Thursday, January 18, 2018

                  A Bulgarian Novel Written in English
                             By Thomas McGonigle

                            the book concerns itself with a violent useless death in Upstate and the journey by two people about in Bulgaria later in the same year on what is called the Aerial Tollway which in the Bulgarian Orthodox tradition, a person upon death finds his/her soul taken on the tollway to be judged... this goes on for forty days and then                      


            There must have been places in the trailer in the mobile home, in Linda’s house, where she lives as she wants to live…
            Places of what might have been… 
            A very arch way of…
            Folders stuffed with pieces of paper covered with Cyrillic writing.  No one could read it.
            It all gets tossed. 
            No one wants any of it and in truth it is all just a mess, her brother say.
            To see the ragged edges of the folders, I don’t know when she stops looking into them or when she decides she can’t do anything with them. 
            Surely, she knows there comes a moment but still you can’t throw them away, Linda must have been thinking… and then there is mess from the dogs, over the years, but the stuff is still there and now it is even a bigger mess but no one can read any of it.
            What must it have been like to realize she isn’t about to get right back to the Bulgarian stuff?
            Linda must remember when she jokes about how Americans are always starting again, even when they are in their 80s… we are always starting again, wiping out the past and getting on with it as they say in Nebraska.  Everybody in Nebraska knows someone who has moved on finally, finally after a hundred years of trying to make a new start… and they end up down there in Arizona or some such place…
            She must be thinking  someday some way she might get a chance but she never talks to her brother about any of this or to any of the people she works with.  While one or two of them might know where Bulgaria is no one really wants to talk about that far-away place and she hadn’t much patience, anymore with explaining and gradually even she is aware of how hard it is to work up interest in that place that doesn’t want her interest in their history.
            Linda isn’t like the naïve girl who wants to research a Rumanian village in Bulgaria and how Rumanian memory survives in Bulgaria… to even have to begin to  explain to someone why that is a taboo subject…
            Those pages in their folders, she must look at them or looked toward them and knows what is there: the pages of notes because it is hard to make photocopies… there are limits and permissions to be gotten and then the machines didn’t work…
            No one could know the sheer difficulty of working in Bulgaria. 
            And then there is the actual pages before her… written in a cursive penmanship in the 19th Century and then trying to find someone who she could talk to about this and there is really no one and anyone who might be interested is more interested in using her to get to the US or wanting to talk about the price of jeans or God knows what…
            Those pages of her notes, those ladders never going up into the scholarly air of accomplishment, as might be…
            Each time, Linda must think when I open a folder all I find is myself digging a hole into which I will be thrown:

                                                                            how could I have ever picked this topic of women in 19th Century Bulgaria… always wives or sisters or mothers of who is supposed to be a more famous man… it is not an edifying situation, she must be thinking on a good day.
            WOMEN IN BULGARIA.  She is discouraged and then the sitting in Mississippi in a college for women worshiping at the shrine of Eudora Welty whose age has sanded off just how radical a woman she had been: but now she is a shrine…
            Linda must look at her penmanship, at those notes…
            When did she…


Saturday, January 6, 2018

DEVASTATION of a sorts

     This post is to serve as a preface to a short voyage to California and on to the Arizona desert...


EMPTY AMERICAN LETTERS a Bulgarian novel written in English







       By making the list I see what I have done... but I also see what has not happened: these manuscripts have not been seen into print.  
      Of course the fault is mine.  
      To even hesitate about: of course the fault is mine

      Most  of these manuscripts have been seen by editors---guys like like Richard Seaver, Daniel Halpern, and others whose names... who claimed they admired my work, guys who I knew for more than 35 years at least but the excuse: sales and being dictated to by the sales department... for whatever reason they were not prepared to suspect the books might sell well as happened at DALKEY ARCHIVE, where John O'Brien under-estimated sales and reviews so had to go back to press for GOING TO PATCHOGUE


      Sections, parts, prepared slides from the following books have been published:  FORGET THE FUTURE in BOMB as well as in THE CREAM CITY REVIEW...  AND AGAIN CHANGE: JOHN WESLEY in THE NOTRE DAME REVIEW, as was THE END AND A BEGINNING...  JUST LIKE THAT--- the opening and the conclusion appeared in THE READING ROOM edited by Barbara Probst Solomon.

AND so, even I, a connoisseur of self-loathing  can't go on with this and was thinking of the positive response to the selection from EMPTY AMERICAN LETTERS an Bulgarian novel in English that I read at the Bulgarian Consulate in New York City and I will not refrain from mentioning the sort of thumbs-up from Georgia Gospodinov and his wife Biliana Kourtasheva who introduced the reading  which lead me to realize that both THE CORPSE DREAM OF N. PETKOV and EMPTY AMERICAN LETTERS a Bulgarian novel written in English revolve or are instigated by the contemplation of a dead person.  PETKOV found a home in both English at Dalkey Archive Press and at Northwestern University Press and even in a  Bulgarian journal Svreminik , a "thick" journal much like Novy Mir, the famous Russian journal, upon which it was modeled while EMPTY... is a pile of pages on the desk by which I type this and in a digital form within the machine... but the corpse that launched this manuscript was turned to ashes for which there was no burial site in Upstate New York, while that narrator journeys on the aerial  toll-way of a soul within the Orthodox Christian belief looking for a place to... in Bulgaria. 

Monday, December 25, 2017


      Many years ago in Paris I was telling Julian Green of being an altar boy at St. Francis De Sales Church in Patchogue and having the feeling that I was sitting on the lap of Jesus. "O, how I envy you," Green said, "I converted too late."

      Last night at Midnight Mass at St Bartholomew Church here in Milltown/East Brunswick, New Jersey I finally really understood what Green meant.  Back then I thought how could this member of the French Academy (the only foreigner and an American), this prolific author of books that would survive his own mortality, this close friend of Gide and Mauriac envy me anything?  

       As I was attending Mass last night with my wife Anna--- with whom I had earlier that morning gone to the Estonian Lutheran Church Christmas service down in Lakewood--- I thought of serving Midnight Mass in Patchogue so many years ago and I thought of other Midnight Christmas Masses I attended: in 1968 in Menasha, Wisconsin with my parents when I had come back from Ireland and Bulgaria with Lilia, in 1972 in Saugerties three days after the death of my mother,  in the tiny Catholic church in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1973 after the death of my father the previous August... and more recently over the years with my children Elizabeth and Lorcan and their mother in St. Brigid's Church on Tompkins Square and more recently for many years with Anna at Presentation on East Third Street...  

       And of course finally I really knew now why Green was envious of me:  the belief that comes both before and after reason--- he had once written a short book attacking the rationality of the French church--- which of course is the great flaw of French civilization.  

     One hopes to never lose that belief though so often it can get lost in the clutter of argument for finally argument is always a celebration of a sort of unappetizing arrogance.  

    The true grandeur of the church lies in the fragility of that memory of serving Midnight Mass at St. Francis de Sales Church in Patchogue.  


Saturday, December 9, 2017

THE TYPING DEAD (on William Gass)

      Some years ago in reviewing a book by J. P. Donleavy for the Chicago Tribune I remarked that while prolific he like Vladimir Nabokov, equally prolific, would be remembered for one book: The Ginger Man, Lolita. 
       That is why I reject the phrase: de mortuis nil nisi bonum

      Finally a death certificate and obituary have been issued for one of the typing dead: William Gass… of course in the near future it is likely we will be seeing such announcements for others of the typing dead: Don DeLillo, Joyce Oates and Robert Coover while some of the pre-maturely typing dead: Jonathan Franzen, Ali Smith, Jonathan Safron Foer—will serve as typical of the younger typing dead.
     Gass is part of a long tradition of the typing dead… at one time in second hard bookstores you could always find examples from previous times: John Sanford,  Waldo Frank, John Hawkes,  Philip Wylie are typical  examples--- the mystery of whatever did people find in these writers that is now no longer apparent…
        William Gass, if he had fallen silent after publishing the long story In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,  would have assured his writing of a real place in the literary world, much as Tillie Olson did with her very short collection of stories Tell Me a Riddle or Hannah Green did with her one short novel The Dead of the House… but in the case of Gass with each book of fiction or non-fiction  after In the Heart of the Heart of the Country the hole he dug for himself became bigger and  deeper… in particular the books of criticism which were finally exercises in style lacking any content thus leaving a reader hard-pressed to say what the essay had been about other than to murmur, it sounded pretty good but what was he trying to say ?...  while the blobs of “fiction” were just that and you can see for yourself by  using the method suggested by Ezra Pound: choose at random say page 51 in Gass’s Middle C or in The Tunnel and compare them to the same page in say Celine’s Rigadoon or in Thomas Bernhard’s Correction.  My case is thus rested and to think both the Celine and the Bernhard are translations…

        Altogether a sad fate for a one time professor of philosophy who was promoted or demoted into  a professor of humanities while being  proclaimed a genius by his current publisher upon his death…



Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Preface to another day of my walking  from THE WORKER by Ernst Junger (Northwestern University Press, 2017):

...And it is a comforting thought that, because of some secret correspondence, the development of more monumental means of destruction keeps step with the accumulation and conservation of so-called cultural goods.  The vicarious and derivative proliferation of these goods--- in other words, the business of art, culture, and education--- has acquired such proportions  that we can see the need to lighten our baggage, whose fundamental and comphrehensive extent is barely conceivable.  The worst is not that a circle of connoisseurs, collectors, snoopers, and curators gathers around every cast-off shell ever borne on the back of a living snail.  This has always been the case albeit to a far more modest extent..  Much more dubious is that from this bustle a set of ready-made values has emerged behind which an utter deadness is concealed.  We are dealing here with shadows of things, and advertising has been made into the central concept of a culture alienated from any primordial force.  (Written 1932---my emphasis


Wednesday walking about:  at Zurcher Gallery a painting by Matt Bollinger caught the eye in its perfect representation the perfect balance of colours and shape...  so rare today even for this painter whose works usually seem to be on a larger scale and are often with much more in the frame but here I am glad of just the steps ether going up or going down...

in contrast is the three floor show of "work" by MICHAEL LANDY--- now of the British Academy--which says something of that...basically scraps of political graffitti pasted to the walls... the accident of being taken up by Saatchi  that merchant museum in London...and reflecting nothing else than smart people gambling via art...  and SPERONE WESTWATER is one of the big players with their beautiful building on the Bowery--which in some way makes me long for the cheap bars that used to line that stretch pf the Bowery as this is only a slightly different sort of degridation... 

and while the owners don't foster cirrhosis of the liver, they infect the imagination or maybe they are only a  true reflection of what is the current moment of the liberal radical which demands vast amounts of money and attention but willfully without holding any sense at all of grandeur...of beauty

                                         the text:  I want you inside me.
                                i want to greet you at the door, pull down your pants, and drop to my knees.

Monday, October 16, 2017


What else do I care about

          I saw Sun and Forest by Max Ernst at MOMA in a small show of his work and realized the pity of both time and war NOT doing their fine work in cutting down the number of works by so many of what one has to call modern artists... in particular in the 20th and 21st centuries the amount of art that has survived is unbearable to any thoughtful person.  

         In the world of books  the digital sledgehammer is ever at its destruction of the world of books so that now with books--- except for a few precious ones--- there is hardly any market for used books except through extremely large warehouses or the proliferation of individual sellers on Amazon and similar sites.

        In New York City. the Strand Bookstore  continues in a fashion but it survives by being a destination store for people wanting to buy souvenirs of their visit to New York City.  The second-hand book section is assiduously combed by clerks and books no longer sit on their shelves waiting.  

            Increasingly as I will be doing books are simply put out with the trash... it is not worth one's effort to take them to the shops to sell and the shops if they are possibly interested mostly will not send a truck to collect the books as those books then have to be sorted and most of them will end up on the one and two dollar shelves for a time...   

BUT for now books, books--- a few and I start with H.G. Adler's first book, THERESIENSTADT 1941-1945, The Face of a Coerced Community.

Adler began to save notes for this book when he with his family was sent to this "show-camp" by the Nazis.  Surviving unlike his famy the subsequent deportation to Auschwitz, Adler returned to Czechoslovakia and rescued his notes and after fleeing  that country for England began this massive and really first comprehensive description of A CAMP.  
857 pages.  A book that will endure but few will read as it is very expensive and printed in a small edition by Cambridge University Press.  A book destined for the library YET  the sort of book that should be on the bedside of every thinking person because it is both a reminder of the horror of this camp--- which I trust if you are reading this blog--- are well aware was established by the Germans as a show camp to show how well they were treating the Jews contrary to the common belief  and I will repeat that: a reminder of THIS camp.  Adler concentrates on the experience of being in a camp.  He refuses every opportunity to simplify the story he tells: showing the full range of individual human response to the situation people find themselves in.  Even to site in anyway the details of those described is to needlessly limit the experience...

People avoid and are proud of their avoidance of the great big long books and I always take that this avoidance---every excuse seems so tiny, so mean as not even worth repeating--- as a pathetic need to think of the world as a simple place...Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace, The Man Without Qualities, Death of Virgil, Parallel Lives


 THE BOOK OF DISQUIET by Fernando Pessoa (New Directions) Translated by Margaret Jill Costa.   Some, a few, well know Pessoa... the writer who in some way has come to be listed with Proust, Joyce, Musil... Celine when such lists are made---  of course the most obscure and for me to list him thus might seem more eccentric than called for...yet...  there have been many versions of this book done into English in the last 20 plus years...  and everyone knows the story of Pessoa who never wrote in his own name but always wrote in the voices of a myriad of the invented and then there is vast prose book discovered in a large trunk and assembled by a series of editors... each one with a different approach...I had held to Richard Zenith's version published by Penguin but Zenith has complimented Costa for the quality of her translation... and this is physically a beautiful book with no dust jacket and a starling cover...a book of moods, a book to comfort on the sure way to the grave: the consolation is bracing as the English would say:    find people who are but a series of marginal notes in the book of life
       ...All pleasure is a vice because seeing pleasure is what everyone does in life, and the worst vice of all is to do what everyone else does
       ...every gesture is but a dead dream
       ...intelligence, a fiction composed solely of surface and error
       ...A Homer or Milton is not more than a comet colliding with the earth

           The house of the title is the large apartment complex in Moscow where the bureaucrats who ran the Soviet regime lived with their families during Stalin's time and after. And while it is a little wrong to compare it to War and Peace and The Gulag Archipelago--- as the blurb writers do--- there is a grandeur to it in the great length and in the detailing of the fates of true believers in Soviet Communism who with few qualms of conscience killed anyone who go in the way of the building of the communism in the Soviet Union and now in their own turn they are to be murdered by the very machinery they had created.  The genius of Slezkine is to individualize the murderers and the murdered... one is taken up by their lives and their inevitable terrible ends even for the few survivors who are  all  contaminated.


ErichMaria Remarque was the second writer I came to in Patchogue after Thomas Wolfe and over the years I read all of his books that were translated into English as a result of the great success of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN  FRONT.  ---  I am ssure there are others who  followed his career:  THE BLACK OBELISK, THE ROAD BACK, THREE COMRADES...  THE PROMISED LAND did not get published in the United States ...  


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

PAUSED (for reason?)

A  pause in writing about books has come over me as I am struck silent, nearly, by a number of books: PARALLEL LIVES by Peter Nadas, THE WALL by H. G. Adler, LARVA by Julian Rios, a new version of THE BOOK OF DISQUIET by Fernando Pessoa (New Directions) and a little aside,  a new edition of THE RUIN IS KASCH by Roberto Calasso coming from FSG in January.

Such is not unusual with a moment’s thought if we remember that in the 1920s those who really read were given THE WASTE LAND by T.S. Eliot, ULYSSES by James Joyce and the volumes by Marcel Proust that would become IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME and in the Thirties: JOURNEY TO THE END OF NIGHT by Louis Ferdinand Celine and THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES…

One is also well aware of the masses who can not live alone in such solitude with a select few so the constant weekly announcements continue to appear of this or that masterpiece which has its moment for a week, a month, a season, a year and then… notice how forlorn THE WHITE HOTEL by D.M.Thomas looks when you see it in the Salvation Army book section or possibly a … (fill in any name you want…)

THE NECESSARY SECOND THOUGHT could be supplied with three names:
 Michel Leiris and his two newly published books that are as if passing ghosts in the US: PHANTOM AFRICA and the third book,  FIBRILS, of his memoir RULES OF THE GAME
Fleur Jaeggy has two little books:  THESE POSSIBLE LIVES and I AM THE BROTHER OF XX

A passage from Jaeggy that concerns itself with a photograph of the mother’s audience with the Pope: 
Her daughter, who does not have the depth of the mother has always believed in the surface of things.  And so in beauty.   In appearance.  What does she care about what is inside.  Inside where?  And what is the inside? Anyway the daughter believes more in photographs than in the people portrayed.  A photograph might tell more than a person.  Perhaps.  Naturally perhaps.  No affirmation could lead her to grant total credence to the affirmation itself.

            I would be hard pressed to find any American author who one could imagine writing at this level of thinking and precision.

            To have an audience with the Pope… I imagine I was caught by this as I had been visiting in late August in London a friend  who as a young woman was sent by one of the elderly sisters of the martyred Patrick Pearse  to have a private audience with John XXIII.  The visit was arranged by the Irish ambassador to the Vatican on the orders of someone in Dublin and my friend said she did not know what to say to the Pope after being brought in alone and he could see this so he asked if I had brought anything I would like him to bless.  I had only my glass case in my hand and he  gave that his  blessing sending me on my way.