sooner has she encountered this strange world than she is truly sucked up into it, joining, ultimately, the prostitute Pacifica, who encourages her to move into the Hotel de las Palmas where she lives.

      Giving up her husband's hotel, and, finally, even her husband himself, the timid and frightened Mrs. Copperfield discovers the friendship and love of the local prostitutes and shares time with them drinking in bars. By the end of her story, we recognize that she, like Miss Goering, is a woman on a mission to challenge herself, to alter her life, and survive in conditions she might never have imagined. Similar to Miss Goering, this serious woman is rushing into the unknown as a kind of punishment and test for her own fears. As Mr. Copperfield writes, in his goodbye letter to his wife:

                   Like most people, you are not able to face more than one fear during your

                   lifetime. You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards

                   your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness,

                   end up in the same position in which you began.

In short, as we are about to discover, Mrs. Copperfield—although a much more charming and, at times, disarmingly sensual woman, is of the same breed as Miss Goering, both of them being strong strictly-raised women of great eccentricity testing themselves over and over again to challenge the patterns of their lives.

      When we return to the story of Miss Goering, accordingly, we read her increasingly bizarre shifts in reality with the knowledge that, as in the case of Mrs. Copperfield, it can result in significant sensual changes.

      Yet, as we have been told, Miss Goering's seriousness is more of the religious type than Mrs. Copperfield's inconsistencies. She is determined to challenge almost all her fears. She sells her lovely house, despite the outcry of the parasitic Miss Gamelon and challenges of the t dependent Arnold, moving to an industrial island near Staten Island into a house with little charm and hardly any heat.

      When a third man, Arnold's father, determines to join their strange little community, Christina begins traveling to the larger island, visiting a local derelict bar and accepting the offers of its male customers to join them in bed.

       After her first adventure, she reports that she intends to return, admitting that she may not come immediately come back. One by one, the remaining trio who have lived with and off of her fortune, abandon the house, Arnold having discovered a new love, Miss Gamelon having moved into another house, and Arnold's father returning to his wife. In the end Miss Goering, who has gone off with a ugly man who believes she is a prostitute, must face a future even more undetermined than Mrs. Copperfield, who has returned to New York with Pacifica in tow—although it does appear that Pacifica may not soon bolt.

      Even Miss Goering, although believing that the challenges she has set before her, has made her "nearer to becoming a saint," wonders if she hasn't been piling "sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield." For these strong women have both become dependent upon the flesh.

      The marvel of Bowels' strange tale is its complete originality. Although, the events she tells are often strange, even a bit surreal, they are played out in a seemingly logical way that they seem the more incredible for their occurring. Most important, the central figures speak in the linguistic pattern, mixing a kind of nineteenth century rhetoric with a language which might be at home on the street. In a very odd way, Bowles' language is as outlandish as is Damon Runyon's—except that although these characters, like Runyon's, are not particularly educated, their talking is a process of thought instead of simple communication. And in that sense, they are always participating in a dialogue—socially or interiorized—with everyone around them, with the entire world.

     At times, in fact, it seems that the whole world might potentially be pulled into Bowles' tale as the two serious ladies travel about, gathering up friends and lovers as they go. Both are heavy drinkers, who prefer to sit at the bar and seem able to attract anyone to them with whom they speak. Critics have mentioned the pattern of twos and threes that accumulate around Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, but I would argue that while the two do tend to alternate between duos and trios, like magnets they might equally attract dozens of willing partners, men and women. And, in that sense, these highly wrought women are a bit like latter-day prophets, missionaries who in preaching to the natives, willingly take on the attributes and behavior of those whom they might seek to save, transforming themselves, in the end, into absolutely ordinary human beings. Yet both, strangely, have become something larger simply through their abilities to change their lives.

Los Angeles, November 29, 2011

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Douglas Messerli | "Life in Duluth" (on John Ashbery's and James Schuyler's Nest of Ninnies)

life in duluth
by Douglas Messerli

John Ashbery and James Schuyler Nest of Ninnies (Calais, Vermont: Z Press, 1975)

Ashbery and Schuyler begin their fiction in what seems, at first, an almost conventional mode. Two people, Alice and Marshall, sit at the dinner table, gently arguing, a conversation that appears to be between husband and wife. He, quite obviously, goes to the city every day to work, while she, a 1950s housewife, it seems, is dissatisfied with life in a New York suburban community, "fifty miles from a great city."

     Alice seems bored, languid at the very least, disinterested in the leftovers that Marshall has pulled from the refrigerator for their supper. Poutingly, she refuses to eat, wanting to go to the city. Marshall himself is described as sulking, seeking a missing bread basket in which serve hot bread. Indeed, pouting, sulking, wounding seems to the major activity of these two, until they are interrupted by a woman, Fabia, from next door, at which point Marshall seems to come alive while Alice retreats to the basement to shake their furnace into action. Before long a fuse has blown and a snowstorm has begun, the three heading off to a hardware store and to a nearby Howard Johnson's for a drink.

     Throughout Nest of Ninnies, in fact, storms—both meteorologically and emotionally—are abrew. None of the characters might be described as emotionally stable, and the weather, no matter where these figures go, is generally filled with rain, snow, ice, and wailing winds. And many of them are perpetually drink.

     In this first chapter, moreover, we quickly discover that whatever one might think are the facts have nothing to do with reality—if there is reality in their world to be found. Language, in particular makes no true connections. In the first few pages I've described above the characters speak more by association than through any attempt to truly communicate:

                     "We of course made no attempt to alter this old place when we took
                     it over, beyond a few slight repairs," Marshall seemed aware of the
                     young woman for the first time. "I wanted to have the fireplace bricked
                     up because it cools the house, but so many people commented on it
                     we decided to leave it."
                          "You don't seem to see so many people."
                          "Look, snow is coming down it now."
                          An especially loud clang from the basement caused them both to
                     start. "You sit down and I'll get you a cup of coffee. I'll put on the lights
                     and call Alice," Marshall announced.
                          Alice's dim form appeared in the door. "I think I've just blown a
                     fuse. Hello, Fabia."
                          "That's very funny. The fuses at our house blew out too. It must be

     As we move forward into this strangely charted territory, we gradually begin to meet other characters, Fabia's brother Victor, who has just dropped out of college, her parents, The Bridgewaters, while we discover that the quarreling couple of the first scene are not husband and wife, but sister and brother, Marshall being somewhat attracted to Fabia, while Alice is interested in the wayward Victor.

     As these characters (types more than flesh-and-blood figures) are established, we begin to suspect that the fiction will be a kind of domestic story of their interchanging relationships and lives. But after a few chapters, in which the characters half-heartedly attempt to settle down (Marshall is the only one, it appears, who has a job), Ashbery and Schuyler take the work in an entirely different direction.

     Just as we grow used to the small cast of figures he has presented us, they quickly begin to gather others around them as they move forward in space, first to Florida, then to Paris, Italy, back to New York, and away again, floating in an out of their original home while adding more and more figures as they go.

     One might argue that, after the first few scenes, Ashbery and Schuyler pick up on Henry Green's marvelous Party Going just where it ended, with a large party of figures finally ready to move on. That group of ninnies is perhaps more British than is this American grouping, but there are enough French acquaintances, Italian pickups, Pen Pals (does anyone remember when young men and women had Pen Pals?), school girls, and numerous others to create a hilarious international "nest" into which and out of which the figures come and go, just as in Green's fiction.

     If the language these characters use is absurdly associative and self-centric, so too are their actions. Time and again characters meet and accidently reencounter each other as if the whole of Europe and the US were just as small as the suburban New York community in which the work begins and ends.

     Just as absurdly, in the latter part of the book, the figures pair off in odd combinations we might never have expected, Alice marrying an Italian pick-up, Giorgio, who together open a restaurant; Irving Kelso, a mama's boy and Marshall's co-worker, marrying a French woman the group has met in Florida, Claire; while Claire's sister pairs up with Victor.

     Victor's Pen Pal, Paul, meanwhile, arrives at novel's end with Marshall, the two having evidently traveled to Duluth and South Bend! As all the other figures move off in the various directions their lunatic behavior leads them, Marshall announces that he may move to Duluth; Duluth, he reveals, is big in plastics, and his company (evidently producing or using plastics) wants to open up a new branch in that Northern Minnesota City.

                          I have eyes only for Duluth. That's a place where they really
                          know how to relax and get the most out of life. I could even
                          live there myself. You never saw such steaks.

 Paul announces, in turn, that he likes the US and may not return to his home in France.  Both speak of the delights of South Bend.

                         Meanwhile Fabia was saying to Paul, "What was there in South
                         Bend, anyway?"
                             "You won't believe this," Paul said, "but it's true: a Pam-Pam's!"
                             "Oh," Fabia allowed.

The cryptic reference to the international bar and restaurant chain suggests far more that it appears, perhaps even hinting how to read through the characters' scatter-brained references.

     Bar Pam-Pam's was a kind of early bar and coffee house scene somewhat in the manner of Starbucks today, except that several of the Bar Pam-Pam's operations played cool jazz and catered to special audiences.* Cartoonist Joe Ollmann writes in The Paris Review about a local Pam-Pam's in New York which he describes as an "old man bar," suggesting to me that its clientele are elderly gays. What Ashbery and Schuyler seem to suggest, accordingly, is that suddenly Marshall and Paul are an couple who perhaps may be the first to escape the loony nest into which the dozens of characters have fast settled.

     After having just feasted on Giorgio's special courses, Victor suggests in the final lines of the book, perhaps hinting at the new relationship between the two men:

                        "I'm so hungry I could eat a wolf. Why don't we go over the Gay
                        Chico and have some refried beans?"

      And so these "cliff dwellers" bid their goodnights, moving off toward the parking lots and shopping plazas of their empty lives. Life in Duluth might be just the tonic.

Los Angeles, November 8, 2011

*Steve Fletcher describes a Bar Pam-Pam in England on the internet:

The refectory in the college had about as much atmosphere as a cemetery with lights, so a girl student with whom I was highly smitten, Diane, suggested we go to the Pam Pam. A coffee bar.  

     It was just across Oxford Circus at the junction with Hanover Street and Hanover Square and the exterior had a South East Asian look about it which was continued on the inside with low lighting, bamboo and palm trees in jungle browns and greens.

    The Pam Pam was quite small; it had about half a dozen very low tables and behind the counter was the first coffee machine I had ever seen. (There was a small upstairs section too over the counter with no more that three tables).

     Scandinavian open sandwiches were the house speciality (and the only ones on offer) consisting of a piece of rye bread topped with a piece of lettuce, a tomato and a hard boiled egg or a sardine - very exotic.

     A bit pricey too, I seem to remember. But the owner, a Spaniard, was never in a hurry to get rid of poor students. He also played music: jazz. Not on a juke box but on a Dansette 78 r.p.m. record player behind the counter.

     He had great taste and I was always asking him what the records were, his favourites being the boogie inspired piano pieces by Oscar Peterson. Cool sounds in a cool place.

     The Pam Pam was different and quite unlike the other coffee house I was now also frequenting - the infamous French coffee/newspaper shop near the corner of Old Compton and Charing Cross Road, and the Gyre & Gimbleat at Charing Cross.

     There one could rub shoulders with hookers, villains and dealers - plus the likes of Victor Passmore, Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and demi-monde characters like Quentin Crisp and Ironfoot Jack.

     Because it was just outside Soho and on the edges of Mayfair, which was relatively quiet at night, the Pam Pam seemed a bit exclusive to the art students of RSP. I hung out there for about a year and became an ardent modern jazz fan.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Christopher Leise | Review of Richard Kalich's Penthouse F

from Electronic Book Review

Richard Kalich, Penthouse-F
by Christopher Leise

Richard Kalich is a failed novelist.

At least it is the case that Richard Kalich, the protagonist of the recent novel Penthouse-F, is a failed novelist. This fictional Kalich cannot compose his protean ideas on what he feels could be "the definitive novel of our time"(18)-ideas about the decline of language in the face of an increasingly image-dominated world, and which was to be titled Transfiguration of the Commonplace-into an actual, readable text. Over the course of twenty-five years, his once-prescient projections become banal realities, and the once-profound insights of Transfiguration simply become commonplace observations blithely reported in newspapers and television commentary.

In response to his writerly inability, the imaginary Kalich attempts to will his failed fiction into actuality, inviting a boy and girl that resemble his ideal characters into his beloved penthouse. He develops a mediated relationship with his characters-cum-cohabitants, watching them on closed-circuit cameras, almost as if trying to keep up with a world in which relationships are increasingly mediated by technologies of surveillance and surrogacy. But even those efforts fail, as the boy and girl commit conjoined suicide, opting out of Kalich's penned-up penthouse by leaping to their deaths.

The sense of an artist's frustration to fail in staying ahead of his time recalls William Gaddis's posthumously published Agapē Agape, wailing that Thomas Bernhard had "plagiarized my work right here before I've even written it!" (Gaddis 13). And although Kalich's style is markedly minimalist in contrast to Gaddis's rant-infused maximalism, both books are similarly fragmentary in their presentation of the writing process. But whereas Gaddis's final work is an admission of the inevitability of the decline of process into pure chaos (although the underlying ideas remain coherent), the fictional Kalich of Penthouse-F continually longs for control he cannot attain, in both his process and the product it yields.

The facts of Penthouse-F are revealed in a series of shards of a broken whole: many of which take the form of an interrogation led by an unidentified-or should I say unauthorized?-inquisitor; interrogations of Kalich's neighbors; lists of rules; self-analysis on his mother-son relationship; typescript pages of the unwritten novel, scribbled over with illegible marginalia; and musings on the failure of Transfiguration of the Commonplace to transfigure itself from idea to iteration.

It is, in a way, a mystery: is Kalich responsible for the death of the young lovers? But the mystery is also ontological, as it is generally unclear if the boy and girl truly "exist," even within the story-world of Penthouse-F. It is unclear if the inquisitor exists outside the character Kalich's own head, or if the worried writer simply invents a mechanism through which to work out the fact that he "murdered" his characters by failing to write them into something that is "not merely another would-be novel [he] was planning to write" (37).

In a word, Penthouse-F is absurd. But it's a new take the European absurdist tradition it so lovingly lifts from, yoking to it an Auster-esque indeterminate self-reflexivity.

And so it can also be said: Richard Kalich is a successful novelist.

This is determinately verifiable given the very existence of Penthouse-F as a novel. As a well-received author of three prior novels, the successful writer Kalich has added another installment to a career that is as distinguished as it is consistent.

Then again, perhaps one should reconsider the matter: is Richard Kalich a failed novelist in the specific case of Penthouse-F's artistic effect, or a successful one? This determination cannot be subjected to the normal praxis of empiricism, because understanding Penthouse-F requires one to ask questions of categorization and of tone. As Warren Motte has already remarked in his review of this book, the novel-as-inquisition is "a topos so broadly exploited in contemporary literature, from Kafka to Volodine, that it is now ripe for parody" (62). Parody, however-like other categories and like tone-cannot inhere in a novel. These elements reside in the space between text and reader, between the codes given by a text and the choices readers make in interpreting those codes. At times, the writing of Penthouse-F signals a kind of literary seriousness, in prose that attains to the tradition the book so clearly cherishes. Describing an act of warmth and contact with his captives (a foot massage), Kalich muses, "An even greater sense of power and erotic command enveloped me as I observed the girl's imploring, pleading eyes begging that I do the same for the boy, asking nothing for himself, but rather only for the girl" (178).

Yet the text undermines itself farther down the page through repeated and clichéd language and arguably purple prose:

Two images kept recurring in my mind. The boy's stoical refusal of myself and the girl's imploring, pleading eyes that had her lover's welfare more selflessly in mind than her own. At such moments in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat that made my skin stick to the sheets ... I kept hearing for the second time in my life a little voice emanating from deep inside me saying: Who's going to love me? Who's going to love me? Along with the added proviso-like Romeo and Juliet love each other? (178)

If this is read as un-ironic, serious, literary fiction, we could reasonably conclude that Richard Kalich is a failed novelist. Because, at least from my perspective, the repetition and melodramatic elements are really funny, despite the possibility that it is a sincere effort at expressing exasperation. At the same time, read as parody, it is also really funny . . . for precisely the same reasons. Taken alongside the fact that the story is so improbable, the protagonist so seemingly impossible (does he have a job?), the character of the inquisitor's questions often so impertinent to the matter of the suicides, Penthouse-F begs the question: does it matter if we're laughing with or laughing at?

So allow me to offer another statement, the truth-value of which is questionable but is nevertheless an expression I stand behind: Richard Kalich is a successful novelist, one who has succeeded in consistently producing perplexing fictions that fail to categorize themselves and escape the warping influence of authorial intent. For by so emphatically inserting himself into the fiction of Penthouse-F, questions about the real Kalich's intentions are thrust far into the realm of the inscrutable. Kalich's newest novel is either risible for being a weak inheritor of Kafka or it is hilarious for being the most piquant appropriator of absurdism, given your stance as a reader and the choices you make in receiving its tone. I think it is overwhelmingly the latter, and a joy for that.

Thus there is no denying that the work of Penthouse-F is important. It is important because it makes plain the choices by which we approach fiction. And this is something that Kalich's metafiction does distinctly well. It holds up authorial intent to the effect of effacing it. It questions where literary categories originate from in the first place: writers? texts? publishers? readers? It foregrounds tone by deadening tone so subtly as to leave one unsure how seriously we should take the book's argument about what Baudrillard called "The Precession of the Simulacra," now so thoroughly axiomatic as to make a rear-guard observation into an avant-garde artifact.

So in the end, forget about the Richard Kalich the living man, and whether he is successful or not. He probably doesn't want you thinking about him anyway. But read Penthouse-F, because this is a book that will throw you back into an energetic relationship with the process of reading fiction, and force you to ask as many questions about how you read as it asks questions of itself, its characters, its reality, and ours. And you'll probably laugh despite the severity of the novel's inquisition.

Works Cited

Gaddis, William. Agapē Agape. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Motte, Warren. "Book Review of Richard Kalich's novel: Penthouse-F." World Literature Today 85:2 (March-April 2011): 61-62. Print.

Christopher Leise is assistant professor of English at Whitman College. He is most recently the co-editor of Pynchon's Against the Day: A Corrupted Pilgrim's Guide (U Delaware P, 2011) and William Gaddis, "The Last of Something": Critical Essays (McFarland, 2010).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kajii Motojirō | Underneath the Cherry Trees

Motojirō Kajii
Underneath the Cherry Trees
Translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert

Underneath the cherry trees cadavers are interred!

I don’t deny I had to be persuaded.  Nevertheless isn’t it incredible how the cherry trees flourish so splendidly?  I was restless, those days, because I hadn’t been able to believe in such beauty.  But now I have at last understood:  underneath the cherry trees cadavers are interred.  I don’t deny I had to be persuaded.

Why is it that, each evening, when I get home, among all the objects in my room, it is a thin object like the blade of my safety razor which steals over my spirit, as if by telepathy?  You say you know nothing?  Neither do I.  But why should it matter?  In the end, it’s all the same.

The trees in flower, having attained full bloom, lavish all about them an aura of mystery.  This resembles the impression of perfect immobility given by a spinning top or the hallucination which always accompanies a good musical performance:  the illusion of fervent procreation, of self-perpetuation emanating like a halo.  It is a strange beauty full of life, which cannot fail to move the beholder.

Yet, yesterday and the day before, this was the very thing which rendered me so frightfully sad.  This beauty appears to me something scarcely believable.  On the contrary, it makes me feel uneasy, melancholy, empty.

Try to imagine that a cadaver is interred under each of the cherry trees flowering with such swarming luxuriance.  I believe that you have grasped my malaise.

Cadavers of horses, cadavers of dogs and cats, cadavers of human beings, all these cadavers in putrefaction, teeming, swarming, crawling with worms, emitting an insupportable foulness. 

Nevertheless, they ooze, drop by drop, a liquid resembling fluid crystal.  The roots of the cherry trees enlace like the arms of rapacious octopi and pump this liquor while wriggling their radicles like the tentacles of sea anemones.

Of what are these petals made, of what are the hearts of these flowers composed?  As in a dream, I seem to see myself climbing, in a silent cortege, to the interior of some stalks or stems, borne along by the current of this sap resembling crystal which their roots inhale.

Why do you affect that air of suffering?  Isn’t there much to be admired in this act of second sight?  Now I am capable of gazing for hours, staring fixedly at the cherry blossoms;  I have been freed from the mystery which tormented me yesterday and the day before.

Once or twice, I descended to the bottom of the gully and skirted the torrent, stepping from stone to stone.  Borne everywhere from powdery clouds of water, like Aphrodite, were ephemerids which lifted themselves dancingly towards the sky where they celebrate, as you know, their beautiful nuptials.  After having walked a ways, I encountered something truly singular.  It floated on a little puddle sunk in the bank of the stream in an otherwise dried-up spot.  Its entire surface flashed and shimmered with an unexpected brilliance like that produced by an oil smear.  What was it, do you think?  It was the glare from the corpses of an incalculable number of ephemerids.  Their crumpled wings which covered the puddle, shriveled into the sunlight spreading an oily glow.  That was their cemetery over there, beyond the bridge.

When I saw that, I had the impression of receiving a direct blow to the solar plexus.  I tasted the sadistic joy of a maniac who violates sepulchers and loves cadavers.

In this gully, there was nothing in which to delight.  The nightingales, the tomtits, the white light of the sun which the buds of the trees absorbed in a bluish blur – all that formed nothing more than an image hazy and vague.  It struck me as tragic:  for it was only by virtue of this counterweight that my mental pictures were able to take shape and clarify themselves for the first time.  My heart is thirsting from melancholy, like a demon’s;  to be appeased, it must attain its plenitude.

Do you find yourself sponging under your arms?  You have cold sweats?  So do I.  But there is no reason to find that displeasing.  Try to consider how this stickiness is exactly like that of sperm.  Then our melancholy shall attain its plenitude.

Ah!  Beneath the cherry trees cadavers are interred!

I truly don’t know from where this illusion came to me but now I know that these cadavers and the cherry trees must be considered as one.  I have duly shaken my head;  they cannot undermine unless I stay away.

From now on I have earned the right, like the villagers, to picnic beneath the cherry trees.  I believe I shall sample the sake in anticipation of the feast.
English language translation copyright ©2011 by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert and EXPLORINGFictions.

Born in Osaka on February 17, 1901, Motojirō Kajii wrote several fictions, described by the Japanese as masterpieces of poetic quality, including "The Lemon," "Winter Days," and the above, "Underneath the Cherry Trees." Although his work was highly appreciated, and praised by Kawabata, Motojirō remained unknown for much his life. In 1932 he wrote a novella, The Carefree Patient. The same year, the writer died of tuberculosis. His work Lemon appeared in English translation.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Not at Home (on Alois Hotschnig's Maybe This Time)

by Douglas Messerli

Alois Hotschnig Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2006), translated by Tess Lewis from the German as Maybe This Time [read in manuscript]

Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig's 2006 collection of short stories titled Die Kinder beruhigte des nicht (That Didn't Reassure the Children) is filled with empty people, shadow-images of life who haunt seemingly ordinary worlds, where no one seems to notice if these figures are present or missing.

In the first story, "The Same Silence, the Same Noise," a man rents a lakeside home, becoming entranced by the never-ending blandness of his neighbors, who each day sit peacefully on their deckchairs, staring into space. It is as if they have no other life, and he becomes so transfixed by this emptiness that watching them becomes a kind of mania. A first he watches out of the corner of his eyes or unseen from a window like a voyeur. But even when one of them turns to catch him at the act, there seems to be no recognition on their part. Gradually, accordingly, he becomes more and more open about his interest in their timeless stares into space, at one point boating out to their sundeck, struggling ashore with the intention to sit in their chairs in order to better understand the passivity of their lives.

Of course, in his mania, he too has become isolated and useless. He no longer sees friends, talks to few, and like his neighbors, leads an idle life. When he finally grows disgusted with his actions, he discovers the previous tenant of his house has returned, like him intently staring at the couple, just as if he has been hypnotized. The current renter suddenly discovers a new focus of attention:

He sat there now, in my place, and I watched him from the house, which
soon I no longer left and I didn't take my eyes off him, but saw how he
stared over at them, as they stared into the water, and I looked over at them
every day, every night, always, until now.

In the eerie tale "Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut," Karl, a man on his way to visit friends, is lured into a neighbor's house, where a woman keeps a vast collection of seemingly hand-made dolls. She shows him some of the dolls before she begins to talk about someone in the house who has been waiting for Karl, waiting evidently for years for his arrival. The him is a doll, also named Karl, who is the spitting image of the man, and strangely, meeting this doll, a feeling of piece comes over him; they become, somehow, friends.

Karl returns to the house several times, soon beginning to recognize some of the dolls as replicas of people of the village. The neighborhood children, who the woman also tries to lure into her house, all fear her—with good reason. For, after several visits, the woman begins to make love to the doll Karl in front of the man, licking him obscenely. But as he watches the woman with the doll upon her lap, he grows more and more peaceful, reminded of the joys of his childhood. His relationship his own wife begins to fray as he becomes more and more "used to the old woman's idiosyncrasies."

One day, however, he discovers in a cabinet different costumes for the dolls, shockingly coming across shoes, sweaters, pants, and other articles of clothing that he, too, wore as a child. And ultimately the man himself becomes one of her dolls, and through the doll is petted and cuddled.

Eventually, the licking, cuddling, petting is transformed into the woman's consumption of the doll:

She kept licking tenderly and sucking, and now put the entire hand
into her mouth, which also melted and vanished. ...She ate and relished
it, and, again and again, I sat there before her, watching as I disappeared
into her and as she deteriorated more and more right before my eyes.

She begins to consume all the dolls, and when he returns, her eyes are no longer directed at him, but towards all. She has devoured her world.

Perhaps the best tale of this short but spell-binding collection is "Maybe This time, Maybe Now," from which the translator has selected her English-language title. Here the numerous family members seem to be quite normal, gathering at holidays, birthdays, and other family events regularly in seeming joyfulness and celebration. Yet we soon learn that there is always one person missing, their Father's brother Walter, who, although he often promises to attend, never appears. As the tale progresses we gradually learn that the family eternally forgives Walter his absence, but the children's parents and other brothers and sisters still are convinced each time that "this time" Walter will appear. The narrator even attempts to skip these events, realizing that no one at these family gatherings is really important; only, he who is the focus of everyone's attention, really matters. Yet the narrator finds it hard to stay away, and returns to the pattern. Occasionally, Walter's wife visits, but never her husband, as she hurries away to discover what happened to him.

Walter, it gradually appears, is less a person than an unspoken desire, a desire different perhaps to everyone, but wished for always. While the family is surrounded by love and fulfillment, their focus remains on their emptiness. In short, the very reason for their gathering betrays their failure to live fully and love.

In the Kafkaesque "The Beginning of Something," a person discovers in the mirror "a stranger's face," and believes he is dreaming. But each time he arises to wash his face and rid himself the dream's residue, he has more and more difficulty in returning to his own past, his own life. He has, in short, "escaped himself," and is unable to return to reality. He feels he has done something terrible, but realizes that those that seek him will never come; that he has become a living lie, an unreality.

Similarly, in "You Don't Know Them, They're Strangers," a man is called by another name and discovers things in his apartment that do not seem to be his. The neighbors, who he does not know, suddenly seem to know him, a stranger telephones, claiming to be a friend, arranging a meeting. But he doesn't know this "friend" either, who speaks knowledgably of the man's past.

The next morning he goes to work, but there he also is greeted by people he does not really know; although he goes through the actions, he not sure what he is expected to do. A woman arrives at his apartment, "She'd come to pick him up as he was bound to have her waiting again or not to have show up at all."

These events begin to happen regularly, and the man begins to wonder whether or not he has memory lapses or is totally distracted. But after a while, the pattern becomes familiar; his job changes daily. He never knows the people around him who claim his friendship. At least the apartment remains the same, but then it too begins to change, and a random visiting of other addresses surprises him with people who know him, or strangers and even enemies. Once, he is even mistaken for the man he was before all the changes had taken place.

Soon he begins to travel to other neighborhoods, even other cities, his key fitting into the lock of any door he chooses. He is greeted by people in other apartments as if he has arrived home. His own previous life, whatever it might have been, no longer exists. Like Woody Allen's Zelig his being has become a part of everyone else's experiences.

In each of these nine nearly flawlessly-crafted tales, the ego shifts or disappears, and with it people become something other than they were or are revealed to never have been who thought they were in the first place. Identity in this rapidly shifting world, the author seems to suggest, no longer means anything. As everyone quickly adapts to become another or each other, no one is any longer "at home" and children can find no safe place in which to survive.

Los Angeles, March 1, 2010
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (March 2010).

Douglas Messerli | "Selling Out" (on August Strindberg's The Red Room)

by Douglas Messerli

August Strindberg The Red Room, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves (London: Norvik Press, 2009)

Although Strindberg had already published one of his major dramas, Mäster Olaf in 1872, his long fiction, Röda rummet (The Red Room) of 1879 was his first great success, and is often described as the earliest modern Swedish novel. In noting that, however, one should not expect the kind of psychologically-based, well-made fictions of such modernists as Joyce, Woolf, Proust, and even fellow Scandinavian writer Knut Hamsun. The Red Room can hardly be said to have any coherent structure, and, as a social satire of the whole Swedish culture, it has little concern with character. Rather, it resembles in odd ways, as translator Peter Graves suggests, the kind of overview of society that occurs in Dickens' novels. Yet even here the similarities quickly disappear, since narrative is at the heart of the great English writer's fictions, whereas Strindberg relies on a series of comically imagistic sketches to capture his much beloved and obviously much hated Stockholm.

To tell his story, Strindberg relies on what might be described as a single thread in the figure of a young idealist Arvid Falk, following the vicissitudes of his life along with tracing loose strings through the various figures he meets along the way. Strangely, however, because of Strindberg's buoyant comic timing and the large palette from which he paints his doctors, lawyers, actors, artists, philosophers, journalists, do-good philanthropists, publishers, carpenters, prostitutes, street urchins, misers, ministers, and just plain drunks one doesn't, ultimately, feel the lack of coherency in this work. Strindberg sets this whole world so a-whirling already in the second chapter that by the last page the reader is dizzied enough that he has had little time to realize that the merry-go-round upon which he has just careened should have sent him wobbling off into chaos. That sense of dislocation, perhaps, is why this work does seem, despite its numerous set pieces, so modern.

Moreover, as anyone who has read of Strindberg's life up until the time The Red Room's creation realizes, most of the various figures of satire have to do with careers with which he himself had suffered and failed. Accordingly there is, at times, a biting edge to this work that will find its fulfillment in the author's later domestic dramas and autobiographies of madness. But here, despite the constant sense of the injustice and meaninglessness of the society at large, we do not ultimately feel, as Graves puts it, the "disillusion and pessimism" that seem to be "at the heart of the book."

The satire is ebullient and hits home with an open, almost
Pythonesque, glee which is, however, remarkably free from

Although The Red Room received mixed reviews from the critics and was turned down for newspaper serialization, the work quickly sold out and went through four editions in the next year, allowing Strindberg at least a short period of economic relief.

From the very beginning of the book we quickly come to realize that poor Arvid Falk is a kind of holy fool, a gentle, even bashful man, seldom able to stand up to friends or enemies in his defense of goodness and meaningful social involvement. His own brother has chiseled him out of some of his inheritance, and others throughout the book will hit him up for money and even his suit and overcoat whenever he is able to accumulate anything.

At work's beginning Falk has a respectable job, even if low-paying, as an Assessor. But he can no longer bear to work at a place where no one shows up until hours after starting time, spending most of their remaining hours in countless meetings where nothing gets settled save the pettiest of decisions. Despite no training in writing, he is determined to quit the government and become a journalist. The ridiculousness of this decision is apparent to anyone who has read Hamsun's novel Hunger, published eleven years later, whose journalist hero nearly starves to death. Falk similarly undergoes nearly every kind of deprivation possible. To start with, even before he can raise a pencil to paper, he is accused by the press of having attacked the government—a terrible blow to his socially-concerned brother. Falk is innocent; the man to whom he has told his story and revealed his decision returned home to immediately write a piece for one of the most disreputable newspapers of the day.

The rest of Strindberg's work is centered on the assignments given Falk and the individuals he meets along the way. A visit to a publisher lands an immediate assignment to rewrite a German documentary, The Guardian Angel, about the surviving children of a couple drowned in a shipwreck; fortunately they were insured, but as they rush to claim their inheritance they discover that the boat that carried their inheritance had also sunk, and their parents had failed to pay the insurance premium due on the day their death! Falk wisely rejects the assignment.

A visit to a religious charity portrays a mad man sitting behind a churchlike-organ shouting messages to various employees through the trumpet while pulling out its stops. A visit to a local field uncovers artists living in shanty-like constructions, one painting landscapes, the other religious subjects, while nearby two friends spend the day reading philosophy. For supper they quickly gather up anything that might sell (including each other's prized possessions), speeding them off to the pawnbrokers, and gathering at a local bar to fill their bellies. It is the room in the bar, nicknamed the Red Room, that gives Strindberg's work its title. And it is in this room where Falk feels most a home, surrounded by seedy Bohemian-like types.

I will not list every societal situation Falk must endure—he meets up at various moments with a theatrical troupe, a beautiful prostitute, an entire household of unemployed workers, and a disgusting-looking and profoundly boisterous man of the medical profession; he visits the Swedish Riksdag (parliament), attends a labor meeting, and finally, in complete despair, travels with the doctor to the countryside for a few weeks of rest. Upon his return he is seen as being a different man, a being who now has now sold out to the barren and destructive society he has fought. Becoming a teacher of Swedish Literature and History at a Girl's School, he smilingly attempts to keep a bird's-eye view of the society. Strindberg writes:

But when he is tired of family life and the falseness of society he
goes down to the Red Room and meets that dreadful man Borg [the
doctor], his admirer Isaac, his secret and envious enemy Struve...and
the sarcastic Sellén....

Of Falk, Borg writes:

He lives for his work and for his fiancée, whom he worships. But I
don't believe all that. Falk is a political fanatic who knows it would
destroy him were he to let air reach his flame, so he smothers it
instead with these strict, arid studies. I don't believe he will succeed
and however much he controls himself I fear there will be an
explosion at some point.

Strindberg suggests, as I read it, that there may be hope for some in Swedish society despite the impossibility of their cause. It is the possibility of those explosions that promise change, and in allowing their potential Strindberg appears to look ahead to the Futurists and other literary movements of the new century.

Los Angeles, August 27, 2010
Reprinted from Rain Taxi (Winter 2010/2011).
Copyright (c)2010 by Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nicholas Birns | Review of Prieto Gonzalez' Nocturnal Butteries of the Russian Empire

José Manuel Prieto Gonzalez, Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas and Carol Christensen (New York: Grove Press, 2000)
by Nicholas Birns

Prieto tells the hidden story of the cold war’s frantic swan song. Like Nabokov in Sebastian Knight, he gives us a V. and a quest; like Pynchon, he searches amid literary burrowings and apocalyptic agitation. Going from Cuba to Novosibirsk in 1986, the author can report on what, for American readers, is the other side of history. Prieto renders the incongruous into the irresistible. The narrator wanders through ruins, looking for his lost love and the shards of his own consciousness.

The woman is no longer there, and when she was there she was clouded by Leilah, a third term, a specter of the night. The narrator scans people who have spent whole lives under tyranny, searching for signs of hope. His sole activity is “crossing the membranes of states (borders), taking advantage of the different values between one cell (nation) and another.”

Anchored in the mournful Crimean seaside palace of Livadia, the narrator transverses a de Chirico dreamscape. And when the butterflies? They are rarities made commodities, objects of mass desire for their obscure aura.

The narrator, a foundling of the new world scavenges among the detritus of the old. Competently translated by Thomas and Carol Christensen, Prieto’s prose keeps us interested even as it keeps us wondering. Quests take place across landscapes, but what happens when the political contours of landscape shift so drastically? And how does the receding object of the quest, in her alluring elusiveness, affect the perceiver’s “lines of transmission”? Post-Soviet, yet more than omni-America, Prieto’s butterflies bypass usually traveled cultural itineraries and flutter their way toward a new route for globalization. [Nicholas Birns, Context]