Thursday, September 9, 2010



A Murderous Encounter
A Novella by Ya. A.
St. Petersburg, 1836
This little book has appeared, consequently somewhere in this wide world there must be a reader for it.
---Nikolai Gogol

(Now, that is a model review.)


As the so-called literary world is swept with interest in a recent book by the sociologist Jonathan Franzen, some have remarked that it’s sad that saps in COSTCO or BJ’s who buying their literature will be very disappointed by something called FREEDOM which seems on closer inspection to be inferior to the great work of Vance Packard whose what-can-you- call- them?: novels, sociological novels are the benchmark for such “examinations of the American condition.” You remember them with fondness: The Status Seekers, The Hidden Persuaders, The Waste Makers, The Naked Society, The Sexual Wilderness, The People Shapers… though his life could be summed up by an early title: How to Pick a Mate. These books were met with the same controversy and profound concern for the state of the American family etc etc.


A great thanks to the Library of America for reissuing H. L. Mencken’s PREJUDICES In two delicious volumes.

If you have a child off in that swamp called American higher education this is the perfect gift. But is a mixed blessing in the sense that while Mencken is wholy exhilarating and nearly every page has something to quote and savor , even dipping into it will make the child possibly intemperate, and even unwilling to suffer the idiocy which is the much of what they will have to endure while prisoners of these institutions in particular when taking introductory courses in the liberal arts. Never have we---or I’ll speak for myself--- been in need of his clarity of writing and of his awareness of the nonsense that passes for politics in the US. Just the idea that a man once had the freedom to publish a book called Prejudices is cause enough to wonder at how far we have fallen in our sophistication.

At random:

“This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me.”


“Democracy is that system of government under which the people, having 35,717,342 native-born adult whites to choose from, including thousands, who are handsome and many who are wise pick out a Coolidge to be head of the state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies.”
(If anyone thinks the current holder of that office is any bit better than Coolidge then the delusional grandeur of the American mind is greater than can be imagined…)


“What ails the world mainly, at least in the political sense, is that its governments are too strong. It has been a recurrent pest since the dawn of civilization… The men who constitute the government always try to make it appear, of course, that they carry on their activities in a patriotic and altruistic way—in brief, they are full of public spirit. But that pretension deceives no one, not even Homo boobiens. The average man, whatever his errors otherwise, at least sees clearly that the government is something outside of him and outside the generality of his fellow men--- that i t is a separate independent and often hostile power, only partly under his control, and capable on occasion of doing him great harm.”
(On occasion would have to be changed today to: Often doing him great harm)



To die for an idea: it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if man died for ideas that they were true. Searching history, I can find no such case. All the great martyrs of the books died for sheer nonsense—often for trivial matters of doctrine and ceremonial, too absurd to be state in plain terms. But what of the countless thousands who have perished in the wars, fighting magnificently for their country? Well, show me one who knew precisely what the war he died in was about and could put into a simple and plausible proposition.

(Has this changed: WW2, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The Iraq War. The Afghanistan War and all the other delightful actions of the US: the attacks on Serbia, Panama, Grenada, Lebanon… the current gearing up for war in Africa)


Farrar Straus & Giroux of course is the publisher of the sociology of Jonathan Franzen and I have to wish them tons of luck and bushels and bushels of dollars to fall into their offices as it allows them to publish real books.

While not from this season I have been reading with profound gratitude the Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti, the one poet other than Eugenio Montale that I read with real pleasure from Italy… I learn from Ungaretti. I am inspired by him:

In veins already almost empty tombs
The still galloping longing,
In my bones that are frozen, stone,
In the soul the choked regret,
Untamable iniquity: dissolve them;
From remorse, endless howl,
Terrible seclusion
In the unspeakable dark,
Redeem me and rouse your merciful
Lashes from your long sleep
May your sudden pinkish trace
Mother mind, ascend again,
And return to amaze me;
Come back to life, unhoped for,
Measure inconceivable, peace
Make it so I, in the balanced landscape,
May mouth again the sounds of artless speech.
(translated by Andrew Frisardi)


But what had reminded me, again, of Ungaretti was reading also from FSG, THE BARS OF ATLANTIS by the German poet Durs Grunbein. It is a book of essays that is surely the best book of prose written by a poet in many years. He has that ability to quote, that ability to make fresh and it was in an essay on Pompeii that he quoted from Ungaretti, “Life is nothing but a process of decay decorating itself with illusions.”

In that essay on Pompeii, “Volcano and Poem” a tiny hint as to why I read slowly, ever so slowly THE BARS OF ATLANTIS, “Each individual had been sealed up in lava and debris by the volcano, and now they all were returned to the present, the portraits of the gods and the pornographic doodles, the frieze of the mysteries and the latest slogans, the board game and the papyrus scroll and that fragment from the book of one Philodemus of Gadara On Poems--- the ape of Classical poetics.”

“…and now they all were returned to the present” This is genius.


Another book to be made possible by the Franzen booty.

In November CANTI by Giacomo LEOPARDI,translated by Jonathan Galassi. That Italian poet who comes between Dante and Montale and Ungaretti… Leopardi that poet who sang through James Thomson BV once upon a time…never exhausted.


Thomas McGonigle said...

There is a very good blog about the Mencken:

Anonymous said...

What a stunningly insightful blog. Let's hope that mega successes like Franzen's books do result in a financial benefit to publishers who will then perhaps publish something more daring. Yes, Ungaretti and Montale!! But as you have so often written, Americans are so unengaged with foreign writers (except and until they win a major prize). Mencken--how wonderful, and your samples preserve his conversational style and his skepticism. What I remember of his writings is his gusto. Mencken is truly a forgotten writer worthy of rediscovery. Is it getting time for the Library of America to think about someone like Joseph Hergesheimer? What about the criticism of George Jean Nathan? But suggestions are not what you asked for. Again, thank you for your eclecticism.

d said...

Hello. I share many of your thoughts about books and especially appreciated your brief description of picking up an ARC for Bolano's 2666.

May I mail you the new issue of my journal?

Thomas McGonigle said...

Please do

d said...

If you send your address to editor(at), I can put one in the mail to you on Monday.