Friday, September 26, 2008

COMMENTARY ON TODAY: things don't change

from H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.


Democracy: The worship of jackals by jackasses.


Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.


The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.


The men the American public admires most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.


The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.


Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

A selection supplied by Paul Rux.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


"You live only as long as you can lie into the mug of anybody, and without batting an eye. And when you can't lie anymore, well, it's time to get hold of that razorblade."

from TRANQUILITY by Attila Bartis. (Archipelago Books)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An ordinary incident in one of their camps in Communist Bulgaria

Something from my other life. is what I took from George and I am telling Karri about George's story which I took to calling The Shroud. Recollection, at times, fills up the room he was telling me of when he had been asking in Bulgaria--- that year when he was there for the whole year--- about what had gone on in the camps under the Communists. He was interested in the camp of Lovech because it was near Pleven where he grew up. He had been surprised the executioners and the victims both wanted to forget their times in the camp. He had been told of an incident which happened with certain regularity. There would be the usual roll-call in the morning after which the men were issued with shovels and other tools but on certain days one man would be issued, in addition to his shovel or rake, a large dirty piece of canvas, that he was expected to carry all day as he went about his assigned digging in the field. This was nothing new. He and everyone knew what was coming. Suddenly, sometime during the day, the man carrying the piece of canvas would be set upon by the guards and slowly and methodically beaten to death with long clubs. The other prisoners and guards would watch this activity. The body would later be rolled onto the canvas and taken away. No one remembered any sound ever being uttered by the guards, the other prisoners or now, the dead man.
This activity never varied except for one time which was mentioned by three of people George talked to. One day the commandant who always participated in the beatings brought along his son who must have been around 11 or 12 years old. The boy was forced to stand close to his father and while he was not allowed to beat the prisoner he was still splashed with the victim's blood and it seemed so calculated, these people said because they remember very specifically how the father had drawn a line in the dirt and told his son to stand behind it, not to move, no matter what.
These details of calculation were what held George and how, while people mentioned them, there was never a second of refection upon what it might mean. There was a polishing of the detail as if that is all that mattered. It could have been that people or the people I talked to did not have sentences to describe what they had seen beyond the facts of what they had seen.
He was sure I could imagine that man carrying the piece of canvas or possibly the boy standing there behind the line in the earth, but you were not there so that might allow your imagination to… though that is unfair

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

LIBRARY OF AMERICA: why it is the center of any real library


The LIBRARY OF AMERICA is one of the brightest lights in the dimming world American publishing and I have followed it since its beginning. i have been both appalled and pleased with it all these years. At first I was almost prepared to define the Library of America as being the gold standard of publishing but in fact that must be the PLEIADE editions published by Gallimard in Paris.


Not in my lifetime will there ever be an English language equivalent of the Pleiade whose books are models of publishing beauty and integrity. In Paris, when an author is selected for the Pleiade all of that author's works are published complete with well written notes. This is not the habit of the Library of America and it has resulted in two truly botched books which should be withdrawn. I am speaking of the Gertrude Stein and the Richard Wright volumes. They are embarrassment and do an active dis-service to the reputations of the authors.


But over the years I have constantly read in the Library of America's Poe, Faulkner, Melville (though Melville's poetry is not included)Henry James, Henry Adams... OK the list can go but simply put my room would be bare indeed with the Library of America. It is a putting aside of those paperbacks and becoming an adult.


I already know that in February/March there will be volumes devoted to John Cheever, Lafcadio Hearn and A. J. Liebling...


But in the now I have been reading in the new volumes devoted to Katherine Ann Porter, William Maxwell, John Ashbery and Philip Roth. It must be understood that one usually does not sit down and read these sorts of books cover to cover no matter what reviewers pretend... one of the details that emerged from the discussion of the suicide of David Foster Wallace was that he was well aware that many of the reviewers of his big novel INFINITE JEST had not read the whole book... and all astute readers well understand the fakery in much of the writing about books in the United States. Readers should find Jack Green's great defining book FIRE THE BASTARDS (Dalkey Archive) on just how truly awful book reviewing in in the United States.


How does one read the Library of America books?... I was reminded of Ed Burns talking about his summers with Michel Leiris in France. Before setting out for their summer holidays there would be the going to the bookstore to decide on what would be read that summer... inevitably a Pleiade edition would be selected both because of the ease of carrying those beautiful books and the authority of the editions... Ed was remembering the summer of Goncharov... unlike the Library of America the Pleiade thinks of itself as creating a library of world literature...


I have been reading in the Ashbery...a poet that becomes readable with the distance of this edition. One has to carry a poet when one goes traveling and Ashbery helps with seeing what is OUT THERE.

Now should he be up there with Ezra Pound? or T.S. Eliot? or William Carlos Williams?


The Katherine Ann Porter volume collects her stories and journalism... and while the stories are essential the missing SHIP OF FOOLS is a serious problem and something that would not have happened it this had been the Pleiade. I read the bound galleys of the Porter stories while in Arizona and in the California desert. By making them available again our literature seems a little more populated just as happened with the two volumes devoted to John Dos Passos...


The second William Maxwell volume is more a homage to his role as an editor at The NEW YORKER and his still living presence in New York literary circles though I am pretty sure that the actual man, who I met at Glenway Wescott's memorial service, would be a little embarrassed by these volumes because with no volume devoted to Sherwood Anderson there is no context for his own work. Maxwell would probably also suggest that Glenway Wescott should also have appeared before his own books were published. Of course the Maxwell volumes are treasured for the quality of the writing, for their sheer readability but there is something a little wrong in how naked they sit in the Library of America and I can well imagine that Maxwell, if still alive would rather be talking about Anderson and Wescott's work than his own.


At the moment I am in the midst of a discussion about education at John Jay College here in New York City. Of course the relevant document is in the volume devoted to Thomas Jefferson... about the power of the sweeping broom and the necessity of sweeping out the faded leaves... to allow what remains to flourish...


The Cheever volumes at least seem to collect all his fiction though we will have to see when they appear...


I am looking forward to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, more Kerouac, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, the poetry of Melville, the remaining Henry James, Howells...James Baldwin... Edward Dahlberg and of course as I mentioned above: Glenway Wescott and Sherwood Anderson...


How many publishers invite expectation anymore in the United States?

Monday, September 8, 2008

ALFRED A KNOPF PUBLISHERS DIED or is Sonny Mehta Really Dead?

The news arrived today that some time ago the venerable publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf died. The death notice arrived in the form of their Spring 2009 catolog which is expected to be their last though there is no real telling given the unreliability of communications these days.

Readers of course have known that the current Alfred A. Knopf has long been living on the interest from the memory of certain books this firm published over the years. While they were a very prolific firm it was sustained by a list that would include I THE SUPREME by Augusto Roa Bastos, WARRENPOINT by Denis Donoghue, TIME REMAINING by James McCourt, GEEK LOVE by Katherine Dunn, THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES by Robert Musil, SOME INSTRUCTIONS by Stanley Crawford, WOMEN AND MEN by Joseph McElroy and the many books of Thomas Bernhard including CORRECTION, FROST, EXTINCTION, GATHERING EVIDENCE. There was the rumour that possibly a collected stories by Thomas Bernhard might eventually be published but it seems the firm's death has put such hopes to the wall.

The evidence of the death of Alfred A. Knopf comes from a study of the catalog in which the dead and the recently dead are mingled with startling promiscuity: in the fiction division "work" by Maeve Binchy, Elie Wiesel, Jayne Anne Phillips are counterpointed with novels by an unknown editor of a once prosperous newspaper and a surgeon from Stanford University while in the poetry division only the dead are being published: Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, Jack Gilbert and J. D. McClatchy still evidently--- through the miracle of science--- writing from beyond the grave... there are some so-called nonfiction books ripped from today's and yesterday's newspaper headlines: the battle of Vicksburg is there with just what you have long been wanting to read, a biography of John Cheever... and then anotherbiography of Cornelius Vanderbilt.. there are two novels by female graduates of Harvard University and that is a certification of genuine awfulness... and one can easily over-look a novel by a female Canadian but that is to be forgotten before it is even published as was her earlier book... such is the sad fate of Canadian literature, a literature killed by generous government subvention.

And then beyond satire is Spade & Archer, a "prequel" to The Maltese Falcon.. I kid you not, and the bitter snickering laughter must continue with the new and collected stories of Jay McInerney along with three trashy British novels by Walker, Mason and Hensher, otherwise known as The Shirt Makers of Jermyn Street, London.

I almost forgot: there is more death on display: another translation of Cavafy by the New Jersey writer Daniel Mendelsohn as if Edmund Keeley's versions didn't exist... why would anyone bother?...

The academy sadly is well represented by sure to be dreary unreadable books by Alan Wolfe who thinks that liberalism has a future and Elaine Showalter discovering--- guess what?--- women writers... and there is Jebediah Purdy writing about the meaning of freedom while teaching law at Duke where I wonder if it still unsafe to be a white lacrosse player...

It is a sad day knowing that Alfred A. Knopf Publishers has died and I take no pleasure in any of this.
Is it possible that Sonny Mehta died and a stand-in has been steering the ship?
I did hear a rumour that it is possible Mehta died in a plane crash on his way south where he was to work on a sequel to Bill Clinton's Memoir which had the provocative title, THE PRESIDENT'S BODY but that has not been confirmed though it was alluded to in a recent communication from Patrick Chamoiseau from Martinique where he had been awaiting Mehta and where Pat has been hard at work on EXXON also a sequel as it happens, to his famous the mostly unread novel, TEXACO.