Thursday, December 25, 2008

VARIETIES OF FAILURE: Cheever. Messerli, Spicer, Littell and Cela


In the new year there will be much talk of John Cheever: two books from the Library of America will collect his stories and novels while there will be a tell-all biography detailing the failure of his life along with the lives of his wife and children. The biography will sell some copies and provide an unintentional, I hope not, distraction from the actual books that Cheever wrote.

The Library of America fell into a sad trap by not publishing the Journals of John Cheever which detail his life that in its failure was more interesting than any of the actual stories or novels--- though some of them are quite readable to be sure. The Journal and the reading of it reminds one of course of E. M. Cioran's great essay on the Crack Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald... and in this moment when two movies are devoted to stories by Fitzgerald it is probably of value to remember the last lines of Cioran's great essay, "Fitzgerald The Pascalian Experience of an American Novelist" from ANATHEMAS AND ADMIRATIONS:

A novelist who wants to be nothing but a novelist undergoes a crisis that for a certain time projects him outside the lies of literature. He wakens to certain truths that devastate his awareness, the repose of his spirit--- a rare event in the world of letters where sleep is de rigueur, an event that in the case that concerns us hast not always been grasped in its true significance. Thus Fitzgerald's admirers deplore the fact that he brooded over his failure and, by dint of ruminating so deeply upon it, spoiled his literary career. We on the contrary deplore that he did not remain sufficiently loyal to that failure, that he did not sufficiently explore or exploit it. It is a second-order mind that can not chose between literature and the "real dark night of the soul."


Douglas Messerli is the publisher of Green Integer Books and what had come before, Sun and Moon Press. With hundreds of books in print Green Integer is one of the most important literary presses in the US.

Messerli is a poet, novelist, critic and teacher. Of late he has been publishing his collected essays on all things cultural in the form of yearly gatherings under the title MY YEAR___. Two have been published so far: MY YEAR 2004 Under our Skin and MY YEAR 2005 Terrifying Times. He has said that friends have asked him to write a memoir of his life and times but he claims he has not an interest in that so these books of collected writings on literature, film, art and both directly and indirectly public affairs can serve as a record of his times and of his participation in the current moment. He eventually will publish both bacwards to 2000 and forward to "the end of his life."

For the most part the essays are reprinted as they were written and of course they serve as a record of his reactions to what he has read, heard, seen...but by refusing to explicate, by refusing to comment beyond a brief introduction Messerli wants the reader to pretend that time has not gone on, and while I know he must still be interested in these essays I want to know why and how we are supposed to read them... of course I think I would rather read Messerli's essays from a far distant moment in time... but he can not live himself into so thirty years from 2004 or 2005... and so again one has to admit that the French have done these things better with the published journals of Andre Gide and Julien Green (remember of course Green is American) Michel Leiris... I miss the dailyness of Messerli's life, his avoidance of the ordinary in which what he read, saw and heard was surely embedded.

Will I read My Year 2006, My Year 2003? Of course.

At the time when I was given the two books of Messerli's I was also given a curious book by Joshua Haigh Letters from Hanusse (The Structure of Destruction: 3) Not having books 1 and 2... I am waiting to see those other books by Messerli in which he seems to be trying to efface himself on the evidence of Letters from Hanusse.


Jack Spicer was a name passed about as being the one real poet whose life and work was the absolute necessary critique of every single poet in the United States. Sadly he seems to have been taken up by a nearly unreadable but fully tenured bunch of so-called poets though there is nothing new in that. He self-published many little books or had them published. He drank himself to death.

In an ideal world you would need only read the Collected Poetry of T. S. Eliot and The COLLECTED POETRY OF JACK SPICER (my vocabulary did this to me) if you wanted to read the very best poetry published in the English language in the 20th Century...

Here is a nice example from 1956:


What can I say to you, darling,
When you ask me for help?
I do not even know the future
Or even what poetry
We are going to write.
Commit suicide. Go mad. Better people
Than either of us have tried it
I loved you once but
I do not know the future.
I only know that I love strength in my friends.
And greatness
And hate the way their bodies crack when they die
And are eaten by images
The fun's over. The picnic's over.
Go mad. Commit suicide. There will be nothing left
After you die or go mad.
But the calmness of poetry.


In March, Harper Collins will publish THE KINDLY ONES written originally in French by Jonathan Littell and now translated. Winner of the Prix Goncourt, among other awards, purports to be the memoir of a high SD officer in Nazi Germany during World War Two. The "novel" is much concerned with the mechanic of murder on a mass scale and how Max Aue participated in the mass killings all the while maintaining a delicious distance from the events. My favorite line is, "And that is how, my ass still full of sperm, that I resolved to enter the Sicherheitdienst."

The reader of THE KINDLY ONES is unsure how to read such a novel. Are we supposed to identify with just how difficult it is to kill women and children, the strain it puts upon the nerves and stomach of the man or woman who has to do the killing: damn it there are just so many of them to kill and the terrible smells and sounds they make... of course we know that Littell is Jewish and that adds an additional level of complexity to one's reading...


AN END NOTE AS COMMENTARY: from Christ Versus Arizona by Camilo Jose Cela:

...each of us has desires nit also loathing and prejudices, we all have our own or received ideas, some are true and others not, prayers are word games, God doesn't listen to them because he doesn't care for wit, and he laughs at the meaning of our little words, too, he laughs at the value of our parables with their timid, meaningless morals, with purposes, sure, but without meanings, God, has a another, harder, truer voice and won't allow himself to be confused by our nattering despite the fact that he keeps hearing about our countless misfortunes, our spectacular and significant misfortunes...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The following appeared today (23 December 2008) in the Los Angeles Times book blog JACKET COPY

On Borrowed Time" at year's end

The end of the year is a celebration of simplification and cliché -- everywhere you find "best of" lists, and, as Jan. 1 approaches, resolutions get made for the new year. Behind those resolutions is the idea that life is short, so you better make some changes right now. (And behind that, of course, is the familiar Latin “vita brevis, ars longa,” usually translated as “Life is short and Art is long.”)

According to "On Borrowed Time" (University of Chicago Press), an endlessly intriguing, illuminating and smart new book by Harald Weinrich, the phrase about life and art had been originally written in Greek in 400 BC by Hippocrates in a little book of “Aphorisms”: It was the very first sentence of the first aphorism (in fact, it was the first four words).

Weinrich, holder of the chair in Romance literature at the College de France, is the author of many books of which two are available in English, "Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting" and "The Linguistics of Lying," the very titles of which suggest their usefulness in our current situation in the United States regarding public and private morality. Weinrich is one of a dying breed of intellectuals (George Steiner and Roberto Calasso among them) and those already dead (Erich Auerbach, Ernst Robert Curtius and Hannah Arendt) who stock the well-read, thoughtful imaginations of readers and move with practiced skill through classical literatures and the major literatures of the world.

Weinrich's book, as it traces the complex meaning of the sentence "Life is short and art is long," offers startling juxapositions of writers such as Emily Dickinson and Pascal, John Keats and Gottfried Benn, Dante and Ben Franklin -- along with Seneca, Gide, Shakespeare and many others. He sends readers back to these writers, and even urges us to see again (if we haven't already) the film "Run Lola Run" or a popular entertainment like "Boeing Boeing" so that we will rethink such simple words as time, art and life.

Here is what he says, for instance, about art: "We must not think of the modern concept of art as it was developed in the cult of genius in the late Enlightenment and in early Romanticism. We must avoid all the ideas of inspiration, spontaneity, and creativity that are associated with this concept. Art...[is]...a complex object of knowledge formulated in rules that can be taught and learned.”

And that idea has been around a lot longer than the course "Introduction to Creative Writing" at your local community college.

The final words of Weinrich's book? “Time in short supply.” Those four words perfectly articulate the inarticulate feeling gripping some of us as we wake on Dec. 26 or Jan. 2. Weinrich will do for the brain what Alka Seltzer does for the stomach.

-- Thomas McGonigle

Tuesday, December 9, 2008



"Culture is based on the treatment of the dead; culture vanishes with the decay of graves--- or rather: this decay announces that the end is nigh." (from Ernst Junger's Aladdin's Problem, a meditation in the form of a novel on end matters but as in all of Junger's work there are other suggestive asides, "The state has become a multi-armed octopus, drawing blood in thousands of ways," and "Business is, after all, other people's money and that is what bankers live on."

Of course Junger is the author of STORM OF STEEL the single best book ever written about the experience of combat.


From one of my favorite books of 2008--- since this is the season for such phrases, though this book is better than that---: PIONEER CEMETERIES Sculpture Gardens of the Old West by Annette Stott, University of Nebraska Press:::

Many cemeteries have been abandoned or gone through periods of total neglect. An article in the Denver Post in April 1967 noted that with its weeds huge ant hills and broken headstones a local nineteenth-century cemetery "actually more closely resembles a dump than a cemetery in this sector. The Helena, Montana, Independent Record ran photographs in May 1980 of hundreds of tombstones and bases "lying hither and thither" in the county gravel pit. The inscriptions dated from 1880 to 1905, and concerned citizens had been asking if road crews, were desecrating an old rural cemetery. Research by the sheriff's department and the Montana State Historical Society as well as letters to the editor gradually revealed the truth. The old Catholic Cemetery near St. Mary's Church in Helena had been turned into a park in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The Booster Club of the Catholic high school had volunteered to help clear the ground, and after obtaining releases from as many descendants as could be located, the tombstones and monuments had been hauled out to the pit, where they were expected to be used as landfill. Many of the oldest cemeteries in Rocky Mountain cities met a similar fate as cities expanded, but more often the monuments were transferred to newer cemeteries. Whether monuments were moved or discarded, all trace of the original cemetery was lost in the process of transforming it into a city park and the recipient cemeteries were also altered.

I trust the point is taken. RURAL CEMETERIES is a moving reminder of the sheer transitory nature of American life. We live in the eternal present and are permanent victims, always surprised, always astonished and if we have a linger memory it is taken as a sign of weakness unless it has been packaged up into expressing the self


I had written of James Liddy in the present tense in a recent post and I received a note questioning my use of the present tense has he was now in the past tense according to google having died in early November.

I have known or rather I first met James Liddy in 1964in Dublin in O'Dwyer's pub at the corner of Lesson Street... and I would have gone on about--- but he did pay me four guineas for the following poem which appeared in the last issue of ARENA, (1965) the most important magazine published in Ireland in the 1960s.


Bright white bird
claim me
for black paradise.

I had to buy a round of drink for among others, James Liddy, Brian Higgins, Anthony Cronin and I think Pearse Hutchinson and Leland Bardwell...

James Liddy's best book is BAUDELAIRE'S BAR FLOWERS and the best poems were published in the three issues of ADRIFT that I published: "Glass of Oblivion, "Ossie Esmonde: The Blueshirt Goes to Heaven"


I was going to go on about James Liddy and the what he had or had not done but on Saturday (Dec 6, 2008) at the Small Press Fair midst much rubbish I discovered NOVEMBER ROSE A Speech on Death by Kathrin Stengel... published by Upper West Side Philosophers (NY, 2007). Stengel has written on the death of the other and how to understand the fact of that death without resorting to feel good pyscho-babble or self-improvement moralizing...(though tinged with one little marring section on a need to explain the occasion for the book; this can easily be ignored) in a language as clear as reading Cioran or Unamuno...:

"Death turns the survivor's life into public property by virtue of the stigma that it bestows upon him, thereby subjecting his every move to particular scrutiny, and by virtue of the deceased's sudden, unrestrained availability.
As the deceased can no longer stand up for himself or protect his privacy, he enables the arrogation of his life. Everything can be said about him, everything can he ascribed to him, everybody's perspective on him is the only valid perspective." (p 65-66)