Wednesday, August 31, 2011
FRICTIONS OF DESPERATE SEVERITY
by Douglas Messerli
Stacey Levine The Girl with Brown Fur: Tales & Stories (Buffalo, New York: Starcherone, 2011)
Stacey Levine has subtitled her new collection of stories "tales & stories," as if there were a significant difference between the two. I'm not sure that I could make a case for a genre separation, unless the one, "tales," suggests a looser and less formulized structure than the other. What it does hint is that the author herself recognizes these works to be, at times, ephemeral, a kind of literary potpourri of narrative. And indeed some of these works seem more like the beginnings or ends of dreams and fantasies than representing coherent tales or stories. Nearly all of Levine's short works—true of the first volume, My Horse and Other Stories (published by my own Sun & Moon Press) as well as these new works—might be said to be closer to fragments than to organized fictions.
But anything coming from the fertile imagination of Levine is worth attending to, and, although for some readers I am certain that the inconclusiveness of her tales may seem irritating, for the adventurous reader it is the dream-like web upon which she weaves her works that makes them so very intriguing. The first piece in this volume encapsulates some of these very issues, pushing Levine's startling images from the concrete into abstraction. In "Uppsala" a family is speeding to a winter vacation home, but rather than suggesting retreat and pleasure, their journey reveals a complete breakdown of family life and communication. The mother "is terrible," a kind of monster who screams at the appearance of a flea, at her forgetfulness to bring a loaf of bread, and numerous other events. "Father resembles a hassock." Brother and sister retreat to the bathroom where he, in an inarticulate babble, "speaks his own language," creating a world different from their cold one, filled with "people who adore the sun."
It is Levine's "friction of desperate severity," that might describe one of the author's central themes. In the title story, in the book called simply "The Girl," the subject, a childlike girl kept by her parents on leash, becomes to the narrator not only someone whom she recognizes she will steal, but in the process of telling this story, becomes the object, the force behind the dream-tale she telling.
Of course this dream was less about the girl (surely she was older than
her body) than about the way I always had looked for something to
raise me up, following the part of the story in which I had fallen.
Levine continues "The girl was about being poor and I was about the luxury of being able to choose...." The telling of the story and the consequent actions, accordingly, become confused with the narrational imagination, as we gradually recognize the dreamer in the process of dreaming. In a way that you seldom encounter except in stories by Kafka or Borges, Levine's "tales" reveal in the way they are being told, how and why a writer writes. By the end of this work, as the girl finally bites the narrator and, when refused the leash, escapes from a taxi, we discover that the childlike human is easily transformed into the metaphor behind the images, a cat, who when the narrator sees it, "was old and cast off, with a bad eye." And we perceive the author as a kind of shape-shifter moving from sign to metaphor to symbol within the span of a few pages.
Among the most "story" like works in this volume is the hilarious "The Danas," about a family that carries such a deep sense of family life and all that it might entail—"family home-cooked, sweetened milk in jars—so far that they come to isolate themselves from the world outside, the eldest brother and sister, Mike and Tina, marrying one another, moving to an apartment three blocks away.
The gossipy and intrusive neighbors closely watching the family's activities, are both disgusted and envious of their condition. As the neighbor, Mrs. Beck's companion puts it "Well, I suppose the Danas just love each other so much that they cannot bear new people, or new situations, besides their own." But the effects of this intense family loving, unhinges several of their neighbors in ways that ultimately lead to a mother slapping her own beloved child as if punishing him for what she recognizes will someday be their separation.
So many of these works intrigue and startle the imagination that it is hard to know which of 26 pieces to write about. But certainly one of the most notable is "Believing It Was George Harrison," in which in a suburb north of Caracas, a group of people have come together in a condo to celebrate. At first the party seems to be a typical embassy gathering, from which narrator, newer to the city than the others, feels slightly estranged. Yet the conversation concerning how to cook different dishes, how the narrator is "settling in," and other mundane topics appears to project this work on a realist track until—
Across the room, on the far side of the archway, I saw George Harrison
pouring water into a glass from a carafe. Floating orange slices and ice slid
in the stream, yet the bubbling water moved slowly enough to look like a
gel. The sad dance music beat through the rooms. Harrison glanced
around a moment, neutral faces, and then greeted another guest, a
Caraqueño, certainly, and most likely a pensioner. Harrison mock ad-
monished the man with something like, "Hey, old timer!" and the two
embraced and settled into a conversation.
Other guests noticed Harrison, too, exchanging looks, but no one said
Here is Levine's writing in its typical brilliance. The fact that the narrator spots a dead man at a party in Venezuela is abruptly "washed over" as the author watches an orange slice slip through the water, and the dance music intrudes. The very natural behavior of this "ghost" seems to contradict the remarkableness of the event. Indeed the inane party conversations continue as the guests, one by one, spot the celebrity, until a young woman, Saundra, breaks the complacency of her elders by screaming out "Don't patronize me....The man is dead. How can he be here?"
Yet even this refuses to budge the rational defenses of the guests, as the conversation turns upon metaphysical and philosophical issues, beginning with the comment "Maybe we're all dead," which shifts the conversation to the role of the dead and ludicrous speculations about what each of them might do if they returned after they died, ending in obvious conspiracy theories about Harrison's disappearance. By tale's end, Harrison simply admits that once he had existed, then stopped, but somehow, having returned, "meant that he now could continue to exist." Yet even this miraculous event is somehow converted into banality as the young girl blurts out, "We missed you."
In Levine's world the banal and the extraordinary are eternally mixed; hysteria is interfused with cool logic, fear counteracted with absolute daring—all emanating from a viewpoint of the world that seems to recognize that despite all the horrors and dangers of living, issues often put front and center in her work, people are determined to and must necessarily go on living in the most ordinary ways. The last piece in this book, "The Water," a kind of environmental prose poem, reiterates this, as the author turns her attention to water and its disappearance, for example, in Florida, where an ordinary Tallahasseean, Gale, has watched while Florida has lost its lakes, "while the lizards died papery in grass."
The lakes' deaths were a shame, Gale said, resting in his char, and Mother [his
wife] wrote a blaming letter to a magazine. Gale like chicken. his children would
soon retire. The water will be algae-oily and never consciously suffer.
We might reach an arm toward a dark surface someday, gasping alongside the
rowboats and birds, alongside this incomprehension of water and the way those
living at the top always rule. Gale knew it. Still and all, he was glad he lived. He
said to mother, Hi, Koo-koo. Aren't you glad you lived too?
Los Angeles, August 29, 2011
Friday, August 26, 2011
Short Review of Alexis Curvers' Tempo di Roma
Alexis Curvers Tempo di Roma (Paris: R. Laffont, 1957). Translated from the French by Edward Hyams as Tempo di Roma (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1959).
Aware of both the disasters and miracles that carried him far from his country, a young boy arrives at the gates of Rome, penniless, without friends or profession. He expects in this new city everything from Rome he can only glimpse beyond the wide Porta del Popolo. And in this brilliant, funny, and profoundly beautiful book—at once a novel, a memoir, and tribute, a witty satire, and a farewell to youth—the young Jimmy is ultimately overpowered with the splendors and gifts Rome can bestow.
"Barbarian" in the city he has adopted, he finds great love, friendship of a nobleman, and a sort of peace he has previously unknown. The book is written in a pure roman style, a spellbinding style that reflects the magnificence of its city and can give grandeur to a slum, casual familiarity to the sublime, poetry to every human intrigue, and a slight relaxation to all virtue.
Belgian writer Curvers beckons his reader and well as his character and draws them into the beauties of the city as Jimmy falls in love with the fragile, deceptively naive Geronima, suffers her protective, practical mother, Pia, is involved with the gracious, former black-marketeer, Marchesa Mandriolino, and discovers, too late perhaps, the role in which the mournful, proud, and self-exiled Sir Craven has played in his life.[Douglas Messerli]
Short review of Ivy Compton-Burnett's The Present and the Past
Ivy Compton-Burnett The Present and the Past (London: Gollancz, 1953/New York: Julian Messner, 1953).
Tensions are high in the large household of Cassius Clare—which includes his father; his wife, Flavia; two children from his first marriage, Fabian and Guy; three children from his current marriage, Henry, Meagan and Toby; and various servants, teachers and nannies. Any morning is enough to set off the high-strung lord of the manor, but this morning, in particular, he has received a letter from his ex-wife, Catherine, who despite the conditions of their divorce, has returned to claim her right to see her children.
Everyone attempts to do their best for the occasion, Cassius allowing the visits, and Flavia, despite initial resistance to the idea, becoming friends to "other" Mrs. Clare. But Cassius, at heart, is still a child, unable to cope with the demands of his position, and seeks out suicide for the lack of family "attentions."
When it is revealed that he had taken only four of the pills of which ten are required for death, he comes under some derision from his family. But in his convalescence, Cassius sees himself—if others cannot—as a changed man. Life continues, without his receiving any more attention and family love than previously, and a sort of depression sets it. As he appears to attempt the "death" a second time, his manservant awaits the recovery, only to discover by the end of the day that his master has suffered a heart failure.
Upon his actual death, the family is saddened, Flavia ends her friendship with Catherine, and Catherine comes to say farewell to her two children. Flavia offers Catherine the children, if the children honestly wish to go with her; the elder chooses to and the younger not, but will not be separated from his older brother. Catherine returns to her own family home, announcing to her own brother and sister that she will leave without the children.
The "plot" may sound contrived and more than arcane, but as always, Compton-Burnett's lively dialogue is what her fiction is all about. All conversations are remarkable in her writing, but in this, as in others, it is the discussions between children that reveal metaphysical truths and the complex interworkings of family life. [Douglas Messerli]
David Ian Paddy
Review of Italo Calvino's The Path to the Spider's Nests
Italo Calvino Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (Torino: Einaudi, 1947). Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun as The Path to the Nest of Spiders (Boston: Beacon, 1957). Current edition: Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun as The Path to the Spider’s Nests; revised by Martin McLaughlin (New York: Ecco, 1998).
Calvino’s first novel, originally published in 1947, is a curious work from a curious oeuvre. Written with this recent experiences in the Italian Resistance movement in mind, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests is Calvino’s major work of neorealism. This story of the Resistance’s arduous path to victory is remarkable primarily because we see it through the eyes of a child named Pin. Pin, however, is no ordinary child. He is an orphan who is far from innocent. He sings bawdy songs, is eager to fight, and has witnessed his sister’s many acts of prostitution. Despite his lack of innocence, Pin is still naïve, especially in the way of politics. Early in the novel, Pin can’t decide if he should fight for the Resistance or the Nazis. While he prefers the Nazi uniforms, he joins the Resistance less for the cause than for the friendships. By telling the story from the perspective of an aged child, Calvino ironically undermines an innocent or heroic vision of the war. The novel stresses the importance of the Resistance, but shatters idealism in its portrait of a loose gang of thieves and incompetents who like guns but not an informed ideology.
The dialectical nature of the work becomes more evident after reading Calvino’s brilliant preface, originally from the third Italian edition, now include in this revised English edition. The preface is a marvelous piece of writing that examines the neorealist movement and engages in a fascinating argument about politics and literature. It also evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of this book, especially as a first novel.
Readers of Calvino’s work, who may expect a stylistically innovative philosophical fantasy, will be surprised and perhaps a little disappointed by this particular novel. Unlike his other works, this is realistic, overtly political, and in some ways rather conventional. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino noted that his first work arose from a youthful need to represent his era. After this work of committed literature, he wanted to create modern myths and folktales that could achieve depth through lightness. The Path to the Spiders’ Nests is often weighted down by its own heaviness and has none of the subtlety that marks Calvino’s later works. Aside from the valuable preface, this is a book that will mostly be of interest to Calvino completists and scholars of Italian neorealism. [David Ian Paddy, The Review of Contemporary Fiction]
Copyright (c)1998 by David Ian Paddy
BOOKS OF FICTION
Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (Turin: Einaudi, 1947), [translated by Archilbald Colquhoun as The Path to the Newst of Spiders (Boston: Beacon, 1957)]; Ultimo viene il corvo (Turin: Einaudi, 1949) [20 stories from this volume, along with others, translated by Archibald Cloquhoun and Peggy Wright as Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories (London: Collins, 1957); Il visconte dimezzo (Turin: Einaudi, 1952) [translated by Archibald Colquhoun as The Cloven Viscount in The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (New York: Random House, 1962); L’entrata in Guerra (Turin: Einaudi, 1954); Il barone rampante (Turin: Einaudi, 1957) [translated by Archibald Colquhoun as The Baron in the Trees (New York: Random House, 1959); La speculazione edilizia (Turin: Einaudi, 1957) [translated by D. S. Carne-Ross as “A Plunge into Real Estate” in Difficult Loves; Smog: A Plunge into Real Estate (London: Secker & Warburg, 1983); La nuvola di smog e La formica argentina (Turin: Einaudi, 1958) [translated by William Weaver as “The Smog” and “The Argentine Ant” in The Watcher and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971); I racconti (Turin: Einaudi, 1958); Il cavaliere insistent (Turin: Einaudi, 1959) [translated by Archilbald Colquhoun as The Nonexistent Knight in The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount (New York: Random House, 1962); I nostril antenati: Il cavaliere inesistente, Il visconte dimezzato, Il barone rampante (Turin: Einaudi, 1960); La giornata di uno scrutatore (Turin: Einaudi, 1963) [translated by William Weaver as “The Watcher” in The Watcher and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971); Marcovaldo, ouvero le stagioni in città (Turin: Einaudi, 1963, revised, 1966) [translated by William Weaver as Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983); Le cosmicomiche (Turin: Einaudi, 1965) [translated by William Weaver as Cosicomics (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968); Ti con zero (Turin: Einaudi, 1967) [translated by William Weaver as t zero (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969); La memoria del mondo e alter storie cosmiomiche (Milan: Club degli Editori, 1968); Tarocchi: Il mazzo visconteo de Bergamo e di New York [by Calvino and Sergio Samek Ludovici] (Parma: Franco Maria Ricci, 1969) [translated by William Weaver as Tarots: The Visconti Pack in Bergamo and New York (Parma: Franco Maria Ricci, 1976); Gli amori difficili (Turin: Einaudi, 1970) [translated by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright as Difficult Loves (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984); Orlando Furioso di Ludovico Arisosto raccantato da Italo Calvino, con una scelta del poema (Turin: Einaudi, 1970); La città invisibili (Turin: Einaudi, 1972) [translated by William Weaver as Invisible Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanvoice, 1974/London: Pan Books, 1979)]; Il castello dei destini incociati [includes La taverna dei destini incrociati] (Turin: Einaudi, 1973); Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (Turin: Einaudi, 1979) [translated by William Weaver as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (New York: Harcourt Bace Jovanovich, 1981); Palomar (Turin: Einaudi, 1983) [translated by William Weaver as Mr. Palomar (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985)]; Collezione di sabbia (Milan: Garzanti, 1984); Cosmicomiche vecchie e nuove (Milan: Garzanti, 1984); Sotto il sole giaguaro (Milan: Garzanti, 1986) [translated by William Weaver as Under the Jaguar Sun (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988); La strada di San Giovanni (Milan: Mondadori, 1990) [translated by Tim Parks as The Road to San Giovanni (New York: Pantheon, 1993); Romanzi e racconti [ed. by Barenghi and Bruno Falcetto (Milan: Mondadori, 1991); Prima che tu dica pronto (Milan: Mondadori, 1993) [translated by Tim Parks as Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories [New York: Pantheon, 1995); Racconti sparsi e altri scritti d’invenzione (Milan: Mondadori, 1994); Altri romanzi (Milan: CDE, 1994); Saggi 1945-1985 [edited by Barenghi] (Milan: Mondadori, 1995); Tutte le cosmicomiche [ed. by Claudio Milaini] (Milan: Mondadori, 1997). Other English collections not mentioned above: The Castle of Crossed Destinies [translated by William Weaver] (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).
by Douglas Messerli
Cathleen Schine The New Yorkers (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007)
Let me begin this short essay with a strange apologia: normally I would not have read a book like The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine, predicting that it would not hold the complexity that I seek in art. However, when I began working on these cultural memoirs, I determined that I would also try to pay some attention to popular culture, and in a year devoted to the theme “To the Dogs,” it was impossible to ignore a book reviewed in The New York Times Book Review under the title “The Year of the Dog.”
Indeed, this work does not hold any complexity. To even mention that word in the context of this novel seems ludicrous. For the characters of Schine’s New York are so thinly drawn that one is almost afraid that the breath one uses in reading a sentence aloud might blow the whole scene off the page.
In New York’s Upper West 70th streets, Jody, who begins the book at age 39, is beginning to describe herself as a spinster, when suddenly she discovers her 50-year-old chemist neighbor, Everett, to whom she takes a liking. Having broken up with her lover, Chris, 26 year-old Polly moves into the neighborhood, bringing with her brother George, who, having been dismissed from a job as a waiter, now works as a bartender at the local Go-Go Grill. The Grill is run by a gay man Jaime, who with his partner Noah, is raising a rather large family of their own and adopted children. Another local, Simon, sits lazily on a park bench in Central Park. The wealthy neighborhood busybody, Doris, meanwhile, goes about the neighborhood with a scoop and plastic bag, gathering up discarded bottles and excrement left by her neighbor’s dogs.
Almost before Jody can establish a relationship with Everett, Polly sweeps him up, while Jody turns to Simon. George moves in and out of brief relationships with women without being able to discover what he wants to do with his life. Chris remarries, Doris gets angrier and establishes a neighborhood watch group to restrict the dogs in the park and ban them from local restaurants such as the Go-Go, while Jaime and Noah blissfully continue bringing up their brood. When Simon tires of Polly, he escapes to Virginia; Polly determines to break it off with Everett; and George, asked to help train Alexandra’s (the woman who fired him) pet, discovers a new career—as well as a new companion. Jody and Everett finally come together, fall in love, and marry. Doris—the enemy of all canines—begins to breed teacup Pomeranians. The End. The New Yorkers, raved The New York Times Book Review, is “a redemptive fairy tale of urban loneliness.”
Admittedly, my brief summary is missing an important element of the book. But in terms of human characters it’s pretty accurate. They do little more throughout the work than walk the streets, visit the Go-Go Grill, and fall in love. Although we are told that these figures do sometimes take in local films, not once do they singularly or collectively discuss any aspect of cultural life. And only one character, Jaime, mentions a literary work, quoting a line from the pop-poet Billy Collins, whose blurb on the back of the book describes Schine’s work as “charmingly immortalizing” the neighborhood upon which she focuses.
The real characters of this work, if they can be described as such, are the dogs owned by Jody, Polly, Jaime, Alexandra, and Doris, and cared for by Everett, Simon, and George: Beatrice, Howdy, Jolly, and others. And the reader is provided with a little more information about these beasts—an agèd blue-eyed pit bull, a loving puppy discovered in the closest of the apartment Polly rents (owned evidently by the previous tenant who recently committed suicide), and a schizophrenic terrier who alternates between expressions of gentleness and violent biting of its own tail and people’s faces. It appears that the author has centered her book around these dogs more as devices to bring her characters together than for any thematic purpose. The most profound level to which this novel ascends is to repeat the old saw: people often project their own joys and fears upon their pets. As Everett explains to Jody:
“When Emily [his daughter] was little, she used to tell her troubles to
a little stuffed dog.”
“I suppose this isn’t too much different, is it?” Jody said, pulling gently
on the leash until Beatrice stepped gingerly forward.
“Just a whole lot of projection?”
“Well, yes. But what I really meant was love.”
Everett noticed with relief that the church group was gone, and he left
Jody and Beatrice at Simon’s door, then walked thoughtfully across the
Street. Love. Projection. Who was to say they were not the same thing?
Some readers will accuse me of asking too much from what might be deemed as an amiable satire. But even here, as a reader, I come up empty-handed. What is The New Yorkers satirizing—New Yorkers in general, New Yorkers who live on the West Side in the upper 70s, people who own dogs? I happen to know several people living in that very neighborhood who bear little resemblance to the stick figures Schine describes. And as satire this work is so gentle that any rubs can be brushed away as easily as a lipstick kiss planted upon one’s cheek.
If I ask more of this fiction, I fear I may come off as an ogre akin to the mean-spirited Doris. Although I have a cat, I must report, I too like dogs, and I am sure that if I were to encounter Howdy, like Everett, I might—doggone it!—fall in love. However, even here I may be too churlish, for my Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary has just told me that the word "doggone" has nothing to do with dogs, but is a euphemism of “God damn,” with a meaning akin to declaring “confounded!” I am not in the least confounded, and there lies the rub. I guess what I really meant to say was “aw shucks.”
Los Angeles, October 18, 2007
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2008).
by Douglas Messerli
Julien Gracq Au Château d'Argol (Paris: José Corti, 1938).
Julien Gracq The Castle of Argol, translated by Louise Varèse (Norfolk, Connecticut: J. Laughlin, 1951), reprinted by (Venice, California: The Lapis Press, 1991).
Described by its author as a fiction using obvious literary references (Wagner, Nietzsche, Poe, and others) around the belief that the redeemer-savior is often also the destroyer, Gracq's work is, on another level, a highly romantic homoerotic tale. A young man of great wealth and intelligence, Albert, purchases a castle and the surrounding landscape. He moves into Argol and immediately perceives its mystery and magic-like surroundings, particularly the nearby forest of Storrvan, which appears as a threatening overgrowth of towering trees.
Suddenly he receives a message that his dear friend and soul-mate Herminien is planning a visit—along with a stranger named Heide. Herminien and Albert, who have roomed together as students, see themselves as almost twins, each able to intellectually stimulate each other beyond the range of all others, and each able to read one another's deepest thoughts.
As Albert prepares for their arrival, he visits the nearby desolated seashore, discovering there a graveyard. On the surface of one tombstone he inscribes the name of the strange visitor: Heide. Clearly, Heide is already an intruder; but upon her arrival he is mesmerized by her beauty and intelligence. Over the next months, a deep relationship develops between the two, galling and festering hatred in Herminien, who simultaneously recognizes that he has brought Heide to Albert for his friend's tacit approval and for sharing his love for Heide.
But Albert also seems strangely aloof and cold with regard to Heide's sexuality. One afternoon Heide and Herminien sneak away into the forest, failing to return by sunset. Intrigued and almost hypnotized by their disappearance and the forest itself, Albert follows them into the dark woods, only to discover the body of Heide, brutally raped by his friend.
He takes her back to the castle and nurses her to health. A long time later, they both follow a cleared path through the forest and discover the body of Herminien, who has been thrown by his horse. He too is returned to the castle and restored, but a new hatred develops in Albert regarding him. Heide remains secluded in her room, obviously unable to face either of them, while Herminien and Albert return to their conversations. Heide commits suicide, and they bury her in the seaside graveyard. Herminien determines to leave, but Albert follows him into the wood, putting a dagger into his side. A brilliantly abstract and hallucinatory tale.
Los Angeles, July 12, 2005
EVERYTHING BUT LIFE ITSELF
by Douglas Messerli
Martin Nakell Settlement (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2007)
The settlement of Martin Nakell’s 2007 novel is, at the moment the first word of this fiction is written—(“So.")—already an abandoned outpost, an empty city that once served as a resettlement camp for the citizens of an unnamed country whose villages have been destroyed—most of their friends and relatives slaughtered—by enemy troops or, perhaps, as the narrator of this apocalyptic work suspects, rogue combatants from the country itself, possibly even soldiers inexplicably sent by the government to kill its own citizens. As in the numerous brutal battles between native Serb and Albanian citizens in Kosovo, the mass murder of warring tribes in Darfur, and the daily bombings of Sunni and Shiite citizens in Iraq, there is no logic to the struggles of this unnamed country, just similar circumstances: a large population of suffering refugees with no place left to go.
The narrator of this tale, the former Governor of the Emergency Settlement for the Western Quadrant, has obediently taken up his post at the resettlement community only to be himself betrayed by his government; his wife and daughter, he is told, have been put under “protection”—in reality, he quickly perceives, imprisoned; at the time he writes this story he has heard of their deaths, his daughter having committed suicide.
Much of Nakell’s narrative—his third major work of fiction to date—recounts the Governor’s friendships with various figures who reach the outpost, including Tassiossu, Lucinda, Meleq, Grammatico, Klaus, Guillemette, Abanno, Rivka, and, in particular, Alina, a woman with whom he has fallen in love. The actions of these figures provide Nakell’s text with a series of rich and profound tales told in a manner somewhat similar to that of the great American fabulists John Hawkes and Robert Steiner.
Tassiossu is a student of art, particularly of the art of the Madonna on which he has become a quasi-authority, lecturing to his friends and the settlement citizens about the various Madonna’s painted throughout history and how their depiction relates to the period in which they were created.
Meleq is a writer who has ceased to write, quoting only from one page of his previous manuscript—a page, he is convinced, that, when he has completely comprehended it, will restore his desire to write again.
Lucinda presents violin concerts that may remind one of pieces by John Cage and other contemporary composers in which one or two plucks of the strings reverberate in a silence wherein listeners are forced to perceive the “music” in the context of the sounds of the surrounding world.
Grammatico, Klaus, and Guillemette constitute the Gruppo delle Macchine Terribli, a group of performers who seem straight out of a Marinetti manifesto, creating magnificent machines that perform, somewhat like gigantic puppets, in vast expanses of air and earth.
Abanno, a man with endless energy, helps plan and operate various activities in the settlement to save its citizens—as the government becomes more and more disinterested in their survival—from certain death, helping to create and maintain a water-producing facility.
Alina tells the narrator of the soldiers who came to kill her and her family and how she was saved by one young soldier (a story that changes in each of its various tellings); by her allowing the boy to kiss her, by her seducing the young man, or willingly abandoning herself to lust and rape. Each time the tale is told, the narrator caresses Alina’s body as if to assimilate her new and deeper revelations.
When the citizens of the settlement abandon it in hopes of survival elsewhere, the remaining narrator attempts to describe his own daily activities, from his frugal culinary attempts to his studies of various subjects, including the natural world around him, and his daily journal entries, which we are now apparently reading.
All this activity, past and present, is overwhelmed in Nakell’s story by his hero’s isolation and his seemingly endless speculations on why he continues to write down the story of a world that no longer exists. I created just such a figure in my own Letters from Hanusse, a man writing a series of letters to a woman who possibly no longer exists and will certainly never receive them; so I am sympathetic with the dilemma with which Nakell’s narrator is faced. Yet upon my first reading I found this narrator’s repetition of these concerns somewhat overbearing as time and again he ponders the question only to discover new reasons for his act. Gradually, however, I came to perceive this less as a repeated trope than as the actual focus of the novel. And in this sense, Settlement develops into a work less about an exotic world, a presentation of a strange amalgam of human types, than a tale about art itself. By work’s end, we hardly wonder any more if the marvelous character types with which we have been entertained are “real” or figments of the narrator’s imagination. Mimesis becomes unimportant. What increasingly matters is why the narrator even bothers to write. What leads human beings to pick up pen or pencil, to type or key in, day after day, a story or net of stories when we all know that even if the work finds a small audience it will eventually come to nothing, will have no audience, that the earth itself will some day collapse or explode! What lies behind our mania not just to write, but to create!
Is Alina lying each time she tells the story of her young soldier/lover and her brush with death? Is Meleq deluded in his belief that one page of his work will reveal why he should write? Are the members of the Gruppo delle Macchine Terribli mad in their grandly conceived and theatrical contrivances? Is Lucinda a fraud in her demand that the listener discover the world in the two or three notes issuing from her instrument? The settlement’s former Governor must himself ask these questions day after day as he sits alone in what seems to be a world of his own making. Neither author nor narrator can answer the question why even the ancient caveman created the hand-painting in a cave near the settlement; was it “an object of beauty? awe? tragedy? comedy? ecstasy? fate?” “…Did he say to himself: Look what you’ve done.” When does the act of creating become an object of art?
There is, happily, no one answer—art is many things, perhaps everything but life itself. And so our artist is inevitably left in a world emptied of everything and everyone save what he can (re)create.
Los Angeles, July 20, 2007
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (February 2008).
Copyright (c)2007 by Douglas Messerli
by Douglas Messerli
Julien Gracq La Presqu'ile [La Route/La Roi Cophetua] (Paris: José Corti, 1970), translated as The Peninsula by Elizabeth Deshays (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2011)
Julien Gracq’s short fiction, La Presqu’île (The Peninsula) (1970) is a deceptively simple work with regard to plot. Simon waits at the Brévenay train station in Brittany for Irmgard, although she has warned him that her arrival in midday is “very unlikely.” The woman, with whom he has obviously had previous sexual rendevouses, does not arrive, and he has little to do but await the evening train. A somewhat methodical man, he determines to spend the afternoon driving along the Brittany coast and arranging for their eventual journey. He returns that evening to the train station to meet her.
Little else “happens”—if one defines plot as Americans might. But in Gracq’s beautifully lyrical tale, everything happens on the emotional level as the reader participates in Simon’s embracement of the flora and fauna, the light, the sounds, and smells of Brittany, where he has evidently spent his childhood. Traveling through small towns along the Brittany coast, Simon encounters the sensations of his past, alternatively overcome with highly-pitched pleasure and disgust tinged with a feeling of emptiness. Indeed, the whole fiction may be perceived in the context of Simon’s alternating emotional responses as he drives through the landscape, stopping at various locations, sometimes just to take in the natural scene or to observe the view.
It soon becomes clear that Simon is not only methodical, but experiences life most fully at a slight remove from it. It is vistas of the ocean, not direct contact with it, that he finds most pleasurable. His favorite time of the day is the moment when it begins to fade in late afternoon, with workers returning home, light pouring from windows. As he moves across a Brittany peppered with recognizable small towns and locations that Gracq has renamed to create almost a mythological quality, we also begin to connect the various allusions to Tristan and Isolde with the relationship between Simon and Irmgard. It becomes clear that the rise and falling patterns of Simon’s emotional state resemble the endless waves of passion and hate that define the famous legend, which in the original version took place in Brittany. Indeed, Simon alternates in his feelings for Irmgard as well, sometimes imagining her every movement with sexual anticipation, at other times forgetting what she even looks like, dreading their encounter.
As the day moves forward into night, the anticipation heightens as the reader can only wonder—as he stops in the small town of Coatliguen, briefly pauses on the isle of Eprun, and listens near an isolated country home to slightly the removed sounds of a mother and daughter speaking within— whether or not Simon will reach the station in time. For Simon, it is clear, is a conflicted soul, a figure of great sensitivity and desire, but also a person who prefers his distance from others, who cannot make lasting commitments. As he arrives at the station and watches the train enter the yard, he stands at the other side of the crossing, a barrier of metal bars between them, wondering “How can I get to her?” The potentiality remains, but, one suspects, their love may remain unfulfilled.
Los Angeles, July 8, 2005
sculpture by Mario Merz
TO BEGIN IS TO NEVER END
by Douglas Messerli
László Krasznahorkai Háború és Háború (Budapest: Magvető, 1999). Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes as War & War (New York: New Directions, 2006).
Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai’s War & War (Háború és Háború), first published in 1999, is a story of a total failure, a fool named Korin. Krasznahorkai’s “hero,” who works, similarly to the anti-hero of José Saramago’s 1997 novel All the Names, as an archivist—a man who, like one of Eliot’s living dead, is afraid not only to “eat a peach,” but is fearful of literally “losing his head” which, he is absurdly told by doctors, is only tangentially connected to his spine and will ultimately break loose and fall off.
The fiction begins with what will be a series of attacks on the “hero” as he is surrounded by members of a brutal young gang who attempt to rob him and are willing and ready to slit his throat. But the strange, incoherent story Korin begins to tell—the complexity of which the author suggests throughout his work by dividing his fiction into 2-3 page units, each consisting of one long, rambling sentence—strangely transfixes them, not so much because of its (im)possible content, but because of the intensity with which the old man speaks. To the young gang members he is a human specimen so ridiculous that they are fascinated by his absurdity, and, in listening to his tale, like Scherezade’s Schahriar, spare his life. Little do they imagine that he has a large sum of money sewn into the lining of his outdated and filthy greatcoat.
In the very next scene Korin repeats his verbal assault, this time in the company of a good-looking flight attendant to whom he, apologetically and, once again, somewhat incoherently, attempts to tell his life story. Apparently he has discovered by accident a manuscript in the archival files that has completely transformed him. As he reads and rereads this mysterious fiction, filed mistakenly with other family records, Korin realizes a new purpose in life. Abandoning his job, selling all his possessions, and attempting to escape the authorities he believes are determined, because of his condition, to deny him travel, our hero eludes his invisible trackers through a series of meandering train rides, ultimately arriving in a Budapest ticket office in hopes of continuing on to New York.
Because he has no visa he is forced to procure a quickly issued one at great expense. The travel agency, moreover, cannot assure him of space on a plane for the next few days. His intense conversation with the stewardess in the agency offices and his idiotic determinedness, however, work in his favor, and miraculously he arrives in New York.
Arriving without luggage and with no clear destination in mind, he is whisked away to security where he finds himself face to face with a disinterested Hungarian interpreter, who, like the others before him, is bored and transfixed by Korin’s attempts to explain himself. The interpreter loses his job because, recognizing the incompetence of the man he questions, he hands him his personal business card, containing his home address.
Not without further ado, Korin makes his way through the terminal and is delivered up by taxi to a Bowery flop, where for days he holds up before attempting to adventure out into the Manhattan streets. When he does leave the room, the event ends in a fearful encounter with the abject poor seemingly incarcerated in a nearby flophouse, and in horror Korin calls the number listed on the interpreter’s card. Since the interpreter now has no income he agrees to let a room to Korin and even helps him to set up—in what has been the secret aim of the man’s confused wonderings—a website where the former archivist hopes to post a copy of his discovered manuscript.
Perhaps the most poignant and intense moments of this episodic work occur in this apartment where the interpreter lives with his mistress—an abused Hispanic woman—who, knowing only a little Hungarian, nonetheless silently endures Korin’s breakfast litanies about his life and the mysterious manuscript he is determined to post to his website for posterity.
Gradually Korin becomes aware of the beatings she endures and the nefarious activities of his landlord, but, in his obsessive single-mindedness, he has little power to change the course of their fate. A friendship between the “hero” and the woman, however, develops, even if the words he shares with her have little meaning. Once more, the intensity with which he tells his story is what seems to matter. The reader, however, begins to perceive the nature of his literary discovery: a tale of four men (Kasser, Falke, Bengazza, and Toót) who voyage freely through time, in each story discovering a near-paradiscal society (the mythical Kommos and the historical Venice) or architectural wonders (the cathedral of Cologne and Hadrian’s Wall) that in the midst of their admiration are destroyed soon after the appearance of an enigmatic figure (Mastemann). We recognize that each version of the tale reveals the same message, that cultural and societal achievement and harmony is perpetually destroyed by evil. But Korin is confused by the various stylistic maneuvers of the storyteller, particularly in the last section, when the narrator—not unlike how others have perceived Korin himself—seems to go mad, jumbling together various lists and information that transgresses against any coherent message the story might wish to convey.
Safely ensconced in the interpreter’s apartment, where he is forbidden late afternoon and evening use of the computer, Korin ventures out, gradually exploring the unfathomable city around him. When, accordingly, he has finished posting his tale, and, after suffering, along with the interpreter’s lover, a series of strange events wherein intruders suddenly remove all the apartment’s contents, followed, a few days later, by new intruders delivering boxes that fill the small living space, the “hero”—piecing together these events with his discovery of a large cache of money hidden behind a piece of tiling in the toilet—escapes what has been his only home in this new world in order to seek someone in the Hungarian community who will sell him a gun, presumably to accomplish the suicide he has promised earlier in the narrative.
But even here, Korin reveals his incompetence. Hooking up with a slightly mad figure of the streets (a man who places manikins in various artfully life-like positions throughout the neighborhood) our “hero” stays the night with his newfound friend, awakening to discover photographs of work by the real-life artist Mario Merz upon the walls of the man’s apartment. One of Merz’s tent-like environments so moves Korin that he determines to travel to Zürich where he believes the author resides to seek out one of the structures in which to kill himself. If he has previously been blessed by a sort of innocent madness, armed with his new, negative resolve, Korin is no longer blessed and is finally robbed and left for dead on the streets; without money, he returns to the interpreter’s apartment to discover that both the man and his mistress have been brutally murdered. Now perceiving (or perhaps only sensing) what the murderers have sought, he removes the money from behind the tile, and uses it to pay for his final journey.
In Zürich he discovers that Merz himself does not live there, but that one of his artworks—pictured in the photographs—is housed in a nearby museum. Korin, however, has grown even more deluded—interpreting the strange disintegration of his manuscript’s narrative as an evocation and expression of madness that has overtaken the world and believing that the characters from the fiction have joined him in person to seek “a way out.” He finally finds a way to purchase a gun and makes his way to the museum. Arriving in the middle of the night, Korin attempts to enter the museum, while the guard explains that the building is closed until the morning. Fearing, however, that the late-night stranger may be an artist or even a guest curator, the guard calls the director. Unable to gain access to the museum, Korin seeks shelter in at all-night bar, where, brandishing his gun, he shoots himself in the arm. Even in suicide he fails, although the shot so terrifies him that he collapses, remaining unconscious; the book ends without answering the reader’s questions about Korin’s condition: “Later they took him away.”
What we do know, however, is that Korin ultimately does succeed in suicide, for a plaque within the Schaffhausen Museum testifies: “This plaque marks the place where György Korin, the hero of the novel War and War, by László Krasznahorkai, shot himself in the head. Search as he might, he could not find what he had called the Way Out.” The plaque, strangely enough, seems to indicate that, finally, someone has made sense of Korin’s story, that his life has mattered; if nothing else, it testifies to his heroic attempt to escape from the horrible fate of the world revealed in both the archivist’s manuscript and in the novelist’s fiction wherein the tales are embedded.
In fact, the sensitive reader—and anyone who has persisted in reading Krasz-nahorkai’s bleak tale, perhaps by definition, is such a reader—has perceived, Korin may be an idiot, but like Erasmus’ man of folly, he is a Christ-like figure, a man of deep compassion, belief, and hope. He is a wise-fool, desperately seeking in a world of fleeting fragments a unified vision that will give meaning to life. Even if his magnificent posting will never be read—and with the death of the interpreter who has sworn to keep the website alive, one can only suppose that eventually that website will disappear (indeed a visit to www.warandwar.com results in the message: Please be informed that your homepage service has been called off due to recurring overdue payment. Attempted mail deliveries to Mr. G. Korin have been returned to sender with a note: address unknown. Consequently, all data have been erased from your home page.)—it is the effort to share his discovery that truly matters. In his reading—even his misreadings of the work—Korin has himself become a creator, and in that creation, that recreation, he has brought purposefulness to life. Through each of his absurd attempts to relate information, Korin reveals the transformative power of storytelling itself. It is not just the story that matters, perhaps not even the story that is important, but the telling itself, the very act of creating fiction can completely change lives.
The reader perceives this already in the first scene, where the gang of young thugs, seemingly entranced by Korin’s storytelling even as they disdain it, begins to tell their own tales the next morning about the old man and his bizarre behavior. The stewardess has her own tales to tell about the silly man who entertained her while she was waiting to accompany a disabled traveler; but we perceive also how she is touched and moved by Korin’s words. Even more affected by the storytelling is the interpreter’s companion, who in the midst of abused life, waits patiently each morning just to hear the boarder’s words, touchingly revealed several times in the work, particularly as she turns her bruised face toward him and, in the last scenes, they lay together upon a bed in a gentle conspiracy of hope against what they both recognize are destructive acts by the master of the house, who parallels the Mastemann figure of the War & War fiction.
Korin’s great discovery, the source of both his joy and desperation, evidenced in his suicide, is that all of life matters, all life is “of equal gravity, everything equally urgent,” a fact that any artful storyteller and reader recognizes as the truth. It is no wonder that Korin hardly knows where to begin and has no comprehension of how to end once he has started. As for Scherezade, once the telling has begun, once one has embarked upon the perilous voyage of the imagination, there can be no end but in death. 1001 nights do not cease in a mere two years and nine months; for the ancient Egyptians the hieroglyph for 1000 represented “all,” and one more than all, accordingly, stood for an infinity. There is, alas, no “way out,” no ultimate redemption for Scherezade. The characters of Korin’s discovered fiction are blessed as well as doomed to begin again and again in their search for paradise, in their foolishly wise search for a world in which everything matters and all is of equal importance.
Los Angeles, August 9, 2006
Reprinted from First Intensity, No. 22 (Fall 2007).
Copyright (c) 2006 by Douglas Messerli
THE ULTIMATE ROAD TRIP
by Douglas Messerli
Cormac McCarthy The Road (New York: Knopf, 2006)
The other day at a brunch, I happened to mention that I had just completed perhaps the bleakest book I’d ever read. Two of the other diners quickly chimed in, “I know exactly which book you mean!” And for several moments we discussed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, careful to steer our conversation away from the most horrific of the book’s descriptions, while simultaneously recommending it to all except the faint of heart. The same thing had happened to me earlier that morning in a telephone conversation with another friend, Martha Ronk.
At one time in American culture such synchronicity of reading might not have been worth mentioning. I still recall in 1960 when everyone seemed to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird; my mother, generally a reader of the literary guild titles—the pop fiction of the day—even held a meeting of a reading group in her home to discuss the book. But in today’s world of a superabundance of new book publications, it is rare—particularly among my well-read and literary friends, many of whom teach and, accordingly, spend a great deal of time reading and rereading classics—to find any shared reading experiences among new works of fiction or poetry. We may share with each other our enthusiasm for new movies, but when it comes to fiction we often speak of writers like Beckett or Borges or….numerous other established—and often dead—writers.
As a publisher, of course, I am always reading new works, and I attempt to share those with as many of my friends as I can, but the daily demands upon their time preclude any immediate reaction. I sometimes receive their responses to books I published years after my initial enthusiasm.
Accordingly, I was quite delighted to find common ground, to have read a new literary work which I could immediately share. Given the dark subject matter of McCarthy’s novel, it might have been predicted. Many of us feel, while recognizing the greater horrors of both World Wars, the Korean War and Viet Nam, nonetheless, that we are living in the darkest of times, as we face our own ongoing war abroad—in which young soldiers and often innocent Iraqi citizens are daily beheaded and bombed—and the potential development of nuclear bombs by nations that seem to have paranoid perspectives of the rest of the world, while recognizing in our own country a frightening constriction and loss of human rights and individual freedoms for which generations of Americans have struggled throughout the last century.
McCarthy’s powerful fiction is not directly about any of these issues. As the narrator makes clear, however, in the post-apocalyptic world we witness in this book, the cry of any Isaiah in the wilderness, indeed the doom sayings of all previous prophets have become reality. Accordingly, McCarthy proves all of our fears—those from the left, middle and right—to be justified.
We are never told what happened to create this ash-covered landscape in which all living matter—with the exception of a few straggling and struggling human beings—has been destroyed. All we know is that at 1:17 all the clocks stopped, “A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” Trying the light switch the hero finds the power already gone, “a dull rose glow in the windowglass.” Is it a nuclear explosion, a series of nuclear bombs, or a huge meteor crashing into Earth, which might explain the ever darkening sky years later, as the father and son search for warmer climes? Does it matter? The world as we know it (as the characters knew it) has been destroyed.*
From the beginning, the central character of this book shows himself to be a survivor: soon after the electricity goes off, his wife asks, “Why are you taking a bath?” His answer, “I’m not,” speaks volumes, for suddenly we know that he has had enough foresight to give them several days’ drinking water. Soon there will be no more water, and, eventually, no food.
Before going any further in this review, following the lead of today’s newscasters, I should perhaps warn the reader that what I am about to describe is going to be unpleasant; moreover, for those who love plot, I will detract from that pleasure by sharing the story. Frankly, I find the reading experience itself so different from the description of a fiction that such revelations seldom bother me. But I know there are many who prefer to journey through fiction and film in virgin territory; those readers should put down my essay at this juncture.
McCarthy’s fiction, however, is not really about its story. For the plot is as simple as it can be: years after the original explosion, millions of individuals have died, some, as the central character’s wife, by suicide, most others presumably by starvation and illnesses such as cholera, pneumonia, rickets—all those horrific diseases which would inevitably follow upon such a holocaust. The few who live are not only survivors, but, in most cases, humans in name only, beings who have become animals, many of them existing only through cannibalism. The father and son at the center of this book are on a seemingly endless journey to move south in search of a warmer climate, but also out of the necessity to rummage for any scraps of canned or bottled food that might not have already been looted. Accordingly, they have no choice but to "hit the road.” Unlike Sal’s joyfully pagan journey in Kerouac’s On the Road or even Johnny’s pleasure in just “going” in The Wild One, the father and son of The Road embark upon a kind of road trip, the ultimate road trip, growing out of desperation. While it may be safer to hide away, without food and with only two bullets left in their gun, this father and son have no choice but to move on; “to go” and “to discover” have no longer any place in their vocabulary.
Certainly, there are discoveries to be made—of the most horrific kind. It is through the young boy that we most clearly see just what has been lost of humanity and the horrors any survivor must face. The father describes himself and his son as the “bearers of light,” as “the good guys.” And, at first, we recognize the rightness and necessity for such self-adulation. Around them are people who, as the wife and mother had observed before her death, would first rape the boy and then eat him. Recognizing this, the boy is nonetheless appalled by the fact that when they encounter another boy his age, there is nothing they can do to help; they cannot, as he would wish, take him with them; he may be one of them, and besides, they haven’t food to share.
Although they often suffer from near starvation, they also occasionally have the good fortune to discover hidden troves of canned goods (one in a hidden bunker clearly constructed by a survivalist-thinking family); but even with their newfound supplies, the father will not/cannot allow them to make contact with others they encounter along the road. It is too dangerous, as the most terrifying scene in the novel reveals. In a beautifully furnished house they discover a locked cellar wherein, when they break the padlock, they discover maimed but living humans, who are obviously being cut up and eaten by the tenants night after night. What might have been a black-comic moment in the hands of a postmodern writer like Steve Katz, presents itself as a grim nightmare in the hands of a realist such as McCarthy. I admit I did not sleep easy while reading this book.
After their small store of goods is stolen and they track down the thief, the father forces him to undress in retaliation for his act. The boy, in turn, begins to understand that, despite their representation of themselves as “good,” they necessarily are agents, in their struggle for survival, of evil.
They made a dry camp with no fire. He sorted out cans for their
supper and warmed them over the gas burner and they ate and the
boy said nothing. The man tried to see his face in the blue light
from the burner. I wasn’t gong to kill him, he said. But the boy
didn’t answer. They rolled themselves in the blankets and lay there
in the dark. He thought he could hear the sea but perhaps it was just
the wind. He could tell by his breathing that they boy was awake and
after a while the boy said: But we did kill him.
It is this gradual recognition of their own involvement with events that gives the greatest moral dimension to The Road.
Yet, we also recognize that the father has no other choices; through his selfishly determined actions he expresses such a deep love of his son—a love that must be recognized also as sexual (body to body contact is necessary as an altruistic protection from the elements as well as a physical expression of the father-son love)—that it encompasses McCarthy’s entire picaresque, explaining the central character’s mad determination to stay alive and move on. Without this love, the father would long ago have died or, at the very least, become something akin to the old prophet they meet along the way, a blind Oedipus-like figure who survives only because he presents himself as worthless of any human contact. Appropriately, he is the only one with whom the boy convinces his father to share their food.
The father’s determined survival, however, also reveals the great flaw of McCarthy’s The Road—and perhaps his other fictions as well. For however much we might admire this “carrier of the fire,” he is, like the figures from other fantastically epic adventures such as Lord of the Rings, not an entirely credible human being. And we are reminded in his actions that McCarthy is still writing a kind of Western, with all its heroic possibilities. I know that I, who cannot shoot a gun, who would be unable to light a campfire from flint, who would be unable to determine even what tools I needed to survive the ordeals this man and his son encounter, would have long before died. Most of us—not of the survivalist ilk—would never have had a chance.
Oddly enough, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic Western involves very few weapons. As one of my brunch companions, film writer Chris Hauty, mentioned, he didn’t find the book entirely believable on that account. In reality, he argued, everyone who was still living would have had guns. A quick visit to several sites on the internet revealed, for example, that it is estimated that there are enough guns in the US for every man, woman, and child. If such a holocaust were to occur—presuming that individuals would also loot weapons from gun stores and police stations throughout the country, adding immense quantities of arms to their cache—most armed Americans, particularly the survivalists, would have killed one another; those who remained would be so thoroughly armed that it is doubtful that a father and son, with only two bullets in their gun, would have been able to endure the trip.
Even heroes have to die, moreover, and with the death of the boy’s father, his son is released to embrace human encounters his father had previously denied him. In a world where women bear children only to roast them upon the spit soon thereafter we realize that the boy can never be certain in his trust.
Fortunately, it appears his first such encounter is with a family of “bearers of the fire,” of enlightened beings who will bring him from the road into the arms of a survivalist and, evidently, religious community. But as readers of this book, we are left with haunting questions, questions which the boy must continue to ask if human morality is to be sustained. How have they survived, this group of survivors? How will they continue to survive? Will they remain “good guys?” Can he?
Los Angeles, November 13, 2006
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2008).
*Actually I think it very much does matter. If the world has been destroyed by natural forces, the near-extinction of the human race—the novel even positing the possibility of its total extinction—is simply a matter of fate, and, in that sense, the father and son’s desperate struggle to hold on to any moral values is quite insignificant within the context of the forces of the cosmos. That does not mean the values have no meaning for the individuals still struggling to survive, but simply that they would ultimately no longer mean anything. Can we not admit that with the death of all human beings, God (and whatever values the concept of God encompasses) no longer exists, or, at least, no longer has any significance?
If, however, this apocalypse has been created by human beings, then any remnant of human guilt and retribution expressed in the love and hope of this intrepid couple is crucial—particularly if the species were incredibly to survive. Without survival, obviously, it again makes no difference, but—as Derrida might have argued—to the living that is the difference. To those who eat flesh and those who don’t, for the carriers of the light as opposed to the forces of the dark, this is no slight semantic slip of tongue, but an existential chasm of belief and act.
Westchester, November 14, 2006
by Douglas Messerli
Dennis Barone Precise Machine (New York: Quale, 2006)
Often when reading the fiction of Dennis Barone, I feel that there are three different writers behind his work, the first being a sort of postmodern fantasist, presenting us in very short, surrealist-like fables, cartoon figures standing in outrageous opposition. In the book of his I published for my Sun & Press, for example, the title story “The Returns” begins with a young boy at the Thanksgiving dinner table with his family; suddenly out the window he observes a hovering plane; when he runs out of the house to find out what’s happening, he sees, through the dark and foggy night, an X-15 rocket and suddenly encounters its pilot; the pilot picks him up, bringing him to face level, shouting: “Don’t let them know I’m flying!” A few minutes later the young boy and the pilot are in a prison cell, the pilot bruised and in pain; a salesman soon joins them, and the story ends with the pilot and the salesman in conversation, planning their escape. Interwoven into this story are scenes in which the narrator is awakened by an assured knocking, each time ending with the would-be visitor turning away, a door slammed shut. In short, a young boy, perhaps now the dreamer-author, experiences a fantastical world, which in opposition to his placid home-life, consists of dangerous secrets and acts, events that lead to adventure and probable imprisonment.
In his most recent collection, Precise Machine, Barone begins with a short tale, “Treasure”—one of four pieces collected under the title “Precise Machine”—a story of twin brothers caring for a problematic goat. From the ocean-side pasture where he is kept, the goat often seems to enjoy staring out to sea. Perhaps in a former life, the narrator suggests, he had been Captain Kidd. One day, as he stares off into the horizon, the goat refuses to return home, and the boys are faced with the quandary of either returning home without the goat or being late for dinner, a special roast. When the billy goat begins to paw the ground underneath which he stands, the boys begin to dig. Auddenly they are scared half to death by the appearance of a helicopter containing their returning father, rifle in hand, determined to claim the buried treasure which might have helped the boys and their mother survive. This father, like the pilot of the previous work, stands outside and against family life. And the secret the boys uncover seems, once again, to threaten their present existence. In both these strange tales, the father/hero is perceived as both dangerous and magical, a kind of immoral (or, at least, nonmoral) force that possibly endangers the dream of childhood.
The second writer behind Barone’s output is a kind of lyrical moralist, often an artist, historian, or researcher, a character like the hero of his short novel Temple of the Rat and The Returns story “The Middle Distance.” In "And Also with Your" (Precise Machine) Barone presents us the story of an Italian artist during the bubonic plague, determined to finish his “Miracle of the Banner” painting, inspired by nightly visits from the Virgin. It is doubtful he will survive, but his feverish imagination recounts his alternating struggles with faith and doubt in a terrifying present, mitigated by a vision of a future in which he has attained international acclaim when the Spanish Ambassador demands a work from the same brush. Seemingly, half in and out of consciousness, the narrator weaves a spellbinding tale that ends suddenly in the aural sensation of the “melodies of heaven.”
Yet, Barone’s tale continues, completely altered, as he begins a new story, this one about a Congress Avenue, New Haven minister, an immigrant to the New World determined to convert the locals to his personal beliefs, become a haven for the dispossessed and oppressed, and, simultaneously, fill his pockets with great wealth. His bag containing his contributions ebbs and flows, “but never ebbed so much as it seemed to fill itself….” Indeed, the minister, his family and charges, and the village appear to prosper, until a woman arrives to assassinate the minister for his conversion of her son. The minister’s message however, converts her, as she is filled with doubts and self-recriminations, ultimately determining to kill herself. The gun accidentally discharges, killing a loyal follower of the sect, resulting in an attack from the community that is only vaguely described—“And then out of nowhere an artillery barrage sent out its cruel greetings, shrapnel flying all around”—but which we can imagine as being similar to the attack by federal troops at the Waco compound of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. Ironically, the event of Barone’s story is captured in the sketchbook of Ercole, the minister’s youngest son. So continues this tale of the relationship between belief and art.
In stories such as this and “Cairns,” Barone often mixes history, politics, religion and poetic story-telling into a heady mix in which all are transformed, history becoming fantastical, religion transforming into fear and doubt, politics resulting in a story of mythic proportions. While not always as magically compelling as his briefer post-modern fantasies, these short epic-like morality plays are perhaps the most ambitious of Barone’s vision, and when they succeed, as in “And Also with You” and, in part, “The Middle Years,” they represent some of the most interesting writing of our time.
The third Barone seems to be a kind of inattentive realist. As the author notes in his newest collection, “All facts are fables,” which seems to require Barone to empty some of his stories of both fantasy and poetry. “The Firebug,” for example—the second of his “Precise Machine” tales—relates a story that reminds one of a comic sketch in which a bicyclist gets a flat tire. He carries with him tools, an air pump, a bottle of water, and matches—nearly everything he needs but duct tape. At a nearby house, being repaired for fire damage, he borrows some electrical tape, pumps up his wheel and rides a bit further. But once again the wheel goes flat. He reattaches the tape, pumps up the tire once again, and moves a few yards further before the tire goes flat a third time. He attempts to catch a ride to a nearby town, but no one will pick him up, and he is forced to walk the whole way. At the town’s bicycle shop, announcing a “Fire Sale,” he begs and cajoles the man behind the counter for a new tire (he has carried with him no money), and promises to return with the payment. Later that day, he returns via automobile, but before he can reach the store, the car’s tire goes flat. Armed with the same tools—an air pump, a bottle of water, and matches—he presumably sets the building on fire.
Told in a tone nearly devoid of emotion, Barone’s story depends entirely upon its ironic form—“things come in threes.” But the joke is just that, a joke. The story is as slight as its message. Presumably, it is this “inattentive realist,” this deadpan comedian that lies behind the fevered and poetic moralist of the other two sides of his personality. The author himself is a quiet-spoken person whose mouth often turns up in conversation into a kind a naughty-boy grin. It is perhaps this kind of ironic realism that also lies behind the title of his book, the “precise machine” of Barone’s art. But I prefer thinking of his writing as a kind of precise imprecision, a confusion/profusion of ideas that swell up into a near obsessive reality wherein all is linked, the kind of world with which the personal, interlinking tales of present and past, with which “Cairns” ends:
With everyone crowded in space, we became also crowded
by time. Star, Song of Solomon, you are limestone in New Jersey.
Forgive me, my bike is almost flat. Aloha, Dairy Queen and
Flamingo Golf. Many flowers bloomed and died. It became almost
Here, religion, myth, popular culture, the past, the present, and, yes, that fire-happy bicyclist coexist. It’s a world I prefer to what Barone presents as the “real” one.
Los Angeles, September 17, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 7 (January 2007).
A TORN CURTAIN
by Douglas Messerli
Brian Evenson The Open Curtain (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006).
Brian Evenson’s new novel, The Open Curtain, begins with what increasingly has become an almost predictable plot: a basically good boy—in this case the son a Mormon widow—at puberty begins to explore the past along with new ideas that gradually alter his personality. In this case the young Rudd uncovers a letter sent to his father by an unknown woman, claiming that he was the father of her son. Rudd’s father—who later committed suicide by slitting his own throat—denies any paternity, and when Rudd confronts his mother with the letter, she can only repeat the denial, claiming to have no knowledge of any such event.
The incident is forgotten for a while, but as some time passes, Rudd looks up the address written on the letter, uncovering his half-brother Lael. At first the boys, radically different from one another, do not particularly get on. Indeed, Rudd is frustrated by Lael’s lack of communication skills and, more importantly, his manipulation of Rudd as he maneuvers the two of them into increasingly dangerous situations. In one instance, for example, Lael determines that they drive Rudd’s scooter far beyond the point in which they will run out of gas and be forced to walk several miles in return. But it is precisely Lael’s going beyond the limits that both attracts and repels Rudd; being the psychologically weaker of the two, he cannot resist his brother’s entreaties. Rudd clearly feels a sense of near-powerlessness around Lael, with whom, as he rides clinging to him on the scooter, he seems gradually to develop an attachment that, if not actually homosexual, borders on the kind of relationship that one might compare to the famed Leopold-Loeb friendship, a love ending in a murder, explored from the various viewpoints of Hitchcock’s film Rope and Levin’s novel and play Compulsion.
It is not long before Rudd begins to lose faith in the church. An English class project for a research paper results in Rudd (and Lael, who joins his half-brother in later treks to the local university library) uncovering a turn-of-the-century murder of a woman, Anna Pultizer, by Mormon founder Brigham Young’s grandson. The murder, which implicates not only the young boy, Hooper Young, but his homosexual friend Elling, was also connected to a little known doctrine of Mormon theology—utterly denied by the church—of Blood Atonement, a doctrine that suggests when sinners have become so guilty of sin that they cannot be forgiven, a ritualistic murder (in which their throats are slit and blood, let to drain from their bodies) is not only justifiable, but that the murderer may be forgiven and awarded in the Mormon afterlife. With its mysterious story and its gruesome details, it becomes quickly apparent why two young Mormon boys, in a time of confusion and disbelief, might become fascinated with the tale; but the mystery surrounding the form of the murder and the relationship between Young and Elling attracts the boys in ways that might be inexplicable if Evenson had not carefully developed his story to suggest both their own relationship to one another and to their dead father. The books in Rudd’s father’s home library are marked, moreover, with marginalia on the very pages describing the Mormon Blood Atonement theory!
Before long, Rudd is having difficulties in school and, more importantly, in paying close attention to anything around him. He and Lael are somewhat involved in drugs, but what is even more horrifying are the long stretches of time in which Rudd later can remember nothing, periods which he describes as “blackouts” or “holes” in time. Part one of this sophisticated horror tale ends with the boys together on an adventure in the woods, with Rudd feeling “himself crowded out of his senses and into oblivion.”
The second section quickly shifts the action to the aftermath of a multiple murder of campers, their bodies placed carefully in positions suggesting a ritualistic act. There is only one survivor, a young boy whose neck has been severely cut. The daughter of the murdered family—who had stayed home during the camping trip—is strangely attracted to the survivor, a boy close to her own age, and watches over his comatose recovery. As the police are pulled away from his protection—the murderer still at large—the girl, Lyndi, pulls him into another room and watches over him until he finally awakens. The survivor is Rudd.
No perceptive reader observing the developing relationship between the daughter of the victims and Rudd can move forward in this tale without great discomfort, for we know instinctively that Rudd was in some way involved with the deaths. Strangely, we have no choice now but to hope that Lael—the evil twin, so to speak—is the guilty party, that Rudd will somehow be brought back into sanity. Rudd has, however, no memory of the events.
After a period in which Lyndi’s aunt encamps within the family home, hoping to cheer up her grieving niece, but having quite the opposite effect, Lyndi is only too happy to let Rudd, whose mother has forced him to escape his own home, move in with her; the two set up an awkward household outwardly, perhaps, suggesting a sexual relationship, but, in fact, consisting of a kind of brother-sister or roommate situation. Rudd is painfully confused, sometimes gentle and solicitous, clearly feeling the need to protect his new friend, but at other times he remains aloof, secretive and protective. He insists that she never enter his (formerly her sister’s) room uninvited. As time passes, the two grow further apart until Lyndi confronts him, ending in Rudd’s attempted suicide and his insistence that they get married.
The Mormon marriage ceremony described is perhaps one of the strangest passages in the book. As the couple, who have previously remained outside of church ritual, are taken through the various steps of the ceremony—the ritual washing, the awarding of a secret name, the various questions asked as they sit on opposite sides of a veil marked with symbolic slits in positions not unlike those in which Lyndi’s family were placed by their murderer—the reader feels nearly suffocated by being enwrapped in such ritualistic acts. The couple themselves seem about to flee, as Rudd, breaking with the ceremony, denies Lyndi the use of her “secret” name Rachel, insisting it is Elling—and, in so doing so, feels he has cheated the blessing of the church, has torn the veil.
But if Lyndi is merely confused by the event, we know that within Rudd’s mind the symbolism of that veil is interwoven with the events of both the 1902 murder and the murders of Lyndi’s family; and the two begin to converge in a way that becomes increasingly frightening. As Rudd and Lyndi attempt to begin life as a married couple, he retreats even further, ultimately moving into a kind of makeshift tool shed, the entrance of which he has now covered over in a veil—a real sheet that serves as a symbolic separation from the world at large. As Lyndi grows more and more troubled by the course of events, she explores the shed, realizing in the process that Rudd was indeed involved in her parent’s murder and discovering something that is too horrible for words.
The third section of Evenson’s unholy trinity relates a near-surrealistic series of events in which Hooper’s murder of Anna Pultizer, his determination to hide the body, and his attempt to send off her clothes in a large chest is played out again and again, as each time Rudd—living like a drugged man in a time warp—is coached by "Elling," actually Lael, apparently have returned. Gradually, the reader realizes that the seemingly murdered body is, in fact, Lyndi, still living perhaps, but bound and suffering as the boy enacts, again and again, the events from the distant past. When suddenly the deus ex machina return of Lyndi’s aunt interrupts this horrific passion play, Rudd refuses to let her enter, and Lael/Elling announces his departure. At that very moment, we suddenly are faced with the possibility that, in fact, there has been no Lael, no half-brother, ever in Rudd’s life (Lyndi has previously sought out the brother, who insists his name is Lyle—an incident repeated from Rudd’s first encounter with the boy—and that he has no knowledge of Rudd), or, even worse, he has been himself sacrificed to Rudd’s horrific myth. With the policeman in tow, Lyndi’s aunt gains entry to the house, but neither she nor we know what she may find. Even if Lyndi is still alive, we perceive that Rudd has lost his life to the demons of the past. We can only imagine that he sits somewhat like Psycho’s Norman Bates, wrapped in a sheet, living in a world from which he can never return.
Evenson has created a compelling horror tale that is not as much an indictment of Mormonism as it is a warning of the dark sides of all religions and the willingness to (con)fuse the power of faith with the power of controlling other people’s lives.
Los Angeles, September 21, 2006
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, IV, no. 2 (April 2007).
Copyright (c)2007 by Douglas Messerli
NOTHING LEFT BEHIND
by Douglas Messerli
Carmen Laforet Nada, translated by Edith Grossman (New York: The Modern Library,
Spanish novelist Carmen Laforet’s 1945 novel Nada begins with the arrival in Barcelona of a young and excited teenager, Andrea, who has come from the country to study in college. She remembers her grandmother, aunts, and uncles and their large apartment on Calle de Aribau with fondness; but the place now consists of only half the space of the old days, much of the furniture missing, a sense of chaos hovering over the whole. Her formerly loving aunt Angustias and her brothers Juan and Román appear cold and forbidding, her grandmother a somewhat confused and totally displaced woman unable to keep her family from their daily squabbles and formidable battles. In short, Andrea has encountered the effects of the Spanish Civil War—and, in particular, the brutality of that war upon the middle class of Barcelona.
She arrives late—the train has been delayed—and as she is gently scolded by her aunt, the impressionable young girl immediately suspects something is amiss; the darkness of the rooms, the jumbles of clothing upon the floor, the suffocating heat of the apartment all create a sense of a nightmare world. But she is tired and anxious about her new life, excited for the possibilities that face her in this new world, and cannot sort out the various contradictions she faces.
After only a few days of her stay she feels completely restricted by the poverty-stricken religiosity of her guardian, the dark and dour Angustias. Indeed, Angustias is one of the most remarkable figures of literature, a character of startling contradictions: on the one hand, she is a beautiful and intelligent woman keeping some semblance of order among her violent-tempered brothers, warning her niece of the moral and social dangers she might encounter in the city; contradictorily, she is a bitter and petty woman unable to partake of most of life’s joys, a woman who, when she temporarily leaves her family for a few days to follow her former lover, now a priest, is outraged by Andrea’s usurpation of her bed. As Andrea correctly perceives, although Angustias is monstrous, she is, “in her way, …an upright, good person among those crazy people [her uncles and Juan’s wife Gloria]. A more complete and vigorous person than the others….” Angustias, however, sees Andrea’s innocence and wonderment of life as rebelliousness, proclaiming that “If I’d gotten hold of you when you were younger, I’d have beaten you to death.” In such a sado-masochistic world, all growth, knowledge, and understanding is impossible; life becomes absurd, is incomprehensible. In that sense, the author has no choice, if she is to continue the story of Andrea’s coming of age, but to get rid of such a menacing figure, which she does by sending Angustias off to a convent, allowing Andrea to move about the city as any young girl might.
The figures remaining, however, are perhaps even more frightening in their secrets, in the power they hold over one another, and in their moral decay. Gloria, Juan’s wife, is presented as a common woman, almost a sexual slut, clearly a woman unworthy of the family’s former social status. Yet it is also clear that she and her husband Juan are incredibly in love, and that he, in turn, is a loving and protective father to their young son. The more mysterious brother, Román, insists that he “owns” Juan, and it is clear even to Andrea that he is able, through even the slightest of statements, to provoke his brother to violence against Gloria and others.
Part of that provocation is clearly based on the sexual prowess of the elder brother, and the possibility that he has sexually molested Gloria or, even worse, that she desires to continue the relationship. Andrea gradually perceives, however, deeper causes in their rift, issues dating back to their youth when Román was perceived as the more gifted child, spoiled by their mother as a talented and beloved son, whose very existence seemingly points to Juan’s failures.
In fact, both men are incapacitated children, unable to live out their adult lives as supportive figures because of the infantilism of the society at large. We discover, with Andrea, that it is only Gloria’s nighttime escapes into her sister’s house and gambling den which keeps this family from complete starvation. Her small winnings at gambling and her nefarious sales of their furniture are the major sources of family income.
Andrea receives a small monthly stipend, some of which she gives up to the family, but she is equally irresponsible with money, purchasing each month expensive flowers and candies for her friend Ena’s mother, and forced to go hungry throughout the rest of month. Ena, who comes from a wealthy and successful family, is the only one, indeed, that Andrea can turn to for a vision of plentitude and joy. In her maturity, beauty, and breadth of understanding, her friend stands out as the only figure in the fiction who Andrea might wish to emulate. Andrea joins Ena and her boyfriend Jaime in a kind of innocent threesome, reminiscent in some ways of a feminine version of Jules and Jim, as they frolic weekends on the vacation beaches of Spain.
There is something dark and mysterious, however, about Ena as well, and after meeting Andrea’s uncle Román, she cuts off her relationships with both Andrea and Jaime, casting the two into a world of puzzlement and loneliness. Has her uncle in fact had sexual relationships with Ena as well? What is his power over other people? As Andrea begins to explore the bohemian artistic circles of the city, she comes to discern the interrelatedness of events in her life and in Barcelona as a whole. A poet friend has seen a beautiful woman at a bar, with whom he immediately falls in love, a girl who, it turns out, is Ena, whom the boy and Andrea together encounter on the street. But when Andrea attempts to communicate with her about Jaime, Ena maintains her vague distance.
It is only the revelation by Ena’s mother that as a young girl she attended school with Andrea’s uncle, and later had a painful affair with him, that clarifies the situation. Ena has attempted through her own encounters with Román to understand her mother’s passionate affair of early life. Following the mother’s pleas, Andrea attempts to stop the relationship between Ena and her uncle. Her success ends, a few days later, with Román’s suicide, a death which suggests he may finally have come to terms with his own evil manipulation of others, but which also may indicate how those machinations have kept him in a world apart from others. Now there is nothing left of the operatic family scenes; only an uneducated woman and her jealous husband—a couple and a child like millions of other poor families throughout Spain—remain.
Andrea’s final escape from this formerly malevolent world—a world we are forced to perceive time and again reflects the fascist values of the country at large—represents, unfortunately, a kind of deus ex machina, as Ena and her family offer Andrea a job and a place to stay in their new home in Madrid. Nonetheless, the offer comes as a relief for the reader swept up by the hopes and dreams of this young heroine. Just as she arrived in Barcelona, she leaves, with a similar “expectation, the longing for life,” as a long black car awaits her, where Ena’s father extends his hands in “cordial welcome.”
Los Angeles, June 7, 2007
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XII, no. 4 (Winter 2007/2008).
Copyright (c)2007 by Douglas Messerli