Wednesday, April 27, 2011


If I was editing a book section right now these are the books I would have written about or have had written about.

9--In 1950 when my sister came down with polio a cloistered nun sent her a 1/4inch square of cloth attached to a card.  The fabric had come from the dressing gown worn at the moment of death by Pope Pius X--- who was known to take a great interest in children---

9--I also knew that in each altar of a Catholic church was embedded a relic of the saint to whom the church was dedicated.  I did wonder about churches named for the Sacred Heart or the various aspects of the Virgin Mary, but did not ask too closely.

9--When in European museums and in the Met in New York on display were beautiful containers for relics and always looked closely if it was possible to see exactly what human remain was encased usually in gold.  The fascination was always compromised by an understanding that when a religious object becomes a mere object of art some irreparable has been lost and I guess about the only person who knows what I am talking about would be Julian Green and he is now dead.

9--HOLY BONES,HOLY DUST How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe by Charles Freeman (Yale University Press) is exactly what it says it is.  Wonderfully written and inviting:  “The first downward slice of the sword glanced off the archbishop’s skull and cut through to the shoulder bone, almost severing the arm of one of his attendants as the weapon fell.”
9--The passage ends, “Two more slashing cuts on his head followed and the archbishop slumped dying to the ground.  The top of his head was sliced off and finally the exposed brains were scraped out of  the skull and scattered on the cathedral floor.”  Freeman than goes on to explain how this murdered archbishop became St Thomas Becket and his relics an object of pilgrimage as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales…

9--How far most people have come from any interest in relics unless they are the possessions of a pop singer like Elvis Presley… But Freeman right down to the notes for his illustrations fascinates:  “These early saints’ tombs were given holes into the space under the body and often sacred dust was collected from below and mixed with water to drink.”

9--A model for how history is to be written and happily for those who know Hannah Green’s “Little Saint,” the town of Conques is described and the great reliquary of St. Foy is pictured.
9—Hannah Green wrote THE DEAD OF THE HOUSE.

10—This is the year Kurt Vonnegut gets the authorized biography.  Of course it will be widely reviewed as it is the easiest sort of books to review: a potted mini bio of the author and one or two little bits of info and the reviewer is done.  But remember literary biographies are always the first books that get tossed from personal libraries, followed by books of literary criticism.

10—the Library of America is publishing the first of a series of volumes devoted to  Kurt Vonnegut.  I wish they would tell us what the remaining volumes will contain.  This one has SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, CAT’S CRADLE and BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS.  These are the books that make his claim to be remembered.  I did not read them as they were being published.  I heard about them, as one could say.  But, now, finally, I realize:  SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE together with Joseph Heller’s CATCH 22  for the European theatre and  with two novels by James Jones, THE THIN RED LINE and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY covering the Pacific theatre that this is how an American imagines that thing called World War Two.  I would add only Curzio Malaparte’s KAPUTT and THE SKIN along with Celine’s CASTLE TO CASTLE  and RIGADOON to fill in a little shading.  RIGADOON comes with an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut.

10-- The Library of America volume devoted to Vonnegut is the best way to experience Vonnegut if like me you didn’t read him the first time around and even if you did, this is a way to over-come the prejudice that always surrounded his career: an entertaining ScFi scribbler.

11--The only competition for the Library of America is the EVERYMAN series of books from Knopf.  In the Strand I notice that EVERYMAN books do not linger on the shelves and they seem to be read when they do end up there, while the Library of America books tend to gather unread.  Both series are actually one of the few bright spots of publishing.
1--THE EVERYMAN CHESTERTON, George Orwell’s BURMESE DAYS, KEEP THE APIDISTRA FLYING, COMING UP FOR AIR in one volume and the COLLECTED SHORT FICTION by V.S. NAIPAUL are the three latest books in EVERYMAN.  I cannot pretend to have read all three but I can tell you that these books do invite reading.  The Chesterton does not have some of his classic short essays such as Writing on the Ceiling, What I Found in my Pocket or Advantages of One Leg but this made up by including his ever new ORTHODOXY, THE EVERLASTING MAN and a large collection of Father Brown Stories, which as everyone knows always delighted Jorge Luis Borges…  remember always it was Robert Louis Stevenson and Chesterton to which Borges always returned and provided the constant clarity to the typical Borgesian story.

11--When 1984 came and went as a year Orwell seemed to dim a bit and while ANIMAL FARM remains it is good to have the chance to read these three books again.  My own Penguin versions have become brittle and brown.  Burmese Days does little for me while the other two novels constantly remind of just how dreary life was and is for the most part in England, right down to the present moment which while slightly more glammed up remains at its core,  still a plate of over-cooked  take-away food washed down by watery beer, that is if you got back to the dingy over-priced hotel room without being set upon by drunken soccer thugs.

11—A few factual details to remember according to the Note on the Text.    BURMESE DAYS was published in England in an edition of 2500 copies with an additional 500 were called for. KEEP THE APIDISTRA FLYING  was published in an edition of 3000 copies of which 2194 were sold.  COMING UP FOR AIR was published in an edition of 2000 copies and an additional 1000 were called for.

11—These numbers for most books of fiction are still the reality even in the US where the population is now 300 million.  And in fact might be considered rather remarkable.

11—V.S. Naipaul has become a little eclipsed though given the reality in what used to be called the Third World he is as relevant, as understandable, as necessary.  Though things in that part of the world have become even worse… but these stories fill in his permanent place in the world imagination… but come to them after A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS.

12—No one would let me write about THE SLY COMPANY OF PEOPLE WHO CARE by Rahul Bhattacharya (Farrar Straus & Giroux).  How to say the guy’s last name was a starter and then if I mentioned it’s a novel set in Guyana… quickly the conversation would yo-yo between my talking about the Guyanese students at the various colleges in NYC and Reverend Jim Jones who as you remember put that country on the map with his Kool-Aid transportation into the next world.  An opening line, “Life, as we know, is a living, shrinking affair and somewhere down the line I became taken with the idea…”

                12—A closing few lines from SLY COMPANY OF PEOPLE WHO CARE: “Light crept like a thief out of the fragile wet houses.  Somewhere in the drip drop dark a maga dog whined.  And my tears, they kept returning at intervals, and I purse them to no avail.  Dayclean.  Gone.”

                12—I would go to Guyana in the morning if given the chance and while I would not use this book as a guide I would go because of this book.

                13—Reviewing Enrique Vila-Matas’s BARTLEBY & CO  for the Los Angeles Times ( and declaring that it is: Perfect. Beautiful. ..what can I claim for his new book, NEVER ANY END TO PARIS? (New Directions)  Well, I am jealous of every single line of this book, of every gesture he makes.  In memory Vila Matas is back in the attic of Duras, back in his youth in Paris, back midst names of the famous…circling constantly about Hemingway who while it seems  at this moment as I am typing to have disappeared is still of course ever present--- I have thought to seek out the man who wrote BARTLEBY & CO and MONTANO’S MALADY and now NEVER ANY END TO PARIS but I have not.  How could I, since I have been in Nantes with my daughter as Vila Matas has also been there--- though did we pass in the street?---Vila-Matas gives one the illusion that anyone could write like he does  but like the lottery in New York State…the dollar, the dream… I am not sure you have to have gone to Paris to read NEVER ANY END TO PARIS but it is probably necessary but only if you do not speak French.  You must become the perfect French tourist in the Unites States: not speaking a single word of English but understanding everything because you have seen Vertigo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, DOA…

                14—Nantes always calls up Julien Gracq and Green Integer has released a short novel of his THE PENINSULA.  Again I have reviewed and written about him.  Each of Gracq’s books is distinct and while I am not going to ever know French and live in constant poverty as a result and why I take pride in my daughter who is very fluent in French with a good accent but who is not living in France so can I ever look forward to listening to her reading Gracq to me in French and then translating his travel journal from his voyage through the American Midwest?

                14—In THE PENINSULA  a man is waiting for a woman to arrive at a train station.  She does not come on the morning train.  He sets out driving waiting to come back to see if she will be on the evening train.  “She had become simply the force that was hurling him towards their impending meeting, and what he felt was the passive well-being of a pebble skidding down a slope and whose onlt sensation of existence comes from the ever-increasing acceleration.”

                14— from THE PENINSULA, “He would let himself be swallowed up by the wide lazy yawn of the countryside.”
                14—from THE PENINSULA:  (The girl in memory)”What a prude!” delivered with a school girl sententiousness from behind thee tangled barrier of blonde hair through which only the end of her very small nose emerged and which always made him want to kiss her.

                15—if you want to have my literary references for writing these sentences you should know that GOING TO PATCHOGUE is again available and now in paper from Dalkey Archive and THE CORPSE DREAM OF N. PETKOV is still available from Northwestern University Press.  My other books--- among others---   JUST LIKE THAT, NOTHING DOING, FORGET THE FUTURE have not found a courageous reader.

Monday, April 25, 2011

BANNED: a detour and the back

 4-There is only one banned book in the world today and that is Louis Ferdinand Celine’s “Bagatelles pour une Massacre.”  Via the internet a reader can read a translation by Anonymous who has entitled the book Trifles for a Massacre.  The source seems to be in South America. The other two pamphlets of Celine have not been translated. 

5-Of course Maldoror also came out of South America from the imagination of Lautremont.  A detail by an obscurantist, to be sure.

6-I am not na├»ve as to why this book has never appeared from a conventional publisher while all of Celine’s  other books are  easily and widely available with great blurbs from Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut among others. 

7-But is the Bagatelles, like the collected works of de Sade with their detailed descriptions of child rape, torture and murder, a something that is beyond the pale as it were? 

9-De Sade of course is celebrated by liberal academics as being transgressive and given pride of place in Queer Studies programs as a misunderstood pioneer into the unthinkable.

9-The Bagatelles is a nasty book and very very funny in the way that A Modest Proposal by Swift is funny… but it is argued that it is an incitement to murder but the same could be said of the Koran or The Bible. for that matter.

8-So forget those nice little displays of Banned Books which allow people to cluck their tongues at the idiots who take offense at words like nigger, cock, pussy, shit, fuck….

7-The word in Bagattelles that causes offense is Jew and the various derogatory equivalents… and the same is true for a book by  that other complicated writer, Ezra Pound, but his Radio Speeches is easily available and again the word that causes difficulty is the word Jew.

6-Only one writer in the US has written about the Bagatelles:  Alice Kaplan, but she has both tenure and a professorship though when I went to look she is no longer at Duke.  I reviewed long ago (  her little memoir French Lessons and have followed her career but I missed that she was one of those who rushed to judgment about the Lacrosse players in the famous scandal of recent memory. 

5-You remember that? 

4-A black woman claimed she was raped by some Duke Lacrosse players.  Liberal academics, including Kaplan, and among other s those stalwart guardians of progressive literary thinking,  Frank Lentrecchia and Ariel Dorfman,  rushed to judgment  by signing a petition protesting the racist nature of Duke society and deciding the case before  a jury had  even  heard the case.  

4-I was thinking recently while driving around in North Carolina that those three academics probably wanted to participate in a lynch mob but lacking, thankfully, such opportunities in the real world, took the plunge and signed this petition: imagine the thrill of it, a risk free membership in a lynch mob and while those Lacrosse players were probably not the sort of guys I would want in my house, one still wonders about the men who had been lynched and the smiling faces of the members of the lynch mobs…  

5-Of course driving around in North Carolina thoughts of the Civil War, the War Between the States, the KKK, lynch mobs, Sherman, Lee, Grant.. .no wonder these liberal academics took the plunge.  What could be more transgressive than wondering what it felt like to be a member of a lynch mob and suddenly being given the chance…  as the kids say: go for it!

6-Kaplan is now at Yale.

7-But to come back to the Bagatelles… the book is seriously funny and while a friend has criticized the translation as being rather wooden, I do find the book as being the only book that it is necessary to read if a reader is to think of him or herself as a reader.  It is the equivalent of that mean cartoon in THE REALIST of long ago which depicted an obviously Jewish guy in prison garb pointing his finger at a Nazi guard saying, Wait until the Pope hears about this.

8-Did Celine’s book send a single Jew to be murdered?  Not as far as I know while De Sade’s books with some regularity show up as the favorite readings of particularly gruesome murderers, usually in the British Isles.

9-I was thinking of Celine when I went to Auschwitz and Birkenau…  I wish I had had his satirical flair, his nastiness to describe the museum at Auschwitz, where mass killing is packaged up in a neat parcel for easy consumption… but Celine would have been stopped as I was by Birkenau…  the size, the desolation, the drawings on the wall in the children’s barracks…

9-Beyond the memoir books, beyond the history books, beyond all the explanations one arrives at the Bagatelles pour une Massacre.

8-The only thing that comes a distant second is to read the writings by that famous New York Times correspondent on the “supposed” famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s.  Walter Duranty is a study in not seeing… a characteristic of most journalists to be sure.

7-Celine sees. Celine hates.

6-If you go looking for Celine’s grave in the cemetery in Meudon there are no directions provided. The ship sails on.

5- Even in this day literary tourists come from as far away as Bulgaria looking for the greatest shit house in the world described by Celine in  the Journey to the End of Night as being located near City Hall in New York City... finding it is for those who know where to look.