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