Saturday, March 20, 2010

JACK KEROUAC, ANNIE DILLARD, ALLEN GINSBERG and Jake Silverstein: what comes in the mail

One day this week two books arrive in the mail: from the height to the murky other region of the book world.

JACK KEROUAC AND ALLEN GINSBERG: THE LETTERS which is to be published by Penguin in July.

NOTHING AND THEN IT DID by Jake Silverstein now published by WW. Norton.

Of course any season that has a book of letters by Jack Kerouac and in particular when those letters are from the beginning of his literary career is a blessed time.

Finally, the world well knows—even if all the usual stupid academics have not figure it out: ON THE ROAD is one of the very very few novels published in the United States after World War Two that is actually a great world novel in the same way that Celine’s JOURNEY TO THE END OF NIGHT and why not: Turgenev’s FIRST LOVE.

The biggest mis-understanding about Kerouac is that he was some sort of poorly read hick who wrote a novel about guys having fun. The truth is Kerouac even at 22 was saturated with literature, extremely well read and from the first letter (1944) in the collection in which Ginsberg reports on seeing JK’s girl friend bringing him while in jail a copy of Gogol’s DEAD SOULS that he requested to the second letter in which Kerouac writes, “I prefer the new vision in terms of art---I believe, I smugly cling to the belief that art is the potential ultimate out of humankind materials of art, I tell myself, the new vision springs. Look at FINNEGANS WAKE and ULYSSES and THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. Lord only knows the truth! Lord only can tell! “

Garden variety alcoholism will kill Kerouac at 47. Ginsberg will drag out his own life until 71--- after the writing of the still memorable HOWL and KADDISH--- as a disagreeable aggressive pederast who preyed upon the confused and vulnerable. I will type up one of these days the interview I did with Ginsberg and which was published in The Guardian in London some years before his death.

And the murk

NOTHING HAPPENED AND THAN IT DID by Jake Silverstein is as the subtitle has it “A chronicle in fact and fiction” set in the far west of Texas and Mexico. By the fourth and fifth line of the preface: “long lonesome highways and quiet main streets” have appeared. It is a place where, “thoughts twist like timbers.” < how is that possible?> And we are told people, “speak of its unspoiled beauty.” Though we will be given some sort of history, “Spanish conquistadors clanked across this land, looking for gold to pillage and Indians to baptize or slay.”

I did read on a bit more but the will was not really there because after hearing about vast ranches in West Texas with few cattle there is this sentence: “The human population throughout the region is as sparse as that of the bovine.”

I closed the book and noted all the blurbs by my I assume betters: Douglas Brinkley, Sherman Alexie, Antonya Nelson, Tony Girardina and my favorite and old friend Annie Dillard.

I decided that possibly since they blurb so many books, Brinkley, Alexie and Nelson --- maybe mixed up books as it so often happens…

I do not know Tony Giradina but the people at Norton write that he is the author of WHITE GUYS but what can you say about someone who can type: “a gorgeous, hilarious romp of a book?”

But about Annie Dillard?

I have known Annie since 1969 at Hollins College. She heard me tell a story about my father and seagulls and she quoted it later in PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK.

When I got around to publishing a book in which I would quote myself I asked Annie for a blurb she replied that I should go ahead and write my own blurb for the book but not to compare myself to Shakespeare. I should assign her name to those words and then she would read my book when she had time and with pleasure. I didn’t do as she suggested and maybe I should have.

On the press release Mr. Silverstein has Annie Dillard comparing his work to Dickens, Tolstoy, Gorki. Laxness and Chen Congwen… but he too did not compare his work to Shakespeare so I guess he was just following her suggestion though the Chinese guy… well, the Asian market is expanding…

Mr Silversetin is the editor of THE TEXAS MONTHLY and has time to be a contributing editor to HARPER’S magazine but since he writes with such facility in the English language he should also become a food writer for The New York Times as Sherman Alexie writes about NOTHING HAPPENED AND THEN IT DID: “It’s a eulogy for dead American towns, dead American ideas and dead American jobs… You’ll devour it.”

I am sure Mr. Silverstein will not turn down a large pile of dead American dollars for his labors as Mr. Alexie is also a recipient of big piles of dead American dollars for his own labors in the field of dead American ideas and dead American jobs.

Monday, March 8, 2010

COMING! COMING! Reading LINDA LE'S Previous Novel in Preperation for What is Coming: THE THREE FATES

In May, New Directions will be publishing Linda Le’s novel THE THREE FATES. To prepare the way I am publishing a review I wrote for the Washington Post in 1997 when her novel SLANDER was published. I hope it is obvious why I am eagerly awaiting this new novel and why I hope you will read SLANDER between now and then…


The Vietnam War, no matter what we might think about it, is now just another historical fact. Vietnam is once again an obscure country that rarely appears in the news and is present now mostly in the form of Vietnamese restaurants in larger American cities. Our ignorance of this country and its people is nearly perfect in spite of (or because of) our entanglement with it.

So it is startling, revealing, humiliating and pleasant to read the first of Vietnamese-born Linda Le’s six novels to be translated into English. Le, who immigrated to France at the age of 14 and writes in French, produced these six novels before the age of 30 and now dismisses her first here as just the sort of books anyone could produce at that age.

SLANDER, her fifth novel, entwines and merges two distinct and contrasting voices: that of an old man, just released after a long incarceration in a mental hospital and now working in a library; and that of a young woman, his niece, who is trying to make sense of their world. It is a world of exile, an exile that is both physical—they have each been living in France for the last 15 years--- and linguistic: Each now thinks in French, and she writes in French further distancing themselves from that country called Vietnam.

It must be happily said that nothing “happens" in SLANDER. The niece does discover that the father she grew up with is not her biological father. But there is none of that muck of dreary realistic incident and story that clogs so much recent American fiction. Instead we are given the pleasure and texture of voice. Here the uncle hints at the complexities of Vietnamese history and of the recent past as personified by the niece’s real father, a Westerner who came to Vietnam with the war and had an affair with her mother: “Her mother says, a man full of pride and courage. (The man of courage braved ambushes, defied snipers, visited the front lines but he beat a hasty retreat as soon as he was threatened by fatherhood.) He said, I cannot know if this child is mine or your husband’s--- my enemy’s. The man of courage dropped out of the game. Before leaving the Country, he chose an international name for the unborn child. Later, he grew brave enough to send her a pink layette.”

Linda Le aspires to be a writer, neither a Vietnamese writer nor a French writer but simply a writer, so it is ironic to see her ghettoized in Nebraska’s “European Women Writers” series. But that is easily overlooked in light of the book itself, which is wonderfully designed object. And of course no conventional publisher would have the courage to do such a hard lucid book, which contains this voice: “You forget that love is nothing but sweat, secretions, rancor. A simple matter of perspiration that begins in a nervous moment called coup de foudre, continues between sour-smelling sheets, and in the long run can only conclude in the proximity of two bad moods by day and two bad smells by night, until the final bankruptcy, the last lather, which is worked up by the fear of longer having anyone to sweat with.

However, SLANDER is no novel of mere exotic heartbreak like Marguerite Duras’s THE LOVER. Rather it is a novel about the how to search for a father. It asks the unanswerable real question: Why was I born? Le knows that, “she will have to choose between these two specimens of father. Between the best- selling novelist’s book, a book that puts on a showy display of erudition and seduction, a book written with facility, a book that enchants the reader, a book padded out with frivolous phrases and ending with a pirouette— she has to choose between that charming book and the other specimen, an austere book that encloses nothing but a little dried blood.”

Probably only in heaven will this book be a best-seller. But SLANDER takes up residence in the emotions of the reader and creates a literary country one wants to visit and revisit. As Le’s protagonist says, “I look in books for a sign of recognition. I leaf through a lot of them. Most of the time I see nothing other than a book, some paragraphs, some words. I get tired of turning the pages. I‘m ready to stop. Then the miracle happens. I pick up a book. I open it and something there makes a sign to me. In those moments I feel like a shipwrecked man who sees a hand on the horizon, a hand waving on the surface of the water, a living hand. A hand that can do nothing for me. But still a hand that signals to tell that at least there are two of shipwrecked here on this sea of solitude.


Today, if you know the Washington Post you realize they no longer have an interest in books.
While they still publish reviews by Michael Dirda--- and he is very good--- he is published more out of nostalgia for the Pulitzer Prize he earned a long time ago for them than as part of any genuine interest in the word. The newspaper now reflects only the boredom of chronicling the political ruling class.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

TWO ILLUMINATING AND NECESSARY details from the Selected Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The following entry from the SELECTED JOURNALS of Ralph Waldo Emerson just out from the Library of America is one of the most touching paragraphs I have read in a long time.


Wednesday, 8 July, 1857. This morning I had the remains my mother & and of my son Waldo removed from the tomb of Mrs Ripley to my lot in "Sleepy Hollow." The sun shone brightly on the coffins, of which Waldo's was well preserved--- now of fifteen years. I ventured to look into the coffin. I gave a few white oak leaves to each coffin, after they were put in the new vault, & the vault then covered with two slabs of granite.

Note: the son was five years of when he died
My ignorance: I could not tell you white a white oak leaf looked like.
A question What did Emerson see when he looked?


31 January 1841

Yet a novel may teach one thing as well as my choosings at the corner of the street which way to go,--- whether to my errand or whether to the woods, --- this, namely, that action inspires respect, action, makes character, power, man, God.
These novels will give way by & by to diaries or autobiographies,--- captivating books if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly!

Note: while there is comfort for the the novel haters...but THAT WHICH IS REALLY HIS EXPERIENCE and then HOW TO RECORD...

Very high standards are set...

I would erect five examples:

WARRENPOINT by Denis Donoghue
CASTLE TO CASTLE by Louis Ferdinand Celine
STORM OF STEEL by Ernst Junger
GOING TO PATCHOGUE by Thomas McGonigle