Thursday, October 12, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "A Force of Madness" (on Murray Pomerance's Edith Valmaine)


by Douglas Messerli

Murray Pomerance Edith Valmaine (Ottawa, Canada: Oberon Press, 2010).

Reading Murray Pomerance’s fiction, I always feel like I’m entering another era, an older time when storytelling was more magical and unpredictable than today’s often realist-bound tales of social and psychological turmoil, redemption, and escape. His 2010 fiction, Edith Valmaine, for example, reminds me intensely of something that Elizabeth Bowen might have written, such as  The House in Paris or even Eva Trout, wherein you follow characters who, revealing themselves as inexplicable being, do not really know where they are going; and their tales, instead of being impeccably plotted and detailed, literally stumble around the edges of their life, much like they feel they are doing in their own fictional existences. The characters of this Pomerance fiction, at least, almost bounce off one another, creating a different kind of dialogue than that which occurs in Bowen’s work, but is just as witty and, most importantly, totally unpredictable.
      If Pomerance’s work might be described as a dialogue fiction, it is a dialogue between the central figure, Marcel, a young university student, and himself—except that since this handsome young man is so intellectually rough and unhewn that he really doesn’t have another self within to whom he might speak. Although Marcel lives in a small, seemingly intellectualized world, among the bindings of Freud, the obscure writings of the ecclesiastic Umberto Sorrego, and numerous other writers that might remind one of the decadent Jean des Esseintes of J. K. Huysman’s Against Nature, the young would-be intellect has never been able focus on any of the books surrounding him, and has no idea about human relationships whatsoever. He is a true innocent, unable, as we gradually discover, to uncover any true relationship between himself and any other human being he encounters.
      Although he is studying aesthetics and philosophy, he cannot even coherently follow the logic of a simple sentence. He is, what Cole Porter might describe, “all at sea,” utterly confused in a world of subtle gossip, deep romance, and hidden afternoon assignations. And Marcel, like Bowen’s Eva Trout, is unable to make the simplest of connections.
      In order to move his story forward from the whorls and whirls of Marcel’s Sargasso Sea-like imagination, Pomerance forces the reader to serve as the intelligent other of Marcel’s pointless attempts at dialogue, a man who can hardly finish a complete sentence. It works, as any good reader will willingly attempt to explain what the handsome young man’s problems are.
      And numerous figures are utterly attracted to him, including a kind of boulevard intellect and mock-aesthete, Valmaine, who frequents the young man’s bars, embracing him as a friend, presumably seeing much more in the young man than the man himself comprehends. In a strange way, Marcel is a bit like Kosinki’s anti-hero, Chance: the less he coherently expresses, the more others perceive him as a deep thinker.
      The young student is amazed by Valmaine’s knowledge of the world, and enjoys his company, in particular because Valmaine often treats the poverty-stricken youth to drinks and dinner.
      Valmaine seems to have everything the young man might seek, a lovely apartment, money, and—most importantly—an absolutely beautiful wife, although Marcel has seen her only briefly, wrapped in a netted hat, on the street.
      The only problem for Valmaine, who absolutely adores his wife, is that she is a sex-fiend, preying on every man to whom Valmaine might introduce her.
      Although Valmaine attempts to deal with the facts peaceably, even Marcel recognizes the he is totally disturbed by her sexual excesses, and is a man who is continually on “the edge,” ready to leave her at any instance.
      We know, almost from the outset of this delicious fiction, what has to happen. The completely innocent Marcel, who seemingly has never sexually experienced a woman’s love, must inevitably fall in love with Edith. After one visit to his friend, where he encounters the wife, he is swept away, as lovers might describe themselves, in her charms—although, at first, attempting to escape this siren’s embrace. Yet the two eventually do have an affair, Valmaine catching them in the act of the floor of his apartment.
      So, the worldly reader might ask, doesn’t this happen every day in Paris, the city of adulterous love? Surely not to the confused Marcel, who goes into a deep feverous sleep for weeks, kept alive only by the constant visits of his school friends, D’Argot and Lamanderie, apparently rather wealthy young things who bring him charcuterie (in D’Argot’s case) and endless sweets, in Lamanderie’s. Lamanderie, in particular, is powerfully attracted to Marcel, watching him sleep, for long hours, with what even Marcel recognizes, is a kind of loving regard that speaks of some inexplicable dream world. Marcel presumes he simply wants to sketch him, without realizing, obviously, that his school chum is desperately in love with the stricken boy.
      Even after a younger schoolboy, Praslin—who everybody describes as having “no girl”—shows up and demands Marcel join him in a wild motorcycle ride, where Marcel is forced to cling on to the young man’s thighs, and, incidentally, becomes almost irrationally excited in the voyage, the excited student does not quite comprehend. Praslin has taken him to a heaven and back, and to a kind of magical world, where the itinerant child has lived for a brief period of time; yet Marcel does not recognize that his joys might be involved with a sexual male/male relationship. He is so clueless, that even the young Praslin has to admit that he, himself, is a total innocent, presumably by even imagining the Marcel might come out of the shell into which he has burrowed himself.
       Pomerance tells this story with such a studious objectivity that the reader might have thought she or he was imagining all these things. After all, the Paris the author presents us  itself is so wondrous and impossible to pin down that we realize anything is bound to happen.
      When the now completely demoralized Marcel, suddenly refusing to even attempt to read the books we now know he will never comprehend, determines to return to the Valmaine apartment, he realizes it is not to reencounter Edith, but to be embraced in the now lost love and friendship of her husband, a kind of lover/father figure who might finally offer him what he has been seeking, or, at least, release him from his own stupidity and guilt.
      Alas, it is all too late. Despite the fact that Valmaine does indeed embrace him, causing an almost mystical revelation for the poor Marcel, as they return for a cognac on the Paris streets, the police chase the elderly man down, and reveal to the clueless boy that Valmaine has cut up his wife and thrown her into the river. Even here, Marcel cannot believe what he has previously fantasized.
      It is now clear, that Marcel’s life is also at an end. Although he now proudly declares Valmaine to be a friend, he has missed out in any possible relationship he might have enjoyed. He is doomed, a bit like Jean des Esseintes, to sit out his life with nothing but the artificial possibilities of what existence might mean. He has missed all the opportunities he was offered for love. If he has betrayed others, he has, most of all, betrayed himself.
       Through Pomerance’s beautiful fiction, Paris has never been more alive and dead. In order to be “gay,” (as in “gay Paree”) you have first to love life, a fact our poor, searching hero has never comprehended. The “force of madness” which he now ascribes to the Paris police force, is, in fact, what he has himself become.

Los Angeles, October 12, 2017

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "The Surrealist Satire of Leonora Carrington" (on Carrington's The Complete Stories) [link]

For a review by Douglas Messerli of The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington, click here:

Douglas Messerli | "Starting Over" (on Stacey Levine's Frances Johnson)

starting over
by Douglas Messerli
Stacey Levine Frances Johnson: A Novel (Astoria, Oregon: Clear Cut Press, 2005)

About a third of the way through reading Stacey Levine’s new novel, Frances Johnson, I commented to a friend that, unlike so many American fictions which seem to plow through plot and character like a thresher moving down rows of corn (if rows might be understood as chapters), this was a wonderfully lazy narrative, a story that seemed to have no particular place to go and all the time in the world to take you there.

The jacket cover of this Green Integer-size paperback compares Levine’s writing to that of Jane Bowles, and there is a certain truth to that observation, particularly in the eccentricity of Bowles’s characters who act less out of determination than from whim and behave with an almost passive acceptance of forces beyond their control. Behind Bowles’s writing, however, there are generally exotic, strange worlds (Panama, Guatemala, Morocco, etc) that transform or at least inform both characters and text. Although Levine has set her new fiction in Florida with a nearby volcano to possibly stir things up, the small town of Munson —despite the daily rumblings of the natural forces around it — is a drab world of dirt and mud. Buildings, streets, homes, and general landscape are rarely described, and when they are it merely confirms the feeling that the town and its citizens are perpetually in a fog, enervated, unable to act. Accordingly, the fiction, unlike more normative realist presentations with emphasis on place, centers itself on character —particularly upon the thinking processes of its central figure, Frances Johnson. And it is the languid revealing of this figure that seems to slow the story down and to allow it to move in the multiple directions in which Frances feels driven and pulled.

Midway through the book, as Frances arrives at the house of her close friend Nancy (a house, incidentally, which the author does describe and observes it as being “lovelier than any dwelling in Munson, and perhaps for this reason folks bore her [Nancy] grudges”), Levine admits to the very method of storytelling I had noted:

“Frances, you recently told me you had several
dreams about chopped onions,” and Frances nodded
rhythmically, smiling happily as the two women
found the thread of a familiar, meandering dialogue
that proceeded in the halting yet serene manner of a
snail crossing a road over hours, unaware of time; and
forgetting the time indeed, not interested in turning
back, the friends talked, less in a conversation with
a point than in a kind of unstoppable practice that
neither woman wished to end.

Faced with such a linguistic construction it would be almost pointless to describe the fiction’s “plot.” The story —for those who must have one —is about a few days in Frances’ life in which she suddenly takes stock of herself and feels drawn to make decisions about her life: should she leave the small and grungy town of Munson and enter the world; should she abandon her sexless relationship with Ray Mars, who the rest of the townspeople, including Ray’s brother Kenny, feel is not good enough for Frances; should she attend the annual town dance and be swept away in the arms of the new town doctor Mark Carol?

These are the issues, along with others, that suddenly face our hero, and are posed, along with questions with which the author directly confronts the reader in her own series of interrogations such as “To which places would Frances Johnson go?”

In search of answers, Frances goes many places: to visit her friend and doctor Palmer, to speak to the owner of the local diner, Mal, and, as previously mentioned, to visit Nancy. Yet none of these people can answer for her, and each helps only to instill yet more confusion as to what she should do. Mal insists she is sick and will die of some dread disease; Palmer encourages her to leave town in search of vast oil deposits that he needs for a balm he has concocted; and Nancy, who Frances suddenly perceives is more ordinary that she imagined, asks her to help out in cleaning and cooking for the impending visit of her children.

In the end none of these choices seem to matter. Frances’s mother, a determined small-town woman who in her dominance of her daughter has obviously helped to generate the young woman’s passivity, insists that she attend the dance, where Frances is, so to speak, swept away into the arms of Doctor Carol. But even this event has little significance as the author hilariously pulls the rug out from under character and reader by sending the mother back to the clearing where she has left her daughter lying beside both Mark and Ray, to announce that the community has suddenly determined Mark Carol is a no-good “crumb-bum!” “There are others, though, Frances: you’ll see.” The story, accordingly, has the potential to start over. And the reader —like Frances and Nancy in their conversations — has taken so much pleasure in the telling of the story that, indeed, he is willing to read the book —and experience these few days of her life —again.

Los Angeles, October 25, 2005

Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, Vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2006)

.Reprinted in Douglas Messerli, My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).


Monday, June 12, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Finding Home" (on Rebecca Goodman's Aftersight)

finding home
by Douglas Messerli

Rebecca Goodman Aftersight (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2015).

Rebecca Goodman’s most recent book, Aftersight, is correctly described on its back cover by writer Stacey Levine, as a “disassembled keen,” a dirge or death song. Yet this highly poetized writing is also a fascinating psychological portrait of mourning, and essay on how those left behind must learn to cope without the missing loved one. 

     From the very first page of this work, in fact, we know we have entered a world of blurred identities in which a narrator is unable to separate herself from the subject of her work, her mother, Suzanne. “She went out into the streets looking for poetry. She never spoke again.”  Is the “she” the mother or the poet herself; obviously the narrator is speaking, so it must be the mother who lost herself in the voyage with illness and death. And in the very next line, we imagine a kind of burial “She lay beneath the tree until spring.”

     But even here we wonder whether the “she” being described is, metaphorically-speaking, the mourner or the mother. For very soon after the narrative observes: “When the fire consumed the woman, she couldn’t watch.” Was the mother cremated, or is this burning woman another image the narrator has half-observed which, as she puts it, replaces “the image of her mother?”

     And who is the “he” who promises to explain “the meaning of her dreams” in the morning, her mother’s husband or the narrator’s own husband speaking to her? Even the act of calling her father results in complete displacement, “the number dialed another number, another father.”

     In short, we have immediately been thrown in a world without boundaries: mother becomes daughter, father becomes husband, which, in turn, become other women, other men. Indeed, in the very next section of this book divided into small multiple gnomic intervals, the writer observes: “The world exists between the meaning of being.” Without the being other, we can surmise, there is no meaning; as the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe put it, “things fall apart.” When a part of the self disappears, so too does that self begin to disintegrate. As the author philosophizes: “Entire structures rest on the provision of self.”

      For me, the power of the small poetic fiction—a fiction of a very real death—emanates from Goodman’s Stein-like maxims which help to make sense of what is clearly, in her now fragile world, without sense, without meaning. For example:

                 The first day is more difficult than the next. Or should I
                 say the first day is more difficult than the last. The why
                 of nothing is never an aspect of becoming.


I’m not so sure I completely agree (thinking back upon my difficult father and his death, I was much more able to cope in the first few weeks than I am perhaps today, when I still have dreams of him, some negative, others quite loving), but it is through these assertive statements that the author is able to gradually regain meaning, to build up an understanding of something after which, apparently for months, she had difficulty in even surviving in a world in which, suddenly, “speech is meaningless and returns to the time when all thought reverts back to having been,” when the self cannot even comprehend its own being. Yet even here, we see the mourner gaining strength in the maxim: “Nowhere is a place we imagine.”

       Past, present, and future, such as it might possibly be imagined, becomes blurred, just as does the mother and daughter. The daughter reverts to meaningless acts of the past, taking down and playing a flute that she had as a child; reencountering the avocado trees, the flowers, and other elements of nature that her mother so loved; recalling and recooking her mother’s remarkable recipes; even cleaning up, which she often did with her mother, after dinner parties—attempting, in short, to relive some of the experiences that made her mother so remarkable when alive. But even here, it is difficult to bring things back to life: “The garden speaks to you. Not in the way you had hoped. In the way you have been given.”

      Even “the tomatoes [are] not as red today as they were yesterday.” Color fades; “the orange was less than orange….” “All existed now through the amber liquid that vision takes on in the hope that seeing is the moment of understanding.” But death, the author suggests, does not permit understanding, and the vision is also blurred.

      As outsiders, of course, Goodman’s readers must forebear with her, forgive her sometimes endless sorrows and attempt to refocus them on their own lost loved ones or simply to imagine what it might feel like to lose someone whom they so deeply love. I think, accordingly, that this is not a book for very young readers who have not yet experienced death. To remedy this, somewhat, Goodman transforms the tale from a story about herself into a kind of folk-tale or even fairy tale:

             He said he would banish all the mirrors in the kingdom. Beyond
             the aspect of reflection the image would not reveal itself….
                  He hid the mirrors. He covered them. He refused to relinquish
             the code that would allow them to reappear. She kept asking for
             that memory. The numbers the dates the symbols. Where had he
             hidden them—those sentences that spoke of recovery. Charged
             with the energy of subtle frenzy. She searched for them. In every
             corner of every space. In sleep she dreamt about them. Those
             frail images—the surface of belief.


Employing the Jewish tradition of covering all the mirrors in one’s house after a death, Goodman transforms her experiences into a kind of mythic story that also represents her attempts to heal herself. By trying to find the mirrors, she displays her own desire to come back to see the world as it is reflected upon us.

     And in the very next section, we begin to see a kind of magical recovery, projected upon a fictional “him.”

              In the village. The first words that came to him. Walking down
              the street. Early spring, Birds. Sage. Lemons. Words came to
              him fragments. Today. Only today. What could this mean.


     If the center does not quite hold for long, peace and meaning come gradually through language, the very language of Goodman’s book, and does begin to restore the narrative voice back to life. By the end of Book 2—itself a kind of colloquy of short maxims and fragmented observations—the “hero” has begun to sleep and move forward:

               Begin, sleep, he says. even when dreams replace your nights.
               even when dreams replace you. written agreements in the
               courtyard. blossom. 

               How do you leave the space you’ve walked in.


The answer to that implied question is “to carry the voice,” to speak a language that “is no longer the image of i.”

     By the third section, finally, “the garden renews itself.” As she lays in the garden reading the book, the narrator finally invites the reader to “join her. sit. hold the book.”  The private sorrow has turned into a public act. And Goodman embraces the reader, asking him to “remember the girl. turn the page. look at the image. feel the page,” to even answer her question, “what must the girl do.”

     This gifted author ends her work in a long prose poem titled “Night Garden,” answering, like Molly Boom, “yes,” to the voyage into darkness, a kind of dream garden “full of green.” She can now truly “go home.” But her final sentence suggests the dilemma of her long voyage through sorrow, “Where, I ask.”

      Perhaps it is not accidental, that during and soon after the writing of this book, she and her husband moved from Los Angeles into a new house in the town in which she and her family had long lived, Orange, California.

Los Angeles, June 10, 2017          

Howard and I knew the mother of whom Rebecca Goodman writes, Suzanne—not particularly well, but enough to have experienced her joyous personality and the good food she cooked. On several occasions we joined Rebecca, her husband Martin, Rebecca’s father and other family members at Jewish holidays, and utterly enjoyed their company. After Suzanne’s death, I got to know Rebecca’s father quite well when I spent nights with him at local Orange restaurants and the Nakell home during the weeks I taught, replacing Martin, suffering from operations for Parkinson’s Disease, at Chapman University. I love even today his witty observations and our shared admiration for Bombay gin. In many respects, I now feel to have been part of Rebecca’s loving family.