Friday, June 27, 2008


Of course it is a bit of joke when the newspapers and schools hand out reading lists for the summer but many years ago The New York Times did run a feature and writers talked about what they were planning to read and Gilbert Sorrentino talked about CADENZA by Ralph Cusack a book I had learned of in Grogan's in Dublin which in turn lead to knowing Jack O'Brien just as he was launching the Review of Contemporary Fiction and then Dalkey Archive some years later...

So I was thinking about this summer and suggesting that my kids and others might enjoy some suggestions:

---JOURNEY TO THE END OF NIGHT by Louis Ferdinand Celine is the only book I know that describes the actual constant state of war that I (born in 1944) have lived through as has the world and which looks like continuing into the long future.
To have not read this book is to...

---STORM OF STEEL by Ernst Junger. While describing Junger's experience in World War One it is the best description of combat as it is actually experienced and even though the war he describes is seemingly of a long gone moment the experience of combat has not dated and this has been confirmed to me by young men who have come back from service in Iraq who are glad to have found a book that captures what they felt. Unlike Junger they did not have as he did the pleasure of reading TRISTRAM SHANDY while they served in Iraq but that is a commentary on the sad stupidity of American education...

---ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac is--- if we need one--- the great modern American novel but of course it is more than that. Finally about the idea of going and going and going and our need for friendship even if in the end...
Loathed by academics and so-called well-read readers of The New York Review of Books ON THE ROAD is the most cheerful book I know because it is rooted in Kerouac's genuine understanding of the brevity of life

---THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCE and WAR & WAR by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Hungary is now the most interesting country in Europe in terms of literature. Just to mention Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy, Imre Kertesz, Sandor Marai, Zsuzsa Bank (THE SWIMMER) and the soon to be published Attila Bartis (TRANQUILITY)... and you can begin with any of these writers and we are fortunate with a number of their books now available but it is KRASZNAHORKAI who has been a little over-looked though many know him indirectly through the movies of Bela Tarr and in particular his WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES--- the two opening scenes of this movie are to my mind among the greatest moments I have ever experienced in all of my years---

... it is KRASZNAHORKAI who shoves over Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett, Bernhard... I could go on with the listing... and I could well imagine listening to someone reading him to me on my deathbed. Sadly I had hoped that my daughter who is nearly bilingual in French and English would be able to sit down and read to me the banned books of Celine in my senility but I now realize she should have been learning Hungarian
instead of French

Let me quote a passage from WAR & WAR: he understood nothing, nothing at all about anything, for Christ's sake, nothing at all about the world, which was the most terrifying realization, he said, especially in the way it came to him in all its banality, vulgarity, at a sickeningly ridiculous level, but this was the point, he said, the way that he, at the age of forty-four, had become aware of how utterly stupid he seemed to himself, how empty, how utterly blockheaded he had been in his understanding of the world these last forty-four years, for, as he realized by the river, he had not only misunderstood it, but had not understood anything about anything, the worst part being that for forty-four years he thought he had understood it, while in reality...

---GOING TO PATCHOGUE by Thomas McGonigle. I re-read this book last night and while originally published in 1992 and well reviewed it was never done into paperback so now exists in a certain limbo... about a young man going out to Patchogue a village on Long Island near New York City... about being in the village and the coming back to the city by way of Bulgaria.
A sort of commentary on Turgenev's and Beckett's FIRST LOVE...
the perfect travel book while being also a celebration of what did not seem to be there until written about.
Devoid of filler GOING TO PATCHOGUE demands attention line by line and each of those lines was written in the hope that the reader has not read them before.
Lord Patchogue would approve if allowed to by Jacques Rigaut

And now just a list:

---ABSALOM, ABSALOM! by William Faulkner
---SOMEONE by Robert Pinget
---HOPSCOTCH by Julio Cortazar
---PARADISO by Jose Lezama Lima
---LIFE A USER'S MANUAL By Georges Perec
---A BRIEF LIFE by Juan Carlos Onetti
---LARVA by Julian Rios
---CORRECTION by Thomas Bernhard
---THE DEAD OF THE HOUSE by Hannah Green
---GATHERING EVIDENCE by Thomas Bernhard

Saturday, June 14, 2008



I go to Brooklyn to visit the dead. That is when I was younger and we would go into Brooklyn to go to funerals. On the wall of a room in a great aunt's house was a tinted photograph of a relative who had lost his arm at Gettysburg.


I was telling a clerk in a bookstore that is getting ready to leave Manhattan for Brooklyn---after asking, Why? The lease is up.--- that I well know the trivial reasons why people move to Brooklyn but my parents fled that place in the winter of 46/47.
---You sound like it is war torn zone...

(I was in the bookstore to look for THE ORPHIC VOICE by Elizabeth Sewell which I had read about in an article by Mark Scroggins on Ronald Johnson.

Earlier that day in The Strand I bought a little book by her on Paul Valery which has a suggestive opening which reveals how far we have come from what writing about books was all about:

Magic mirror on the wall,/Who is the fairest one of all?

There are some people who cannot pass a looking-glass without a slight disturbance in their imagination...

Sewell will go on to write about mirrors as a way into Valery...)


To live in New York City is to live in Manhattan.


Going to Brooklyn by subway is coming up the stairs to the provinces.


In the newspapers there is talk of writers living in Brooklyn, a literary community in Brooklyn and a community of writers living in Brooklyn or we are a community of writers in Brooklyn... you get the drift of the dreariness: anyone uttering phrases like these is of the dead, or rather dead of ear, dead to history.

Imagine Joyce or Proust saying something along the lines: I am a member of the Paris community of writers or I am part of the community of writers in Paris...


Of course these writers--- usually "successful" whatever that might mean--- and we know what it usually means: I got a lot of money for something of an accident and then there are the hangers on, the servants of accident.


But Brooklyn: a thin population of white people who could live anywhere--- and a couple so-called successful Black folk and all the rest who do not look like them and who are waiting, waiting... patiently being studied by the Bagatelles pour un massacre


So go to Brooklyn to visit the dead and dying.


A momentary fit.


Ezra Pound would demand: and by what standards do you dismiss books written by people who live in Brooklyn?

Arbitrary to be sure.

Does anyone read books written by people who claim to live in Canada?


The late George Garrett told a story of being hired by the Ford Foundation the year they decided to give grants to writers. The foundation was swamped with thousands and thousands of applications. George and another person were hired to screen these piles in a weekend. Two guys and the director. The director announced: toss out all the male applicants for the first two hours. George thought to himself: well, he's the director and he must know what he is doing so they did it for the two hours and now had a much reduced pile of applicants in front of him. The director then said as you open the applications toss out all the women and anyone over 65.

You get the drift. The piles as the two days went on became manageable and the money was gotten rid of.

What I learned from that experience, George said, it would have been fairer to toss all the applications down the stairs and the ones that happened to reach the bottom would get the money.

THE LESSON: when you read an author blurb glowing with grants--- how do you think about the guy who just won the lottery?


A literary standard by which I slur the writers who admit to living in Brooklyn.

I have been reading the recently published BEIJING COMA by Ma Jian. (FSG) The novel tries to describe all of the recent history of China through the imagined life of a man who has been in a coma since the massacre at Tiananmen Square and as he gradually comes back to the world he relives his and his family's existence in China and by implication the whole modern history of China. The man's father was sent to a re-education camp for 22 years..."My father had long since severed his ties with his elder brother...during the reform movement in the early 1950s, when Mao ordered land to be redistributed to the poor and classified landowners as the enemy of the people, my grandfather, who owned two fields and three cows, was branded an 'evil tyrant'. My father's brother was forced to bury him alive. Had he refused, he himself would have been executed."

By comparison Brooklyn writers to a man or to a woman seem trivial.

I have spared you the taste of the dirt in the grandfather's mouth...

And don't mention Paul Auster and and and... not even his publisher reads Paul Auster's new books.

Sunday, June 1, 2008



Three dead men. The most recent in the evening of May 25,2008. George Garrett, Chad Walsh and Bink Noll. Three teachers. Three writers.

A person first becomes an adult when their parents die. They become old or older when their teachers die.

In 1962 professors read student applications to college. That is probably hard to believe today. Now professors have abdicated one of their essential roles: the selection of students they want to teach. I later learned that Chad Walsh had read my application to Beloit College. What stayed in his mind: in answer to the question: what was the last book you had read I had answered Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. And that was a fact. Walsh became my adviser and facilitated my dropping out of Beloit in order to spend my third year at University College, Dublin. This again was before the organized nonsense of sending large groups of American students abroad to waste a year getting drunk with each other. Walsh read with interest my writings and we remained friends until his death. I still look at a textbook he wrote, Doors Into Poetry, a genuine introduction to poetry. He edited an anthology which included the much overlooked work of Gil Orlovitz. While I was at the college Walsh published a book of poetry, The Unknowing Dance, and inscribed it, "I'll buy a copy of your first one and you can autograph it for me."

Two years ago when I drove through Marion, Virginia I remembered that Walsh was originally from that town and had worked on the newspaper there that Sherwood Anderson had edited at the end of his life. Anderson's fate was something Walsh hinted at in regards to the vagaries of fame... In the public library I was happy to discover a folder had been established to collect clippings about Chad Walsh. For a time Walsh was a frequent book reviewer and was one of the writers responsible for establishing C. S. Lewis in the United States...

When I was at loose ends and teaching seventh grade in a Catholic school in Menasha, Wisconsin where my parents had been exiled to from Patchogue, Walsh suggested I might go to Hollins College and get a MA. Walsh had been to Hollins the previous year and had met GEORGE GARRETT.


George Garrett was the best sort of a teacher: worldly wise and widely read. He sought no disciples and only tried to help a student find his own voice. Happily he leaves no school behind, no quirks or attitudes or themes that students can easily mimic.

The best memorial for Garrett can be found in reading his novel, Death of the Fox, a poem, Three Night Poems, the story, A Wreath for Garibaldi. These three works will send you to sample his 34 books.

Again at loose ends now in February 1970 only wanting to continue writing I was sitting in Garrett's office at Hollins College and he suggested that I should go to Columbia. Two years in New York City. I agreed and he called right there and then Frank MacShane the head of the graduate writing program. After a few minutes of talk Garrett got off the phone and said, "You've been accepted, now fill out the application and tell them how much money you want." I went to Columbia for two years. I published two little stories in The Village Voice--- Goodbye W.H. Auden and A Son's Father's Day--- and could not be bothered to re-type my writings on the special paper Columbia demanded for the MFA degree.

So now I had learned in America what I had learned really and not theoretically in the People's Republic of Bulgaria: it is all a matter of connections.

Five years ago which is the last time I saw Garrett he had me invited to the University of Tennessee for a conference celebrating his life and work. He arranged that the university give me a honorarium and he himself paid for the plane ticket as he knew I did not have the money. I gave a little talk. It along with the other talks was to have been published in a book by the university but Garrett was a realist and knew that the book was only talk and that the conference itself had been a dry run in the hopes of running a conference for a far more famous writer who was obviously Cormac McCarthy. George accepted this situation as it allowed people like me to come down to Tennessee and allowed his friends to meet each other.

Just after receiving the e-mail on May 24, 2008 explaining that Garrett was at home under hospice care I wrote to George and Susan his wife of so many years what I knew was likely to be a farewell letter... telling them of sitting earlier that day on the aluminum bleachers watching my son playing baseball at Groton School with an unobstructed view of the chapel across a far field and later trying to tell the headmaster (who well knew the history) of how I was then also remembering standing in front of the Episcopal church in Tombstone and how in less than two months I would be standing in front of that church again with my son and how it seemed to be beyond words to describe this linking of the founder of Groton School with the same man, Endicott Peabody, who had actually built that first church in Tombstone having arrived in that notorious town just after the famous gunfight and how he had collected the money for the church from participants and observers of that gun fight... but in the actual writing to George and Susan, I wrote, George had shown the way in his own writing and with much effort and a deep trust in words that it was possible to link the present to the ever present past as surely as Peabody's chapel on that sunny Saturday in New England was intimately related to a church now just around the corner from the site of the gunfight at the OK Corral, in Tombstone, the town too tough to die.

Maybe in my letter I should have just remembered Garrett's last published book, Double Vision, which is about a writer named George Garrett who asked to review a biography of a former neighbor Peter Taylor in turn invents another character who in turn is reviewing a book about a neighbor. Late in the book Garrett had his fictional character, "Frank also copies down one sentence from a piece, "The writer's Life" by Thomas McGonigle: The dead are always with us...

In the morning of what turned out to be the day of Garrett's death, Susan wrote to me that she appreciated my letter and would read it to George. I wonder if it was one of the last things he heard...


Always linked to these two men is Bink Noll who was a professor of English at Beloit College. Noll was an elegant poet with an impeccable Ivy League background who published three books of poetry---The Center of the Circle, The Feast and The House--- in his life time. As he got older he became gay and lived with a man named Wayne who was from the hometown of Ed Gein the inspiration for Psycho. In Bink's basement Wayne edited a magazine EDINITE which was devoted to the male nipple and those who treasured them. Garrett had been the sponsor of Noll's third book of poetry published by Louisiana State University Press, The House.

As his life wore on Noll was afflicted with much illness: he made light of his colostomy and how changing the bag was just one more item in his morning ritual. Noll was always a good host when in the early 1980s I used to make a pilgrimage about the Midwest visiting Chicago (Jack O'Brien), Milwaukee (James Liddy), Madison (Paul Rux)... Bloomington (Marcia Cebulska) Baltimore (Jenny Burdick) Washington (Lucja)...

Noll told me a very good story about his experience when invited to read his poetry at Princeton. At the train station he was met by a student as his host had been called away. When they got to the hall--- more a lounge, Noll noticed and with only four or so kids in attendance. The show must go on The young man told Bink that the host had given him a paragraph to read as an apology and introduction. Even before that happened one of the four left the room. As the introduction was being read two more students left. The host student left as he had a class to get to. So Bink was standing at the podium with his one man audience. Noll began to read from The House. He read two poems and then noticed that the student in the audience had raised his hand. Bink asked, Yes? and the young man replied, Sir, no disrespect but I was wondering how long you planned to go on because I am studying for a physics final.

Bink concluded his story by saying, and that is how I came to give a reading at Princeton with no one in the audience. Princeton did send him a check, he was happy to note, only two months after the reading. The student host had forgotten to give it to him.

That story was repeated by George Garrett at the celebration at the University of Tennessee and is known as the Bink Noll at Princeton story. It is the great consolation story and underlines what is all so obvious...

PS: a version of this has appeared at the Jacket Copy blog of the book section of the Los Angeles Times. June 4, 2008