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...


Anonymous said...

Updike is dead.

So is Book World. The ink-on-paper version anyway.

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog, you should write more often!