Tuesday, January 18, 2011

THE LEPER'S BELL: what new and old books tell us

"There is no literature anymore, there are just single books that arrive in bookstores, just as letters, newspapers, advertising pamphlets arrive in mailboxes."
— T├Ánu ├Ľnnepalu (Border State)


For $3.30 plus postage you can buy the collected works in hardcover of Jay Cantor.

Do you remember his works: The Death of Che, Great Neck, Krazy Kat, On Giving Birth to One’s Mother, The Space Between : Literature and Politics?

I am thinking about him because like Leopold Bloom I was looking at the book carts of dollar books in front of the Strand and found GREAT NECK.

Here is a man who is a tenured professor at Tufts who runs a program in creative writing. He is also a MacArthur Fellow and as such is certified to be a genius.

He has written a comic book that is to be published in the Spring.

Great Neck is 703 pages long and published by Knopf in 2003. The copy I purchased from the Strand was unread.

I stopped reading

The leper’s bell was heard before the leper appeared. But today it seems that the leper bell has acquired multiple voices and publishers ever at the ready for the next or last thing… and of course compassion is the order of the day but what to make of LOUD IN THE HOUSE OF MYSELF Memoir of a Strange Girl by Stacy Pershall… who you will be happy to know is an artist and a belly dancer living in New York City.

28 people are credited by the author for helping her being her book to market and that does not include anonymous others and beasts…

The woman got a lot of problems but her prose is very orderly: “Still, I spend a lot of time wondering if I’d have been a borderline if I’d been raised by liberal artists in New York City. In Prairie Grove, if you don’t bow your head and pray to Jesus you’re culturally transgressive. In New York, I have yet to hear anyone say grace before every meal, but my parents pray before eating a McDonald’s cheeseburger…”

A good line and sure to get a chuckle in parts of New York City but I wonder if she would get a laugh at the storefront churches down here on the lower east side of Manhattan?

But it is the orderly prose that has been carefully prepared by her publishers at Norton which is the problem…

The leper’s bell

If someone you love dies, you mourn . If you are a writer you then probably write about it. Even James Joyce did this. You might remember his beautiful little poem on the death of his father and the birth of his first grandson.

The concluding lines:
A child is sleeping:
An old man is gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!

The poem is a model of what ought to be done.

If one is writing prose, Uwe Johnson’s memorial to his friend Ingeborg Bachmann, A TRIP TO KLAGENFURT In the Footsteps of Ingeborg Bachmann, is a suitable example.

80 or so pages and we feel both Johnson’s personal loss and the loss to the world at large but we are given reasons for feeling this grief. The sculptured prose, the shaping, the selection of detail and the brevity all contribute to making Johnson’s book a model memorial.

Sadly, Francisco Goldman in SAY HER NAME chose to go simply with the emotion, with the feeling and allowed the words to flow on and on…

Starting in promise with a series of quotes which sadly go down hill into banality, but the start is from Waiting for Godot:

Vladimir: Suppose we repented…
Estragon: Our being born?

Goldman’s own text also begins in promise: “Aura died on July 25, 2007. I went back to Mexico for the first anniversary because I wanted to be where it had happened at that beach on the Pacific Coast. Now, for the second time in a year I had come home again to Brooklyn without her.

Three months before she died, April 24, Aura had turned thirty. We’d been marred twenty-six days shy of two years."

There are a few more little snips and then as they say the plunge, fall, descend into a cellar of the text. Opened at random: “That first winter of Aura’s death I was fixated on not losing my gloves, my hat, or my scarf… “

350 pages and it seems Goldman has been a guest in Berlin, in Mexico and continues I guess to live and possibly teach in New York… the book comes with many blurbs…

On and on.

He is evidentialy a man of feeling but he is still able to operate in the world with some efficiency, it would seem. Goldman is a fortunate man. But now he has to carry this book around on his back. Might it not have been better to carry the memory of his love since he has replaced this love with this book, a book of 350 pages about himself, which is perfectly sterile.


Those dollar book carts also provided: THE SECRET LIFE OF OUR TIMES. New Fiction from ESQUIRE edited by Gordon Lish. Introduction by Tom Wolfe and dedicated to Lish’s son who is named Attituc. Lish mentions Captain Midnight and he became as I remember it, Captain Fiction, and charged rich people a lot of money to listen to him and to read their ”fiction” --- the bait being he was an editor at Knopf and if you kissed the magical prose orifice you got a book published but then he ran into accounting problems and what happened to Gordon Lish? which echoes a novel by Charles Simmons in which the refrain is Who the fuck is Harold Brodkey?

Tom Wolfe mentions in his intro: “ I do not detect the slightest shred of despair. I detect something buoyant and fun-loving.

This is in 1973.

Now, you know why something was going to go wrong. Esquire, Lish, Wolfe prided themselves on picking the best writers, writing available.

Let’s make list.

Raymond Carver (2 Stories), Don DeLillo, Joy Williams (2 stories), Bruce Jay Friedman, Joyce Carol Oates, Bernard Malamud, GABRIEL Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, A.B. Yehoshua, Richard Brautigan, John Barth, John Gardiner (2 stories) Gail Godwin, John Irving, Hilma Wolitzer, Raymond Kennedy, Earl Thompson, William Harrison (2 stories) Richard Brautigan, James Purdy, David Ohle, David Huddle, Michael Rogers, John Deck, James S. Reinbold (2 stories), Jerry Bumpus, Robert Ullian, Thomas Bontly, David Kranes, Alan V. Hewat

I have arranged the names from the familiar, the vaguely familiar to the…

Of course we are all destined to be forgotten but already some of these names are forgotten except to their few close ones… but these were thought by GL and TW to be the future or at the very least a marker of that moment 1973-7, no despair, buoyant, fun-loving.

We can see now the perils of trusting those who are : fun-loving and buoyant and not given to despair.

A page by Dahlberg, Kerouac, Burrough, Wescott, Julian Green…

I know or knew a few of the less known names in this list: William Harrison taught at the University of Arkansas for many years and had no interest in what I was writing, but he was well liked by George Garrett and Tom Whalen: he had some very popular novels but then dropped to the side… much in the way of how it happens in Hollywood: one day they stop returning your phone calls… it is not because of any great failure but something happens and the phone no longer rings and eventually: I wonder what happened to?... He wrote a novel about a suicide plot of students at the University of Chicago, IN THE WILD SANCTUARY. which should have been made into a movie but that didn’t happen… he began writing novels set in Africa, realistic novels with movie potential… and I guess he will be best known for ROLLERBALL which was made into a movie… he was incredibly handsome, movie star looks, rare in the world of writing

Robert Ullian was a friend of David Black who was one of the very few of the people I met when I came to NY who went on to great success not with his books of which there were many and still of much interest but as a TV writer and producer… so made lots of money… got awards for Law and Order. Miami Vice episodes… you can look him up in IMDB… but he is one of the few who I thought would write a great book… he read much more smartly than I did and was much more intelligent: I still remember him talking about how Nabokov did it… I even went to a freshman comp course he taught at one of the city colleges… he wrote and wrote and got awards for journalism but that real book has eluded him--- he tried with a book about his father: a detail of which I remember, the father hitting someone who was tormenting him and this person in turn permanently paralyzed--- that certain nightmare for anyone who had a relative who had polio and seeing people who were paralyzed… but it was the matter-of-fact cruelty of this moment in the book that has lingered all these years and I am sure DB has long forgotten in… but has gone across into the land of TV and movies but he has that lingering understanding that even more than the book writers: how perishable it all is…:

I forgot … Robert Ullian? I don’t know what happened to him--- Richard Elman said his family sod mattresses or something: how’s that for idle gossip?

Well, anyway, Ullian and a guy named Craig Nova and William O’Rourke were friends of David Black… Nova was married to Irini Spanindau and that ended… she became a Knopf writer… and he went off to the wilderness after writing three fierce little book sbut he quickly started writing novels that were supposed to be popular…

William O’Rourke was a disciple of Edward Dahlberg and wrote a very good firt novel MEEKNESS OF ISAAC and then some powerful essays and then seemed to move aside after some “popular” novels and ended up at Notre Dame, at least with a warm room and a place to go for some hours every week as a professor… he does political writing or commentary…

David Huddle used to invite me and David Black over to his apartment on West End Avenue where we tried to write a group porn novel inspired by both Anthony Burgess’s suggestion and the success of a novel by some Newsday writers… David had been a torturer in Vietnam.. sorry ,interrogator, in Vietnam since he had a little college.. but he got the story in this anthology published and got tenure at the University of Vermont…. He taught creative writing for 30 some years and I guess still does… he keeps writing poetry and stories and novels… but they all avoid the central event of his life: what he did or didn’t do in Vietnam, which is probably understandable…. But he is the epitome of the cheerful, the posiitve, the friendly...


“I do not detect the slightest shred of despair. I detect something buoyant and fun-loving.”