Friday, December 18, 2009

STILL READING AGAINST and the MOST IMPORTANT book about the novel to be published

8--Since my mother died on December 21, 1972 the Christmas holidays and the end of the year have been drained of some of the dreary levity that infects much of the population. I remember taken the undecorated Christmas tree and placing it next to the stable set up in front of the Catholic Church in Saugerties, NY.

9--Some books seemed to be of value this year--- giving into the convention of the moment--- and the listing is to the purpose of seeing if in a year or in five years they still remain in my mind, if I am still about because there comes a moment when the life turns and what is to be always expected gains a tiny bit more of focus.

10--TIEPOLO PINK by Robert Calasso (Knopf) was the book that gave me the most intellectual pleasure, a book to go back to again and again as I have done with THE RUINS OF KASCH, KA and THE FORTY-NINE STEPS.

11--Finally, someone --- Calasso--- by looking closely at the work of Tiepolo explained why after him and after the French Revolution and continuing to this day art seems to be not very interesting, beyond being a sort of brain vomit from the solitary imaginations of the artists.

12--BRECHT AT NIGHT by Mati Unt (Dalkey Archive) was the first Estonian novel I have reviewed. By connecting Brecht’s stay in Helsinki on the run from Hitler in 1940/41 with the Soviet destruction of Estonia Unt shapes his visionary novel into a commentary on the obscurity of history while not for a line avoiding the particulars. Brecht waiting for a visa and permission to travel across the Soviet Union to the paradise of Hollywood, all the while cheering on the murderous thugs of Stalin is the highest comedy that crucifies one with one’s own powerlessness

13--VOYAGE BY DUGOUT OR THE PLAY OF THE FILM OF THE WAR by Peter Handke is his final comment on the breakup Yugoslavia in the form of play. I read it in manuscript in a translation by Scott Abbott. That it has not been published is a scandal and shame. Brad Morrow at CONJUNCTIONS chickened out of publishing it even after he had announced it for publication some years ago when he became aware of the intellectual lynch mob lead by the happily dead Susan Sontag who wanted to drum Handke out of literary existence. Happily that has not happened and Handke has a short novel DON JUAN HIS OWN VERSION (FSG) coming out in February, reminding us that he is one of the few world writers who has been mostly available to American readers. One hopes that some genuinely daring publisher will do the play along with reprinting A JOURNEY TO THE RIVERS Justice for Serbia that Viking had the courage to publish in 1997. Not for a moment should anyone think that things have been settled in the Balkans.

14---THE STRUDLHOF STEPS by Heimoto Von DODERER, translated by Vincetn Kling is another book I read in manuscript. If you know Von Doderer’s THE DEMONS, EVERY MAN A MURDERER and THE WTAREFALLS OF SLUNJ you know why this should be available. He is equal of Robert Musil and has the advantage of having completed his great books. This is not to put Musil down in anyway but to suggest that Musil is not the only classic Austrian writer form the earlier part of the 20th Century. Kling has translated more than half of THE STRUDLEHOF STEPS but sadly our literary publishers like skinny novels so how long will we wait?

15---In manuscript form though happily scheduled to appear in the New Year is a short novel by Imre Kertesz, THE UNION JACK… Kertesz is in the pantheon of Hungarian writing that has to include Sandor Mari, Antal Szerb, Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy and Attila Bartis.

16/16--One should not hold the Nobel Prize against Kertesz in the same way that one should not hold the same prize against Herta Muller. While they might get things really wrong with writers like Pearl Buck and Toni Morrison in this case the Nobel committee did a real service to the book. In a hundred pages Kertesz gets exactly right the dreary deadening reality of socialist Hungary and at the moment he is causing an uproar for mentioning that one really can’t read those Hungarian writers who were published during the communist times without thinking about what they had to do in order to function as writers… who did they sell out, who did they stab in the back, what lies did they tell or tell by omission… and this is the truth for all of Eastern Europe. The communists made mistakes and infrequently allowed a good book to slip through but you probably have more fingers on your hands than you would need to enumerate these writers or books.

17/18--The one American book… but you know I dislike mentioning the nationality of a writer… that I continue to read is IMPERIAL by William K. Vollmann (Viking). I would even say it is THE American book and will be read or at least I read it along with Henry James’s THE AMERICAN SCENE and two books about the west of Ireland by Tim Robinson STONES OF ARAN and CONNEMARA. I am taking IMPERIAL with me in January when I drive about Imperial, the Salton Sea on my way to Douglas and Tombstone where once again I will take up CHRIST VERSUS ARIZONA by Camilo Jose Cela which is the best book ever written about the American West.

19—Coming: THE THREE FATES by Linda Le. (New Directions) I reviewed an earlier novel of hers, SCANDAL… part of the Vietnamese diaspora in France... while her books are rooted in personal experience they have a visionary quality that leaves her on the edge of a terrifying possible descent and it is only her continued ability to find words that keeps her among the living.

19---Coming: PURGE by Sofia Oksanen. (Grove) Estonian Finnish writer who writes of the terrible consequences of the Soviet occupation of Estonia and the attemps to live with the consequences. I wish they had started with STALIN’S COWS and can only hope that will appear eventually.

19---Coming: NOT ART by Peter Esterhazy (Ecco) Stupidly Ecco skipped the essential sequel to CELESTIAL HARMONIES that called into question everything that Esterhazy had so confidently written about his father. This book continues the story of his mother from HELPING VERBS OF THE HEART, an earlier book which published in a very poor translation.

19---Coming: THE MUSEUM OF ETERNA’S NOVEL by Macedonio Fernandez (Open Letter). Do not be put off by the rather common introductions but find the wonderful essay by Jorge Luis Borges who acknowledges that Fernandez taught him everything , well in a fashion… Finally a genuine step beyond TRISTRAM SHANDY.

20—RIGHT NOW: ROBERT BRESSON A Passion for Film by Tony Pipolo (Oxford) Pipolo writes without the usual film critical theory rubbish but happily he guides the viewer into the greatest ( why not) movie director… Don’t worry I know: John Ford, Dumont, Bela Tarr… but last night I Saw The Trial of Joan of Arc… the opening is so intimidating, so devastating as an image of angry power on the march… and we know it will be met by Joan in all her complexity about to be reduced to ashes except

20—RIGHT NOW. I have been reading the four novels by Juan Jose Saer that are available in English. THE WITNESS, THE INVESTIGATION, NOBODY NOTHING NEVER, THE EVENT. I came to Saer by way of a visit with Alain Robbe-Grillet who on the floor had a book by Saer opened and underlined. I wish I could remember which one it was but Robbe-Grillet mentioned that Saer had been much influenced by his work and now upon reading him I can well see that and if only more writers were so wonderfully influenced. Saer is a lefty writer whose literary work exist first as literature--- well aware of the need for a genuine modern approach since the realist novel is a dead relic of a miserable moment in literary history--- and whose radical politics discreetly underlines the force of his sentences and forms and the reader is convinced of the terror that gripped parts of South America. In contrast I do not for moment believe a word Eduard Galeano writes because he is so crude in form and thought: just another leftist hatchet man.

And I would pay a quick homage to the single greatest novel to come out of South America I THE SUPREME by Augusto Roa Bastos, another lefty but with this novel he is in my personal pantheon with ULYSSES, JOURNEY TO THE END OF NIGHT, EUMESWIL and…

20--- As it is so demanding, … I have only tried again and again to read BLOOD FROM THE SKY by Piotr Rawicz as I have been forced to think closely about the murder of the Jews of Europe and this came about by reading MURDER WITHOUT HATRED Estonians and the Holocaust by Anton Weiss Wendt.

I had known nothing about how Estonians in order to please their German friends went about killing all the Jews and gypsies who remained in Estonia in 1941. The now knowing about the cool murdering, the distributing of the murdered children’s clothing and toys to Estonian children, happening even in the smallest towns, towns we had gone through this summer where there is no memory of these terrible events has changed my wife whose first language is Estonian and as a result it becomes hard to think about going back to Estonia until we have thought more about these events…

21 I am writing the last pages of NOTHING DOING which began with three men traveling in a painting by Poussin and has move about and through Douglas and Ajo, Arizona, been to Hermosa Beach, to Sofia, to Paris, to Patchogue… three men--- soldier priest poet--- described by Baudelaire, transformed by paralysis all looking for where they are to be buried. Of course it is a comedy trying to avoid in Denis Donoghue’s phrase, the penury of fact.

The best news only for those who read the whole post: IN APRIL Continuum will publish Steve Moore's THE NOVEL AN ALTERNATIVE HISTORY. Moore begins with the first novels written in 1190-1800 BC in Egypt and so unlike all the other books about the novel I have ever read he has genuinely tried to read every major novel published in ALL the world's languages, north, south, west and east. This is the first part and he stops in 16/17 century in China. He will continue with the so-called modern. But just from this work, you will never ever again think that Flaubert, Austen, Dickens, Eliot etc etc are the be all and all... never ever again will you think that 300 pages is a long novel... Moore will create a revolution in how we think about the novel or at least that is my hope...

Thursday, November 12, 2009



On my shelves by PAUL MORAND:

Black Magic
Earth Girdled
Green Shoots (Preface by Marcel Proust)
Fancy Goods and Open All Night (translated by Ezra Pound)
Open All Night (translated by HBV)
Closed All Night
The Living Buddha (two different translations)
1900 A.D.
World Champions
Nothing but the Earth
Lewis and Irene
Europe at Love
East India and Company
Orient Air Express
Indian Air
The Captive Princess
New York
Le Voyage (a photocopy)

All of these books are out of print though the New Directions’ edition of Ezra Pound’s translation of Fancy Goods/ Open All Night is available.

This IS NOT to go on about out of print books.


New York though published in 1930 is still a good guide book for New York, much in the same way that The American Scene by Henry James is a good introduction to the United States if read with Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.


Pushkin Press based in London publishes what are the prettiest and most elegant books in the English language world. Readers already well know this,one hopes, and have read for instance the four novels by Antal Szerb that they have brought over into English and by so doing restored or placed them and him into the pantheon of world literature: JOURNEY BY MIDNIGHT, THE PENDRAGON LEGEND, THE QUEEN’S NECKLACE, and OLIVER VII. Like Sandor Marai, Szerb came to an awful end but their books and those of certain contemporary Hungarian writers would suggest that Hungarian is one of the great world literary languages…

From JOURNEY BY MIDNIGHT: “He was a really devout Catholic, as Jewish converts often are. Their centuries of tradition haven’t been eroded the way they have for us… He cut out of his life everything that was not purely Catholic. He guarded his soul’s salvation with a revolver.”


But it is Paul Morand at the moment that Pushkin Press is revealing anew to the English speaking (reading?) world .

They started with VENICES. Note the plural. A book of fragments memories both from reading and from life: An overcast October sky this morning; an opaline grey, the colour of old chandeliers so fragile that they sell marabou feathers with which to dust them …

Then on to THE ALLURE OF CHANEL, the notes to a biography never written, from the time when he was seeing her after World War Two, after that moment when they had both chosen the wrong side, as history revealed only later…
Chanel is speaking: I have dressed the world and today it goes about naked.
All of that delights me. All of that satisfies this deep taste for destruction and evolution that is within me. Life is recognizable through its inconsistencies


(Both books were translated by Euan Cameron who also translated for Pushkin Press Julian Green’s THE OTHER SLEEP.

Green is another writer who seems so essential and one finds every once in the while another who dips, as do I, into his Diary and finds no matter what passage is read that as a result the world seems a little larger and not really as... it surely is…)



“What are you thinking?”
“And you?”
This was the distilled essence of all our conversations, the words most frequently used by lovers everywhere, emblem of the total vacuum in which they coexist.

Friday, October 23, 2009


(a ghost of these words appears in the 25 October 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Section)

The Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is hardly a household name in the United States. A few of his paintings, drawings and etchings are scattered in major museums in the country but to see his work in its fullness one has to have gone to Venice, Wurzburg, Germany and Madrid to view the magnificent ceiling paintings and frescos crowded with either religious or classical figures captured with a dazzling sense of color that easily rival Michelangelo in their grandeur and complexity. His name became an adjective for a fabric shade of pink. He is included in all the standard histories of art and his name is always linked to Veronese and others in that cast of prolific painters who can easily be confused by a visitor to Venice. Possibly, this necessary introductory paragraph runs the risk of providing an excuse for both skipping what is to follow and the book that occasioned the review. However, to miss rushing out to get the latest book by Roberto Calasso would be a terrible intellectual disaster and it is the next best thing to actually going to Europe to see Tiepolo’s work for yourself.

Calasso is the most interesting, demanding, inquisitively intoxicating critic writing anywhere in the world today. This claim is based upon his books, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, The Ruins of Kasch, Ka, The Forty-Nine Steps, Literature and the Gods , K and his newest one devoted to describing the life and work of a painter who seems so obscure as to be invisible even though his work has been seen by millions. The word critic does little justice to a writer like Calasso whose every sentence is rooted in a profound understanding and discerning appreciation of all the major literatures of the world both ancient and modern and these sentences always entice their readers to more thought, more reading, to reflection, to wonder.

Early on he tosses down the gauntlet, the intellectual dare, “Tiepolo: the last breath of happiness in Europe. And like all true happiness, it was full of dark sides destined not to fade away, but to get the upper hand.” Remembering Tiepolo’s dates (1696-1770) and what comes after which is really the time we still live in, “Painting steadily became a monologizing activity, a calm delirium that started and stopped every day, with the hours of daylight behind the windows of a studio. Artists remained brimming with moods, whims, caprices, and idiosyncrasies. And in the end even they risked disappearing.”

Providing a complete survey of Tiepolo’s work from the prolific beginnings in Venice and then his productive travels across Europe, Calasso is not for a moment deterred by the fact that there is not a single bit of self commentary and never resorting to any sort of crude historic guess work he is elegant in his generalizing and astonishing in the particularities as when commenting upon a painting depicting Antony and Cleopatra at the moment when she is about to dissolve her priceless earring in a glass of vinegar, “Anthony represents the power that invades the world but he does not possess the two pearls. Only one of which is sufficient to vanquish him. What happens to the other? It was sawn in two--- and the two halves were attached to the ears of the statue of Venus in the Pantheon. There is decidedly something paltry about that Western Power, obliged to adorn one of its goddesses with two half pearls that the Oriental queen was prepared to swallow in a sip of vinegar.”

Aptly and beautifully illustrated it should be mentioned, Calasso centers his book about an attempt at explicating--- though never committing the vulgar sin of doing a definitive version--- of the Caprricci and the Scherzi, two series of etchings packed with a cast of mysterious characters, who much like a company of a great Hollywood studio in the old days: magicians, Magi and other visitors from the East, beautiful young men and women, and a plethora of other creatures in particular snakes and owls who will and have appeared in many disparate roles in the great paintings that enclose this mysterious center of mystifying events, which have defied understanding until this moment. Calasso’s explication with the constant crossing and re-crossing of these characters and creatures is written in a style that evokes the reading of a deeply compelling novel and that skill can be seen in his teasing out of the proliferation of snakes in the etchings and their constant re-appearance in the paintings. Of course he starts from the Garden of Eden on to the magical transformation of a staff into a snake during the Egyptian captivity, the plague of snakes in the desert and then, “Moses’s gesture when he brandished a bronze serpent and told the murmuring Jews to look at it, was a gesture that marked the discovery that evil can be cured by its image… It was the discovery of the image, of its healing power. It is one of the supreme Jewish paradoxes that this discovery was made by he who would be remembered and celebrated as the enemy of images…”

However, Calasso pushes his insight into an intriguing engaging way into Tiepolo’s work, “Salvation through looking which the Fathers of the Church would ignore because the only thing that truly concerned them about the story of the brazen serpent was the prefiguration of the Cross was recognized by a painter before any theologian… hence the serpents: horror, fascination perhaps even revelation.. A tangle that no one can loosen unless he joins those Orientals, youths and Satyresses under a dazzling noonday sun as in the desert (in the Capricci and Scherzi).”

Finally Calasso takes leave of his readers while describing one of Tiepolo’s last paintings, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, “Mary, Joseph, the child and the donkey can barely be seen in a corner. They are anonymous extras, absorbed in the landscape. The vision is still to come. There is an intact stasis—and the wonderful silence of the world.” Where the attentive reader has always been remembering Calasso’s quoting the great French reactionary Joseph De Maistre, “I have read millions of witticisms about the ignorance of the ancients who saw spirits everywhere: it seems to me that we who see them nowhere are much more foolish.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009


---To write of Harold Brodkey is to speak of the dead and I fear of the really dead in the sense that he is now a forgotten writer... and so quickly he is gone into both the real and the metaphorical earth.

---I was thinking this as I was reading James Wood on the collected so-called stories of Lydia Davis. I can't be bothered to even describe his writing or Davis. It is all a question of sheer human perversity: how can this very good translator be wasting her time writing so-called stories that will not survive a moment beyond her death when she could have been finishing her translations of Michel Leiris, for instance?

---But I have before me a photo-copy of the five tabloid pages that James Wood devoted to a review and interview with Harold Brodkey in The Guardian (London, July 20-21, 1991.

---I must assume anyone reading this blog knows the work of Brodkey and keeps in a treasured place at least two of his books: STORIES IN AN ALMOST CLASSICAL MODE and THE RUNAWAY SOUL. Right there near THE DEAD OF THE HOUSE BY Hannah Green and PARADISO by Jose Lezama Lima

---The interview and then the review is startling because the name of Brodkey never passes through Wood's typewriter since he moved to the US and began his slog through the pages of The New Republic, The New Yorker and into the damp boring rooms of Harvard. To have an enthusiasim for a writer like Brodkey would be the kiss of the death as it seems the consensus is sadly that we (they) were all mistaken abouthim and his writing; it is just a bad memory and a man like Wood can make no mistakes, not one. He well knows that if there is that one mistake as happened to Denis Donoghue when he panned rightly the dread Frank McCourt's first novel for the New York Times, he will not be asked back to write for whichever organ he is caressing at the moment.

---In the course of the Guardian article: "I had managed to get hold of the typescript of The Runaway Soul, had read its 1,300 pages and was over-whelmed with it.... unlike anything in contemporary fiction. It is nakedly original."


"Brodkey's prose is unlike any other writer's in the English language. It is intensely personal(most of his writing is about his childhood) and shockingly obsessive. Its originality, which is oppressive in its density..."

"a man whose writing is courageous and original and possibly great...

"Brodkey's novel certainly has the reek of glory. But greatness is like the Seraph. How can we know it? How can we know yet if Brodkey's novel is great? It has the ambition of greatness, the daring. But its oddity and its singularity bewilder the reader. It needs the sifting of posterity...

---Well, I guess Wood has done that.

---Have you noticed that when a writer gets to a certain place, in particular into the places such as where Wood has taken up residence something is always lost and that something is evident in James Wood on Lydia Davis in The New Yorker. Only John Updike ever escaped this well-lit prison and then only rarely as for instance when he would take up the books of Robert Pinget.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Nobel Prize season and again we have been spared the sad spectacle of a Joyce Carol Oates or a Philip Roth or a Don DeLillo getting the Nobel Prize. Of course some have argued that they should have given a second Nobel Prize to Toni Morrison for after all wouldn't it be just since they were not able to give a second Nobel to that other great American laureate Pearl Buck.

But surely anyone who reads is aware that at this moment in the United States there is not a great writer living in our midst.

Now I know it is possible and maybe even likely that there is one because I remember Richard M. Elman once saying back in 1971, that there is no such thing as an unknown great writer in the United States... for a moment he was filled up with a typical New York arrogance but...

Still as far as I can tell and I would hopeam wrong.. there is not a great writer living in the United States.

The why is beyond me.

The fact is there and we don't have to argue really about what makes up that word great.

In spite of critical and popular disinterest I have been aware within my lifetime of living in a country where a few great writers lived: Faulkner, Hemingway, William Bronk, Edward Dahlberg, Julian Green (though he lived in France he always said he was American born not made), Glenway Wescott, Hannah Green, Lorine Niedecker, Ronald Johnson, maybe George Garrett...

I can make myself clearer if I mentioned that if I think of Spain: Julian Rios, if I think of Hungary : Peter Nadas, Peter Esterhazy, Imre Kertesz, if I think of Estonia: Tonu Onnepalu, if I think of Romania: Herta Muller, if I think of Serbia" Milorad Pavic, if I think of the Irish language: Nuala NiDhomhnaill, if I think of China: Ha Jian, Italy: Roberto Calasso...

But in the United States only William T. Vollmann and Madison Smartt Bell come to mind as possible candidates... and I hope to live long enough to see them come into... which might seem strange given their vast accomplishments. However, Bell clouded, at least for me, his purpose with more than a thousand pages devoted to Toussant L'Ouverture and Haiti flying in the face of the definitive imaginative THE KINGDOM OF THIS WORLD by Alejo Carpentier which in 100 pages...

And as to Vollmann, there is a soft core of sentimental leftism that sometimes enervates his thinking but it is kept in check by his senses that transcribe a constant refutation of that delusional germ

Again, the Unites States does not have a great writer living within its borders though every week another is announced or better promoted... I cant bring myself to type the current names...


I wanted to include Cormac McCarthy because of Suttree and Blood Meridian but until there is a third book to equal them... I hold back... The Road is memorable as the language would have it and one will have to forget the movie that is coming soon or has left already though it is a finger exercise

I wanted to include James McCourt but his possible great trilogy begun in Now Voyagers: The Night Sea Journey seems to have been de-railed in favor of a popular book about the New York Irish... but his Time Remaining makes me reconsider.. but no,...

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I published the following review of THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS in The Washington Times on November 17, 1996. It was one of very few reviews that book received. It was not quoted on the paperback version. When I called The Washington Times today (October 8, 2009) they can not access it as back issued are not available. One of course feels compassion for Herta Muller for by winning the Nobel Prize...

Of course, in the United States what passes for a novel has sunk even lower...

Finally, a book that describes in precisely hewn detail what it was like to live in Romania under communism. By paying careful attention to the slightest nuances of life in Romania the book also gives an accurate description of what it was like to be alive anywhere in Eastern Europe during the years of communism.

Author Herta Muller was born in 1953 into the large German-speaking minority in Romania, and like the narrator of her new novel, she was driven to leave Romania in 1987. In 1989, her short episodic novel The Passport" was published here in translation. But it only hints at the startling originality of "The Land of the Green Plums," which is seamlessly translated by poet Michael Hofmann. It faithfully follows the original German edition in terms of typography and spacing, which emphasize the poetic nature of the text and make it easier to follow the subtle shifts of mood and voice.

By tracing out the varied fates of five young persons who meet at a provincial college--- Lola, Edgar, Kurt, Georg and the narrator--- Miss Muller has constructed a devastating portrait of how ordinary lives were twisted and devoured by the fear that was purposefully created by the rulers of Eastern Europe, in this case, Nicolae Ceausescu.

The books of Czeslaw Milosz, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam have prepared us for the the awfulness of that life, which distorted every aspect of the human personality. If I were to tell you of being arrested in Bulgaria in 1967 for writing on a table-cloth, "No communists. No capitalists. Only free people. All you need is love." you might think I was putting you on. (I am not) Similarly, one's first reaction is disbelief when Miss Muller describes what happens after Lola, a fellow student and friend of the narrator, hangs herself.

"Five girls stood by the entrance-way of the dormitory. Inside the glass display case was Lola's picture, the same as the one in her Party book. Under the picture was a piece of paper. Somoeone read out loud: This student has committed suicide. We abhor her crime and we despise her for it. She has brought disgrace upon the whole country... At four o'Clock in the afternoon, in the great hall, two days after she hanged herself, Lola was expelled from the party and exmatriculated from the university. Hundreds of people were there. Someone stood at the lectern and said, She deceived us all, she doesn't deserve to be a student in our country or a member of out party. Everybody applauded."

The horror is in the pronouns: us, we, our.

Miss Muller has construced a novel that violates every rule of what was expected of a novelist in communist Romania. It also might be said that the book goes against neary every expectation of what passes for a novel today in America. It eschews plot. What is happening line by line, page by page, outweighs any interest in what is going to happen next. We live within the head and central nervous system of the narrator. But it is not a claustrophobic place to be: The voice is alive to the world, defiantly alive in a determination to fail in the construction of positive, uplifting characters.

Miss Muller relies upon the sensibility and intelligence of her readers to understand that they are being asked to enter into the consciousness of the narrator, who makes her way through a life that offers nothing but suicide, exile and betrayal. Her narrator also undersands that, having survived that world and made it to Germany, one still has been irrevocably mutilated in spirit by this world where, "you could feel the dictator and his guards hovering over all the secret escape plans, you could feel them lurking and doling out fear."

The title of the book says much, but it needs a little explanation: "Plumsucker was a term of abuse. Upstarts, opportunists, sycophants and people who stepped over the dead bodies without remorse were caled that. The dictator was called a plumsucker, too."

In a country run by such people, it got you labeled as a dangerous dissident if you were even mildly lacking in enthusiasim for the communist future and wished to maintain some sense of ordinary decency and privacy. Once singled out, the characters in the novel can never escape the attentions of the police and their accomplices.

Miss Muller ranges across the whole of Romanian society, from the peasants ground down by hunger and casual brutalization to the industrial workers who work in dnagerous factories making useless articles no one wants. Her depiction of the degraded workewrs in a slaughterhouse is unequaled anywhere in the literature from Eastern Europe. The men drink the blood of the slaughtered animals and trade stolen raw animal parts for casual and violently demeaning sex while thinking they are getting back at the regime by so doing.

"The men staggered and yelled at one another before snashing each other over the head with empty bottles. They bled. If a tooth fell to the ground, they would laugh as if someone had lost a button. Someone would bend over, pick up the tooth and toss it into his glass. Because it brought good luck, the tooth was pased from glass to glass. Everyone wanted it"

The narrator, like the other voices she allows to enter her mind, learns that you cant trust anyone, whch is probably the most awful result of communism.

She becoems friends with Tereza whose father is a well-connected sculptor. When the narrator is finally living in Germany, Tereza comes to visit, but she comes as an agent of the police, to spy, since one of the narrator's friends has either jumped or been pushed from a window to his death. Tereza is meant to be sympathetic: She has cancer, no luck in love, and yet she betrays the narrator, who alone has been nice to her.

And of the man who has driven two of the narrator's friends to suicide and another into a miserable exile, representing thousands, probably, the author laments that there has been no retribution, no closure, no justice.

This is the horrifying and unblinking truth of this novel and why it has to live on. Miss Muller has triumphed in her honesty, and "The Land of the Green Plums" is her testimony.

PS: and to date, all those communists and fellow travelers for the most part got away with it and in many cases turned themselves into the so-called mafia--- but that is another tale waiting to be told as the former communists and their fellow travelers go about convincing the world that they are the only people who really suffered under the communism

Sunday, September 27, 2009


The other night Denis Donoghue was over for dinner and the unspoken or the unsaid was talked about. When he was growing up in Northern Ireland religion and politics for obvious reasons were not talked about. Many think that race is another more American thing not spoken about but he suggested that taste was the most unspoken thing today. We are not prepared to challenge another's taste in anything. I discovered something else inside the world of the unsaid. The copy desk at the Los Angeles Times made me aware that one is not allowed in that paper to write this sentence: Did Scheherazade's vagina lubricate at the approach of the caliph?

(from JACKET COPY the book blog at the LOS ANGELES TIMES)

(please insert my sentence at the appropriate moment)

Thomas McGonigle, an occasional contributor to the book review, caught Nélida Piñon in New York City.

Does Scheherazade get aroused at the thought of having sex with the Caliph?

That was the unexpected question Brazilian writer Nélida Piñon recently explored with preeminent translator Gregory Rabassa before an audience in New York on the occasion of her controversial new novel “Voices of the Desert.” The novel, which is an erotic retelling of “One Thousand and One Nights,” led Piñon and Rabassa to a question no one in the assembly hall of the Americas Society on Park Avenue could have expected. (The original question, I assure you, was even saltier.)

At 73, Piñon seems the elegant epitome of anyone’s favorite aunt — but appearances are deceptive. She was the first female president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (elected in 1996). A protégé of Clarice Lispector and her last literary confidant, Piñon said she did not talk to Lispector’s recent biographer, Benjamin Moser, because a confidant should not give up her confidences.

Piñon is the author of numerous novels, now published in all the major languages. English translations of her work include “The Republic of Dreams” and “Caetana’s Sweet Song.” In discussing “Voice of the Desert,” she denies that the novel is a radical critique of the situation of a woman in Muslim society -- rather, Piñon is a novelist rooted in the actuality of a woman’s flesh. This is why the answer she gave, to the question mentioned above, was powerful in its simplicity. How could Scheherazade be aroused?

“A woman does not make love under compulsion to a tyrant,” she explained.

Later, after the talk, I wanted to see how Piñon’s views may have changed over the years. I reminded her that Scheherazade had surfaced in another interview she’d had — 17 years ago — with me about writing and the sources of one’s inspiration. She had been talking about what it was like to care for her mother when she was gravely ill — and how that experience led to another memory of her being sick as a child and being cared for by her mother:

My mother would follow me about the house, in the garden always presenting me with food, trying to get me to eat. For some reason I was refusing to eat. In order to seduce me she started to tell me a story. For each spoon of food I accepted, she was obliged to advance the story. As soon as I had a portion of words that corresponded with the spoonful of food, I immediately refused to open my mouth unless she would deliver more words. It was a verbal game: My mother at that time was a Scheherazade eager to protect my life instead of stealing it. She was my first living writer.

“Yes,” she said, after the talk, “That was true: But it was really my mother’s loving words that opened my mouth.”

Also during that earlier conversation, years ago, Piñon had mentioned how difficult it was to be a writer in a country like Brazil where half the population did not own a pair of shoes. Today, she says the situation is even worse -- not only in Brazil, but the world at large.
“Today our whole attitude toward money has changed," she said. "From the newspapers it would seem that, in America, even a mediocre actor expects to get a million dollars for a movie, and a ticket for 'Tosca' in New York can cost more than $1,200! It is terrible to be a young person in such an atmosphere.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


(including a first short homage to Juan Jose Saer)

This entry did not begin with what now comes first but instead began with “Five” and then went on to… but I had intended and now begin as I really wanted to begin: erasure, ERASURE, erasing…


The new Review of Contemporary Fiction is given over to what remained of Melville’s MOBY DICK after an English publisher sent out into the world a stripped down “reader friendly” version, free of much of what Damion Searls and many other readers actually like about MOBY DICK. The English editors, for instance, removed the dedication to Hawthorn and the whole section, “ Etymology,” supplied as you remember by the Usher .

It is true that the rather famous “Call me Ishmael “ is not included in this version of what remains… but he ends the book on a blank page where we read EPILOGUE. Searls’ version includes every bit of punctuation, every word that had been discarded by the English editor... a new book has been created.


Of course, some readers might have been reminded of Ronald Johnson discovering (1977) inside PARADISE LOST a new poem that Johnson entitled RADIOS which of course is embodied in the title PARADISE LOST…

The poem begins and I can’t reproduce the typography:

O tree

Into the World


The chosen

Rose out of Chaos:



And then in 1980, Tom Phillips found a new book (the first of a number of subsequent versions) within a long dead Victorian novel and the resulting A HUMUMENT A Treated Victorian Novel was created by combining found words and phrases from the original with drawings and patterns of colour: the first page reads

Volume And

Side I shall lie,

Bones my bones



The following



A book. A book

Of art

Of mind




He hid

Revealed I


How far we have come.

No longer is erasing a burden as it was with typewriters and then if there was a carbon copy…

Probably we could tease out the ease of erasure today when compare to back then…


I wish I could fall into a project as did Walter Benjamin when he discovered his ARCADES PROJECT… I always feel uncomfortable mentioning Benjamin because of his disgusting Stalinist politics that allowed him to travel and work in Moscow for a time… of course some of his best work is free of those politics but it is still fed by the bad faith that allowed him to make this accommodation… but it was with his idea of quoting that I am taken by…


"One could structure a narration in terms of a single juxtaposition of memories… The New narration made up of pure memories would have neither beginning nor end. It would be circular narration and the narrator’s position would be like that of the child mounted on the horse of the merry-go-round who at each turn tries to grab the ring. One needs luck, skill and a constant repositioning, all of which does ot guarantee that one will not end up empty-handed." by Juan Jose Saer. Quoted in LITTORAL OF THE LETTER Saer’s Art of Narration by Gabriel Riera.

Juan Jose Saer is the author of many books and essays. Four novels are available in English: THE INVESTOGATION, NOBODY NOTHING NEVER, THE EVENT and THE WITNESS which as a wonderful scene of cannibalism: "Two of the Indians armed with with knives and rudimentary but efficient axes, were already at work on one of the decapitated bodies, slicing it open from the lower abdomen to the throat. No doubt alerted by my look of amazement the Indian who was in the process of the beheading of the bodies stopped what he was doing for a moment and giving me a delightfully frank and friendly smile, waved the hand wielding the knife… The torsos and legs had been cut up to make handling and cooking easier; the arms , however, had been left whole...As well as dense columns of smoke that dispersed only gradually in the air, the meat gave off a powerful but agreeable smell. As the cooking proceeded, the human origins of the meat became less apparent…"

I had first heard of Saer from Alain Robbe-Grillet. Saer had been influenced by Robbe-Grillet and one hopes that more of his books will be translated. His interest in form calls into question everything he writes but in no way is the reader beaten into the earth by his work. His work is a genuine advance beyond Cortazar and Onetti…


Out in America I discovered that horror books are read in great numbers. I guess I have always known this and one can not escape Stephen King though his popularity has fallen precipitously among undergraduates in the various City University campuses that I frequent… sadly, James Patterson has replaced him… I saw in the big second handbook shops in Nashville and Crossville, Tennessee bookcase after bookcase of horror books… so while at first I was skeptical of the Library of America’s AMERICA’S FANTASTIC TALES edited in two volumes by Peter Straub… I realized that just by the range of authors… starting of course from Poe… who was for a long time better known in France because of Baudelaire’s interest in him…on through Melville, Hawthorne…Ralph Adams Cram, Lafacadio Hearn, Henry James…H, P. Lovecraft…

What is interesting about these selections is that the narration is usually anything but straight forward or nailed to the realistic… the shape is what one is interested in…

The second volume takes the reader into the present when the narration becomes a little more conventional and ordinary but… I liked seeing that T. E. D. Klein has a story in the collection… Klein is a much under-rated writer, editor of Twilight Magazine for many years but for too long he has not written…

The Library of America deserves much praise for this venture into the popular but the continued slighting of Sherwood Anderson is a genuine scandal which I hope they will address… but the names of the older writers: F. Marion Crawford Gertrude Atherton, Robert W. Chambers are of course still on the shelves in second hand bookshops though threaten of disappearing under the tidal wave of broken-spined paperbacks… because it seems people no longer pick up even to browse old hardcover books…


...the memory of an event is not sufficient proof that it really happened. (Juan Jose Saer)


THE FRAGILITY OF GOODNESS is a book by Tzvetan Todorov on how Bulgaria avoided sending its Jews to be murdered during World War Two. I thought of that as I am reading Anton Weiss Wendt’s MURDER WITHOUT HATRED Estonians and the Holocaust in which it seems that Estonians with little reluctance did the Nazi’s dirty work for them and killed all the Jews and gypsies in Estonia and even then pitched in when the German murder machine was running at over-capacity in Poland by efficiently processing “shipments “ from Germany, Czechoslovakia and France… To be scrupulous Jews in the parts of Greece occupied by Bulgaria were sent to be murdered but all the Jews from within Bulgaria itself were saved by an actual and real Bulgarian resolve not to give their Jews to be murdered while within Estonia there was no organized, in any sense of that word, to the murder of the Jews… a handful of Jews did escape being murdered because of the extraordinary heroism of a very few individual Estonians. More typical is a passage at random from Wendt’s book reads, “Hans Laats recalled one such case when up to ten children between three and fifteen years of age were murdered. According to Laats, Koppel shot the youngest of the children while holding them by the leg.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Going into America.

Have you noticed that the reviews of William T. Vollmann's IMPERIAL have appeared and almost to a word they have been the sort of review that praises and then takes away complaining of the length, the demands placed upon the reader and never does the reviewer admit to not having really read the book?

These reviews do not send people to the reading of IMPERIAL. They allow the reader to conclude that they know enough about the book, know that it has something to do with the border of the United States, with the people who live near the border, about the complexity of a once open border, with a now closed border ( though if anyone remembers LONELY ARE THE BRAVE he or she will remember that the reason the Kirk Douglas character breaks into the jail is to try to help his friend who has been arrested for helping illegals--- and this is in 1962!!! so once again the great forgetfulness, the stupidity of journalists today who think they are telling really anything new to those of us who might still have the faculty of memory).

IMPERIAL is still the most important book of the year, the only essential book to be published this year in these United States even now as the reviews have appeared and even after one or two nice profiles of the author, again which lets people off the hook of actually reading IMPERIAL because reading the article allows them to be "well-informed"--- is this the best reason to NEVER read The New York Times? ... who would want to be well-informed if that has to include reading The New York Times?... I hope you have read Marina Tsvetayeva's precise poem "Readers of Newspapers" which includes these lines:

It crawls, the underground snake
crawls, with its load of people.
And each one has his
newspaper, his skin
disease; a twitch of chewing;
newspaper caries.
Masticators of gum,
readers of newspapers.


They swallow emptiness,
these readers of newspapers.


Grabbers of small moments
readers of newspapers.


It's better to go to a graveyard
than into the prurient
sickbay of scab-scratchers,
these readers of newspapers.

If Tsvetayeva was alive today she would have included the glassy eyed viewers of television "news"... if someone tells you he or she watches CNN... it like the famous dot on the forehead of an Indian woman--- according to V. S. Naipaul--- meaning, you know her head is empty.

IMPERIAL is not meant to be read in one sitting, or many sittings... it can not be so read. And that is the flaw of all the reviews I have seen. None of them confess to not having really read the book. They all pretend to having read it and here is now their considered opinion. This failure to be honest, this dishonesty by pretending to having read is something that David Foster Wallace was well aware of when he would be interviewed or meet reviewers of INFINITE JEST and well knowing that the book had not been read... of course this happened with William Gaddis's THE RECOGNITIONS as documented in Jack Green's FIRE THE BASTARD (Dalkey Archive).

IMPERIAL should be open on a person's desk. The other day Vollmann sent me to read John Steinbeck's The Vigilante in THE LONG VALLEY which I found in the Library of America's edtion of Steinbeck... Steinbeck withholds judgment on a man who has participated in a lynching... trusting his readers to... a trust that our genius well reviewed writers no longer can muster. But it is this sending and the resulting further reading that marks out IMPERIAL and no reviewer as far as I know had commented on this essential detail.. beacause to do so would mean that they could not produce the required judgment for those scab-pickers

Friday, August 21, 2009

BRECHT AT NIGHT:How Estonia takes up residence in the mind

Translated from the Estonian
By Eric Dickens
Dalket Archive: 208pp., $13.95

In 1940, Helsinki received an unexpected visitor: Bertold Brecht. Eventually to be known as the most famous German playwright after Goethe, author of The Three Penny Opera, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and numerous other plays, a vast array of poetry, Brecht was also a committed Communist who was on the run from Nazi Germany, believing Hitler personally wanted him dead. The scene is almost comical: he arrived with his wife, his mistress, his children and twenty-six bags of luggage.

Just another traveler, you understand, appreciative when someone speaks good German but convinced he or she might be a Nazi agent. His protector was the very wealthy Estonian playwright then living in Finland, Hella Wuolijoki, with whom he will collaborate on a number of plays and will eventually plagiarize from but who more importantly has a direct link to Stalin and his secret police. (Brecht, if you aren’t familiar with him was an ardent defender of Stalin and all his murderous acts, glibly arguing that Finland should have given into Stalin, “whereby the Finnish workers and peasants must exchange their national freedom for social freedom (inside the Soviet system).”

But why Helsinki? Why go there in the midst of the aftermath of The Winter War? It is a way station on Brecht’s journey to of all places: Hollywood which he intends to get to by way of Moscow and Siberia!

In “Brecht at Night,” his fourth novel to be translated into English, Estonian author and innovative stage director, Mati Unt makes Brecht a curiously compelling contradictory character and very appealing as a reflection of the alienating reality of his plays which highlighting their artificiality allows the reader the necessary distance to think and with the information, with the feelings provide by what he or she might witness, to act…

All this might seem tedious in the extreme but Unt is simply too good of a writer to allow that to happen. The connection between an epitome of irony, Hella Wuolijoki, this wealthy patron, committed communist and the owner of a vast estate provides Unt with the jump cut to that place where she comes from: two hours today by high speed ferry, across the Baltic Sea. If I give you one country (Latvia) that borders on it I am sure you can name the other country that borders on Estonia and of course you remember that in August 1939 you again remember that Hitler and Stalin agreed to the occupation of Estonia by the Red Army…

It is in this lurch that Unt’s novel becomes both a witty portrait of Brecht and is a model of how to understand the devastating effects of Stalinism. Unt well knows, as did Brecht, if you focus too much on details of human awfulness it becomes debilitating but if you find a way…

Unt particularizes the murders, by way of quotation from now available documents and through imagination of how the Communist takeover of Estonia was implemented allowing the euphonious M Unt (no relation) who was the communist appointed Minister of the Interior to say, “With good luck, you have the choice between life and death, and it is not sure which is better.” Or, “Then I had to dismiss all the elders of the various Estonian provinces. There were no doubt decent people among them, but in times like the present you can’t pay too much attention to individuals.”

History records that M. Unt was shot in his turn but no date was recorded.

(A version of this appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Monday, August 10, 2009



A celebration of REALMS OF MEMORY and RETHINKING FRANCE or LES LEIUX DE MEMOIRE but not forgetting A.J. Liebling

Terrible things are always being said about the French and France but like Auberon Waugh who was once saying--- and I agree with him--- the real problem with the French is that they really do some things so extraordinarily well. Waugh was referring to the French education system and food. I would add literature, the trains, the preservation of the countryside and when it comes to writing modern history the vast project under the direction of Philip Nora knows no parallel in the United States…

Published in a series of what will be seven vast books and that is only a third! of the original project published in French as Les Lieux de Memoire, which I am told to the French ear means more than what has been given as a title of the first three volumes published some years ago by Columbia University Press. It is is a magisterial overview of that thing called France and the French. The three volumes were focused on in Nora’s words: “ in accord with the specificity of memory: (REALMS OF MEMORY) is modeled on organizations found in nature: first its fractures, then its true and false continuities and finally its symbolic attachments.”
In the reality of the printed page volume one took up for instance, Right and Left, Catholics and Seculars, Gaullists and Communists, then the minority religions and lastly the question of time and space. The second volume took up The Traditions: The Land, The Cathedral, The Court, etc and went on to discuss individual writers, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Vidal de La Blache’s Georgraphy of France among others and then concluded with Singularities, LA Coupole, Street Names, The Tour de France, etc… The Third volume took up the Symbols: The Three Colors, Liberty, Equality and Fraternitie , then The Places: Lascaux, Rheims, Verdun etc, and then of course Identifications: from The Gallic Cock via Joan of Arc to Descartes and beyond…


But Columbia University Press got tired and four more volumes are now being published by the University of Chicago Press—the third is just out and a fourth is coming next year under the general title RETHINKING FRANCE… and these are to be focused on specific elements of national identity in their material dimensions. Volume One took up The State starting with a chapter, The State: The Tool of the Common Good and on through the formation of the idea of the state with essays on Charlemagne, The King… ending with an essay on the Memoirs of Men of State… The second volume is a book of place, ranging from North-South, France, the Coast, and the Sea, to The Forest , The Region, The Department, The Painter’s Landscaper and ending with A Frontier Memory: Alsace.. the perfect book to actually take when travelling in France when you want to go beyond the facts, just the facts: what -to–see-what- to-eat-where-to-sleep…
The current volume (out this summer) takes us into what many of us experience in France and which cannot be found elsewhere: The Café, The Village Church, Conversation, Gallantry, Notre Dame of Paris and Sacred Coeur of Montmartre…


(Now, I have done probably a bad job of it and I know I am spitting into the wind

---this is a good example of the normal self-pity that attaches itself to the bone of any sort of writing that I dare to take up within the terrible isolation that comes to the living curator of a few too many unpublished books---

but I wanted to just mention these books and this project and what a comfort it is to have such books on my shelf and I love the fragmented form of these books and while they are a product of that movement that killed narrative history and while I do know in a half assed sort of way the basic narrative of French history which you need to read in some fashion in these books but I guess now anyone can get that from Wikidepia…)


As we are entering a long and great depression under BO, no matter what the newspapers are saying ,it will be good to have such books on the shelf.. books of a demanding nature, filled with many stories, many things as is EMPIRE by William Vollmann which I wrote (again badly) about recently. None of these books --- throw in the ARCADE S PROJECT of Walter Benjamin---are meant to be read in a sitting or a hundred sittings((((also include THE COLLECTED WORKS of Paul Metcalf in 3 volumes))).. they do not grab you and refuse to let you go, as the blurbs would have it when a you are sentenced to read a so-called beach book by say Jonathan Franzen or James Patterson…

In the Essay on The Café the subtitles hold one: A Counteracademy, A Factory for Thought, An Intellectual Laboratory… try imagine that at Applebees America’s Neighborhood what not… or I do remember a professor explaining once upon a time why they did not once upon a time lecture on modern literature In French universities, that’s what is talked about in the cafes… why do we have to repeat it here…


Originally, I was supposed to do a Bastille Day post and mention the RETHINKING FRANCE along with the Library of America’s A. J. Liebling volumes devoted to eating or at least in part to eating in France… with the title Between Meals contained in the volume THE SWEET SCIENCE AND OTHER WRITINGS and in an earlier volume WORLD WAR II WRITINGS which contained The Road Back to Paris both of these books are old time celebrations of France, a France that no longer exists, of course, but which hint at what still send young people still to France as Liebling writes, “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite…”

Of course once having been to France one never seriously read the food writing in the United States… you can dismiss me when I go down this path… and I would dismiss myself if I was reading this in the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, Arizona, that tiny intimation of the promised paradise that can also be found in the Marine Motel in Ajo, Arizona… but Liebling creates in the reader a need to believe that time is not gone, time is not moving on… and of course it does not move… as long as the books remain to be read and re-read: the passage of time is defeated. Really?

Sunday, July 26, 2009


If America needs, as is often said A WRITER that one writer is: WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN.

At the moment he is the only writer in America whose death I would mourn.

Vollmann is the only writer who might and might already be a genuine world writer to whom it would not be necessary to attach mention of his nationality.

No living writer in America can equal his accomplishments and of course you can go to Wikipedia or any of the other sources for all the back ground.
But I stake out my claim by listing:

RISING UP AND RISING DOWN: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means

(and I would also mention that there are 12, yes, 12 other books that flesh out… and do not clutter…





And its companion book IMPERIAL Photograpy by William T Vollmann

((((and I well know that eventually there is always a qualification so I will put it up front but the very qualification indicates the seriousness with which I take Vollmann.

As I read Vollmann I am reminded of :

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ernst Junger.

Vollmann, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Junger: the same mixture of riveting objectivity, the same urge to document, the same unashamed emotional identification with whatever they are writing about, the same acidic intellect, the same access to a language unafraid of a genuine apprehension of an always very real possibility of a crippling silence just ahead

And now the distinctions: Solzhenitsyn was actually a prisoner in the Gulag.

Dostoevsky was stood up against a wall and fully expected to be shot for his political beliefs.

Junger fought for five years in World War One in the trenches (receiving the pour le Merite) and was again in the army in World War Two, he actually did drop LSD with Albert Hoffmann, he did do real science as a ……..

And that is the vital difference.

Vollmann has been looking and always there is that distance… things have happened to him but they are a consequence of his looking… and this leads at time to a nagging sense of self-hatred that introduces a tiny thread of distrust into this reader’s consideration of his work…

BUT that is it… so as we move to why he is so central to my understanding of his importance. He is not part of the academy, he is not off in some drearily famous college teaching creative writing or literature, he is no darling of the academy, no one looks up to him, he is not cited as a good role model… he is discovered by word of mouth by readers passing on his books.

Sadly, he does have a literary prize but I am sure he knows just how worthless that is and is appropriately embarrassed by it: the only thing you get from having any sort of literary prize is that it guarantees an obit in the NY Times…


1306 pages about that part of California centered upon the Imperial Valley… you know where: south of Palm Springs, north of the Mexican border, west of the Colorado River, out there east of LA… a pendant to THE ROYAL FAMILY which was located up there around SF…

You open the book: grey pages black type… white squiggly maps… WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN. IMPERIAL.
A reproduction of a death certificate for a John Doe, Unknown Mexican issued by the County of Imperial, dated 7/29/24 but the copy was issued on Oct 22, 2002.
In Memory of SERAFIN RAMIREZ HERNANDZ unknown, missing, illegal, Mexican. CONTENTS
10 pages worth. More maps drawn by WTV.

Part One


A photograph of a huge cross on a hillside in Slab City.


I think we all feel sorry for ‘em
---Border Patrol Officer Gloria I. Chavez, on the subject of illegal aliens.


The All-American Canal was now dark black with phosphorescent streaks where the border’s eyes stained it with yellow tears. --- These lights have been up for about two years. Officer Dan Murray said. Before that, it was generators. Before that, it was pitch black.

He was an older man, getting big in the waist, whose face had been hardened by knowledge into something legendary. For years he’d played his part in the work first begun by Eden’s angel with the flaming sword…

It is RIGHT THERE with the “flaming sword” with “Eden’s angel” that my case rests for the genius of William T. Vollmann and if you do not get it, I probably cannot convince you of it though I will try in future posts … but you should get yourself to a bookstore to get a copy of IMPERIAL. I don’t think Viking is printing up a whole lot of this book and I am sure the book of photographs by Vollmann published by Power House books will also disappear very quickly…

I well know that a new Thomas Pynchon novel is coming out next week but I do know Pynchon is reading Vollmann’s book. Pynchon is self aware enough to regret the poor timing of these two books coming out at the same time. Just one of those things.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


The news has come that Frank McCourt is dead. I have heard of him and that is sufficient as Edward Dahlberg would say.

Denis Donoghue was never asked to review a book for The New York Times after he panned McCourt's first and much lamented Angela's Ashes. His crime was to have questioned the literary merit of the memoir and to point out the unearned bathos of much of the writing.

McCourt's work quickly became the token white male contribution to the great ethnic sweepstakes that is contemporary American literature. He is the official Irish delegate joining those other profitable and endlessly self-important scribes such as Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz... who sniffing out a soap box even a hundred miles away never fail to rush themselves to the necessary cause of fattening their bank accounts on behalf of....

It is known that McCourt first tried out his routines on his captive New York City high school students and they unable to escape had to endure his endless revising of his Irish saga... his leaving the New York City school system was one of the few blessings of his success

Finally, what is lost in the elevation of such a writer as McCourt is the availability of much greater writers, happening to be Irish but without the degraded sensibility so in evidence in his and the work of his ever expanding family of scribes.

I am thinking of writers such as John McGahren, Francis Stuart, Denis Donoghue and even Seamus Deane whose memoirs easily stand comparison to memoirs by writers like Michel Leiris and Thomas Bernhard... and sadly the novels of James McCourt are shaded by the mistaken notion that he is part of the Frank McCourt family.

Monday, July 13, 2009


In FADO a book of essays by Andrzej Stasiuk that Dalkey Archive is to publish in September there is a short essay on the Yugoslavian--- as they were once called--- writer Miodrag Bulatovic. Of course the name was not unfamiliar as he had once been as well published as any foreign writer ever is in the United States. I remembered his A HERO ON A DONKEY and another title which I had never read but which Stasiuk mentions WAR WAS BETTER.

In an anthology of Yugoslav stories DEATH OF A SIMPLE GIANT I found a story by Bulatovic, The Lovers. Two lines: "It was definitely a form of illness to want anything." and the last line of the story, "I remember how your lips rotted away."

I do not think that any story published by an American author in the last 50 years comes close to the sensibility that would allow for two lines like these to appear in a story that is 15 pages of type. I can not imagine an editor who would have the courage or the taste to publish such a story today.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


No longer that possibility to write as I do not have the connection.

What do I mean?

In every country of the former Soviet Empire from Bulgaria to Estonia there is a word for connection, for that person who will help you in whatever matter is at hand

If a person does not have a connection there is the shaking of the head and the lowering of the voice: it is or was very sad, he or she did not have a connection so it was not possible.

I have come to that moment in writing.

While in memory the pleasure of writing remains… the reality is that I do not have a connection that would allow my words to be read.

Dalkey Archive, Turtle Point, Harper Collins, Arcade, Melville, FSG have found even JUST LIKE THAT my most accessible novel and the one with the easy hook of being a book from the so-called Sixties to be too something or other…

I could delineate the reasons these publishers found for… but what is the point.. I could show the whim that lead them to whatever it was that they actually did publish…

I have no connection… and everyone should understand that publishing is a simple a matter of whim.. just as in the life in Estonia under communism: whim masqueraded as political reasoning…


Even reading becomes difficult.

For two weeks I have been reading the new translation of PORNOGRAFIA by Witold Gombrowicz that Grove will publish in the fall, published only to maintain some connection to the reputation that made that publisher.. but when our hostess in Helsinki falls asleep looking into the poster of a pensive PAUL AUSTER… what hope is there for reading?

Anyone who might think that Paul Auster is a writer is beyond help… even my reading of PORNOGRAFIA is shadowed by the fact that Grove feels it must foreword the book by a popular writer like Sam Lipsyte--- who is supposed to write funny stuff about “losers” though his press agent seems to get him space in popular magazines to look down upon… but the bound galleys are not burdened by his words except for the blank space where the Foreword is supposed to be…

Even mentioning Auster’s name is a victory for Auster…

I wrote a review of NORMANCE by Celine for the Los Angeles Times... it might appear on 12 July... of course I remember and Celine’s words shadow these: you have to be a little bit dead to be really funny…

Thursday, June 18, 2009



Leaving one’s room to go travelling is probably always a mistake and to go to Europe, to go to the East one cannot avoid committing an injustice, to be not aware enough, to know that one does not know enough…

In FADO, a forthcoming book of travel essays, the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk writes. “To travel is to live. Or in any case to live doubly, triply, multiple times.

I am surprised by Stasiuk’s lack of hesitation in his assertion. Surely memory would assert itself… for to travel is to be killed, to die en route… surely he must be aware of those tiny towns that were set in motion and I am not just thinking of the recent century… but to leave those villages for the new world. It was not an accident of hyperbole that the Irish talked of coffin ships sailing from Europe… did not those from Poland, from Germany… of course many did not die crossing over and I live here on East First Street in Manhattan midst the remains, still of their arrival…


This morning, Anna says she had an email: her grandfather was killed on 2 October, 1941 in Kirov. He had been set in motion on 25 June 1941, from Tartu in Estonia. His bag had been packed for weeks… our bags have been packed for three days… Anna did not know her grandfather, Richard Raago’s death day. My mother heard many stories… I think we will learn many things in Estonia… they had come to get him… no one knew where he was taken, there was no one to ask…


I would say Eastern Europe began for me in 1960. Bear with me. The year is arbitrary but on Sunday in the Cranbury book store for fifty cents an Avon Original paperback EICHMANN MAN OF SLAUGHTER by John Donovan with the blurb: The murder of 6,000,000 Jews: Hitler demanded it, Himmler ordered it--- ADOLF EICHMANN DID IT!

I am sure I bought this book in 1960 or in 1961. I remembered the photos on the inside of the cover a large hole filled with dead bodies, one body in convict clothes pulled out and lying on the incline leading into the hole filed with dead bodies. Another picture of people getting into a freight car… On the inside of the back cover: a box of wedding rings; the three ovens in a crematoria with human remain; a prisoner pointing his finger at a German soldier wearing a cloth cap while another German soldier wearing a more formal hat looks on…

In those years I had other books: THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF HELL, THE SCOURGE OF THE SWASTIKA… I had sometime later …. THE KNIGHTS OF BOSHIDO but that didn’t have the same impact.

Those years I followed the trial and then the execution of Eichmann… the holocaust had arrived in the Unites States.


Until the early 60s World War Two had been in the Pacific for most Americans, I dare say. My grandfather had build airfields in Burma I was told. Other uncles had been in the Marines in the Pacific. In their houses they had picture histories of those island campaigns but did not talk about… one of them had a tattoo on his arm and smoked Camels…

Pearl Harbor and Tokyo Harbor and Douglas MacArthur summed up WW2…

In Europe--- if we thought about it: Hitler and Rommel and little later reading the books of Willi Heinrich: CROSS OF IRON, CRACK OF DOOM and MARK OF SHAME and another because it was about young boys my own age I read many times: THE BRIDGE by Manfred Gregor… I do not think I was atypical…

Why I didn’t I read THE NAKED AND THE DEAD or FROM HERE TO ETERNITY? Maybe they were too long or… and in the case of Heinrich and the Gregor? They were about the other as I would probably be forced to describe them later on.

Because of Eichmann’s capture I bought my first hardcover: Hitler a Study I Tyranny by Allan Bullock and then a copy of Mein Kampf from Ben who ran The Patchogue Book Store, a secondhand book store on Main Street that was owned by Ben a guy who worked on a town sanitation truck and the opened the shop after work. He had thick glasses and sat in his shop in his green sanitation department uniform. John tells me Ben sold everything. It is where people went to get titty magazines… my copy of KAPUTT was bought there. Ben is long dead and the store torn down to be replaced by a court building.

Literature had no appeal for me. How could it? In high school they wanted us to read the novels of Thomas Hardy and SILAS MARNER and plays of Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Macbeth… that was literature. The Shakespeare was explained via film clips… now kids are drowned in ethnic literature and surely never read that sort of junk ever again… who wants to learn life lessons from Korean prostitutes as they interact with Hispanic reformed drug dealers who live to support their sisters created by Toni Morrison


These paperbacks about Jew killing… that is what one now thought World War Two was all about… what was going on over there in Eastern Europe and would still be going on if there were Jews left to kill.


The Hungarian Uprising in 1956 had confused me.… the pictures in LIFE Magazine and I guess at 12 I didn’t understand why the US didn’t help the Hungarians… THE BRIDGE AT ANDAU by James Michener… describe the new travelers who were fleeing the failed uprising… we read of Pal Maleter and Cardinal Mindszenty living on in the American Embassy


Do I know anything more about Eastern Europe now?

I have read Tadeusz Borowski: THIS WAY FOR THE GAS LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.. about the famous soccer match and Borowski’s suicide by gas after the war, after a friend had been imprisoned and tortured by the communist regime that now used Auschwitz for its own prisoners much as the Communists re-opened Buchenwald for its own prisoners of the German Democratic Republic…

And I have read KAPUTT of course…

I have read The Gulag Archipelago…

I have read THE FINAL STATION: UMSCHLAGPLATZ by Jaroslav M. Rymkiewicz which describes the limits of being able or not being able to describe the Warsaw ghetto…

No, I will not go on and make a list of books…

I know nothing about life in Eastern Europe.