Friday, December 27, 2013


Necessary information:  for more than 30 years sections from ST. PATRICK’S DAY Dublin 1974 have been appearing in journals and magazines both in the  United States and in Ireland.  It was supposed to be published during this coming Spring but I have been told that publication has been postponed. 
            In too many ways to mention I find that my life has been ruined.
1-    I have been planning to do IF I WAS THE BOOK SECTION EDITOR and here are the books for this week
2-    I got distracted and thought about the problem of what to do about books that get themselves forgotten as happened because I found in my books TRAVELING LIGHT by Lionel Mitchell. 
3-    Coming out in 1980 it was one of those--- as they like to say--- path breaking books that sadly did not break any paths--- not because it was not a path-breaking book--- and while favorably written about by Stanley Crouch, Mitchell died a  nasty gruesome death from AIDS and not being wildly reviewed in the so-called mainstream media…. 
4-    Mitchell in some way was a Black or Negro version of a contrary version of what it meant to be homosexual or even sexual in the United States and is much like John Rechy who is still thought to be marginal while in reality having written the single best book, CITY OF NIGHT,  (now in a 50th Anniversary edition) as to what it felt like to be homosexual in the 50s and 60s USA.  
5-    What distinguished Mitchell was that he dared to take up the inevitable question of violence, real physical violence and he did not make it nice, alluring or respectable
a-     Of course there is also Hal Bennett:  I had had the experience of urging through Turtle Point Press a new edition of Hal Bennett’s LORD OF DARK PLACES but that also did not get its place in the sun of readers and did not move over the dead statue of Toni Morrison one inch though Bennett is to my mind one of the rare truth tellers of American Letters.
b-    As is the fate for most truth tellers Bennett has been ignored and died in a veterans’ hospital in Edison New Jersey, mourned probably only by myself and his publisher Jon Rabinowitz.
c-     Bennett’s short memoir available only in one of the those Dictionary of Literary Biography collections devoted to autobiography  uniquely details as never before done, the great chain of beating that lead from the whip of the white owner to the whip held in the hand of the Black mother or father or other figure in authority:  that peculiar American experience still nearly impossible to even mention as it is seen to be too controversial, too disturbing as it might let the beaters off the hook---as being simply unknowing participants--- so that the silence continues to be seared by the crying, the crying, the whimpering…
                        ONE.         1941 THE YEAR THAT KEEP RETURNING by Slavko Goldstein. New York Review Books.   The book is in:  “I think I can pinpoint exactly the hour and the day when my childhood ended, Easter Sunday April 13 1941.  On the promenade in front of Zorin Dom nor far from our house German tanks, armored vehicles and military kitchens on large wheels with fat tires were neatly lined up….  My father stopped me at the door.  “Where are you going?” “Out to play.” “To play?’  My father looked at me with surprise.  “Well, okay.  Go, but don’t be late for lunch.”  When I got back my father was no longer at home.  And he was never to return.”
            Not just a holocaust book--- and in no way is that to denigrate or argue against their proliferation but in so many ways we have come to the point of now re-reading and sorting--- however the Croatian writer  Slavko Goldstein while describing the  murder of the Jews of Yugoslavia also goes on to explain the incredibly murderous assault upon the Serbian population by the Croatian fascist forces.  In patient detail and careful thought one is lead to see how forty years later during the breakup of Yugoslavia, precipitated by the pre-mature German recognition of Slovenia and then Croatia would in turn would be unleash a violent war of ethnic violence that defied explanation until one was reminded of the past Goldstein delineates, something people like Susan Sontag and Bill Clinton were willfully ignorant of  since it did not fit into their preconceived ideas of who was victim and who was perpetrator even when the evidence was  not reducible to the good guys and the bad guys, unless you wanted to stage Beckett in Sarajevo and claim heroine status for such an endeavor.
            TWO.     AGAINST AUTOBIOGRAPHY:  ALBERT MEMMI AND THE PRODUCTION OF THEORY by Lia Nicole Brozgal.   (University of Nebraska Press)  While the book is a perverse exercise in “theory” and wants us to over-look the autobiographical nature of Memmi’s great book  THE SCORPION  (which came out in English in 1971 from Orion Press then a part of Grossman Publishers and which  first great autobiography to come out North Africa after Augustine’s CONFESSIONS, if truth be told.  Brozgal’s book is interesting only if it gets readers to read Memmi’s THE SCORPION.  They should not be distracted by his so-called serious books of theory about who and what is a colonizer… all of that is mere sociology and was dated before it is read.
            THE SCORPION creates what it meant to be a Jewish individual in Tunisia and Memmi by adapting the very best of the Alain Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon produced a book equal to their own… but this aspect of his career was lost in the dreary usual politics and while Brozgal is more enamored of Memmi as a thinker it is as a novelist, memoir writer that THE SCORPION makes its claim upon a statue in the garden of the essential.
            THREE.    Some years ago I had admired and recommended HOLY BONES HOLY DUST by Charles Freeman which takes up the question of how relics shaped Medieval history…  so I had wished to see WHY CAN THE DEAD DO SUCH GREAT THINGS  by Robert Bartlett (Princeton University Press) which focuses his discussion on the actual bodies of the saints and in great detail brings the same years to life in a more detailed and obsessive manner—marred only by a sadly too small of a type face.  Bartlett is a TV presenter and knows a good tale if one can ignore the rather condescending attitude towards what was as opposed to a possibly more rewarding approach which is to delight in, to respect and to wonder what has really been lost when instead of invoking a saint to do battle we program a drone in Maryland for a killing in  say Yemen.   Of course Robert Calasso might suggest that the gods and I would include the saints in all of this—are maybe still about as in his LITERATURE AND THE GODS
            FOUR  I refuse to forget GLENWAY WESCOTT.   Joining from the University of Wisconsin’s edition of Wescott’s  HEAVEN OF WORDS Last Journals of 1956-1984 is a selection of the uncollected fiction of Wescott that adds to the absolute necessity at least for me of his two earlier books  THE GRANDMOTHERS and GOODYBE, WISCONSIN.  One should start with A Visit to Priapus and realize the sadness of what was not to be as Wescott found it impossible to discover books within himself beyond the two I have mentioned and the short novel THE PILGRIM HAWK which while widely praised and a great delight is still to my mind in the shadow of THE GRANDMOTHERS and the title story of GOODBYE, WISCONSIN.  The editor Jerry Rosco has done a very good deed for literature with these two books and his earlier book of Wescott’s journals and writings CONTINUAL LESSONS and his own biography of Wescott GLENWAY WESCOTT PERSONALLY.  I do wish that Rosco had included the much longer version of The Smell of Rosemary that had appeared in Prose but that is another tale and a much lamented journal…
AN ASIDE.             Wescott like Julian Green is lost to America since our attention span for the 20th century seems stretched between Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald,  Ellison and Kerouac…  every other writer is part of a supporting cast: so be it… 
                                                Each of us should have a few of the others: in my case: Wescott,  Julian Green, Edward Dahlberg, Ronald Johnson, Lorine  Niedecker, Hannah Green, Eudora Welty and  that might just be enough…                     
            FIVE. George Steiner mentions that one of the great failings of modern literary education is the absence of any discussion of the great modern theologians and the resulting impoverishment that can be seen in any English department today.  That the names of Josef Pieper, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and Romano Guardini are mostly unknown while … I will not contaminate this sentence with the likely suspects: open the pages of The New York Review of Books or the New York Times Book review for my evidence
            So!    THE WAY  Religious Thinkers of the Russian Emigration in Paris and their Journal 1925-1940 by Antonine Arjakovsky  (University of Notre Dame Press)   Beautifully written and detailed with inviting descriptions of the fate of thought in Paris which provides the necessary correction to over-told story of Paris between the wars… haven’t we all had enough of the Americans in Paris?...
            Am I the only person who has read Nikolai Berdyaev and Lev Shestov? I first heard of Berdyaev from Chad Walsh at Beloit as being a modern thinker who dealt with the problem of belief in such a way that it did not ignore Beckett who I had just discovered and who had a very good understand of just how awful the Russian Revolution had been from a spiritual point of view and not from a kneejerk rightest understanding.  Shestov, I had read of from Dahlberg:  IN JOB’S BALANCES PENULTIMATE WORDS and I added ATHENS AND JERUSALEM.  And in the index  a novel by Nina Berberova--- who I knew late in her life--- is mentioned Astachev in Paris   and in how fruitful a way the writers discussed in THE WAY, “ insisted on the necessity of preserving the reality of history from the seduction of myths that  explained everything,  They sought to propose   an alternative to a purely ethical existential and finally to affirm that the union of Athens and Jerusalem is not necessarily synonymous with a betrayal of reason.”
            SIX.  Even Dalkey Archive Press has a book that will be over-looked and shouldn’t be:  AN UNWRITTEN NOVEL Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet  by Thomas J.  Cousineau.  This is the first actual book I know of about the great central work of Pessoa.  Cousineau tries to make a case for the unity within disunity of this collection of fragments which has been translated into English in a number of versions based on which edition the translator used: Spanish, French, Italian edition that had been translated from the Portuguese original and of course there is at least for this writer, only Richard Zenith’s version  from Penguin…
            SEVEN.  Again another over-looked critical book is a collection of essays on Herta Muller.  POLITICS AND AESTHETICS edited by Betiina Brandt and Vaentina Glajar.  Of course it is always good to know that receiving a Nobel prize is no guarantee that your work will be widely read in the US or in the English speaking world unless it is trivial work by someone like an Alice Munro or  Toni Morrison  mere writers of local interest as  hardly do they re-arrange any of the statues in the great garden unlike Herta Muller’s whose THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS provides the central imaginative text as to the ordinary life in what was then called the communist countries or socialist countries as they styled themselves  to be more precise…  but boy that’s a long time ago  23 years ago and we were done with it, right…no hardly… Muller’s Nobel lecture:  EVERY WORD KNOWS SOMETHING OF A VICIOUS CIRCLE is essential reading and is included in a collection of essays that add to our understanding of Muller unlike too many of such collections. 
            EIGHT.   I don’t usually mysteries  or so-called genre books after having read two Ross Macdonad books when younger and getting what it is all about…which is what is to happen next as opposed to what is happening right now on the page  (stolen from Nicholas Mosley but a note from New DIrections got me to read   THE MONGOLIAN CONSPIRACY by Rafael Bernal.. a  nasty novel set in Mexico city centered by a hired killer who happens to be working for the police.. well I do admit to having read the first 3 novels of Mickey Spillane and this is like them but nastier and with more verbal nastiness and slimy behavior… but good editors of book sections have to have prejudices otherwise…
            So to end….  the last words of Muller’s Nobel address:  the acute solitude of a human being.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


“During the endless hours flat on your back, you try to distract yourself to pass the time; once, I reckoned up my wounds.  Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand grenade splinters and two bullet splinters which, with entry and exit wounds , left me an even twenty scars.  In the course of  this war, where so much of the firing was done blindly into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times. I felt every justification therefore, in donning the gold wound stripes, which arrived for me one day.” 
                                                STORM OF STEEL by Ernst Jünger

            With next year’s anniversary of the start of World War One publishers and the other media has begun their campaigns to make it as boring as they made World War Two.
            World War Two became at least in New York City only the Holocaust.  In the rest of the country it became the story of the “greatest generation” probably the dumbest phrase ever concocted by the mangers of our memory. 
            World War Two was usually the Battle of Britain, D-Day and then the defeat of Germany.  There was something about Pearl Harbor, about Iwo Jima (thanks to Clint Eastwood) and then dropping the Atom Bomb.
            I suspect World War One will become:
===How wonderful was the summer of 1914.
===An archduke gets killed in some God forsaken Balkan city… and people will be off to the races talking about the more recent war in Serbia and Bosnia (Saint Susan Sontag will appear for the thoughtful New Yorkers)
===O, yeah there will be trenches and dead English poets and maybe even we’ll have Hemingway in Italy… but he’s not much in favor with the academics
===Lawrence of Arabia will appear and Peter O’Toole will again ride his camel…
===The Americans will get themselves involved into the war thanks to Woodrow Wilson, the 1917 pre-incarnation of Barack Obama… good intentions run amok
===Gary Cooper will do Sergeant Alvin York.
===Eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month or something like that in 1918
===Lenin and Hitler as aftermath.       
            Not for a moment am I exaggerating or being cynical but such is how we are being shaped. 
            Before the mental sculpting begins I suggest reading WOUNDED A New History of the Western Front in World War I by Emily Mayhew. (Oxford University Press) The book tries to tell the reader what happens after:
The Flanders casualty was almost torn apart.  Gone were the neat round holes by rounded ammunition that flew slowly in the hot dry African sun, (The Boar War) could be easily located and extracted and didn’t leave much damage behind. Instead, the cylindroconical bullet fired by the new powerful weaponry hit fast and hard, went deep and took bits of dirty uniform and airborne soil particles with it.  Inside the human body it ricocheted off bones and ploughed through soft tissue until its energy was spent.  Shrapnel fragments were just as bad.  They created jagged wounds, huge blooms of trauma that didn’t stop bleeding and, if the casualty could survive long enough, provided the perfect environment for infection and sepsis.  And there were so many of them.  At base hospitals soldier after soldier arrived with the most dreadful injuries: deep ragged wounds to their heads, faces, limbs and abdomens.

            There are stories of the stretcher bearers, the medics, the doctors, the nurses, the reconstructive surgeons and the chaplains…  the prose is dutiful and the stories all a bit too upbeat but then they are usually the memories of those who survived.  But it is very good to have such a book in these months before “the celebrations” begin as it reminds us that the central act of war is killing and failing that, wounding… everything else is something like packaging. 
            I think I would like to have just read the actual memoirs, letters, reports than the reconstructions and scene settings but as the following shows the WOUNDED IS memorable in a way not soon to be forgotten:
            One of the duties of the nurses was to write to the surviving relatives.  Here is a letter from Elizabeth Boon to the family of a Private Simpson:
Dear Mrs. Simpson
You will have heard the sad news that your son Pte Joseph Simpson passed away on Tuesday November 12th.  The funeral is taking place today at Terlincthun Cemetery. The No. of his grave is 4E Plat 10. We would like to have you with him but when he saw he was so acutely ill there was no time to get you here before he died.  He passed away peacefully at 5:52 on Tuesday 12th November.
 He talked of going to Blighty to see you and then before he died he thought he was with you all and put out his hands to first one and the other with such a glad smile, he called you by name and then ‘Ada’ but we could not catch what else he said. He was a very good patient and we did all we could for him and he had everything that was possible. 
With sincere sympathy
E. Boon
(for Matron)

            “Boon worked on the moribund wards at CCS, Moribund wards--- the last stop at the CCS for those soldiers beyond help--- had been given their own RAMC regulations, and it was  according to regulation that special care was taken to safeguard the belongs of the dying and that the patients final messages and wishes should be carefully recorded in a notebook designated for that purpose…. Two years on and Boon had written so many sympathy letters that she had lost count.  All she knew was that she had to make sure she didn’t get behind with them.  A colleague tried to write at least a dozen letters a night but during the battle at Aras he had got behind and had to write almost sixty letters in one night to catch up.  Another nurse wrote almost 400 letters during Passchendaele… Battles and deaths in winter were the worst, when the freezing wind blew through their tents and gutted their candles.  They had to warm the bottle of frozen ink in their hands or beg a pan of hot water from the kitchen before they could begin the work of writing.
            I copy those lines again: Battles and deaths in winter were the worst, when the freezing wind blew through their tents and gutted their candles.  They had to warm the bottle of frozen ink in their hands or beg a pan of hot water from the kitchen before they could begin the work of writing.

And one other detail for it is in details such a book as WOUNDED is to be valued for : 

 Once a boy had cried out and she thought she must have missed his morphine dose, but when she got to his bed he gasped that his lavender bag had fallen to the floor and he could suddenly smell his own decay.  She picked up the bag and pinned it on the pillow next to his face.  The boy immediately turned his head towards it and began to inhale the clean scent.  He died a short while afterwards.

        There are only two essential books about World War One: Ernst Jünger’s STORM OF STEEL. I think it the single best book ever written about the experience of actual front line combat.  Jünger lived to be 103 and is the only Twentieth Century German language writer who can be compared to Goethe, without apology. 
            The second book is IN PARENTHESIS by DAVID JONES, a perfectly written visionary book (Introduced by T. S. Eliot) based on the actual experience of one individual soldier
 but through the language is able without pretense to represent  the experience inside a world which would not be foreign to a soldier in the Iliad who had also passed through the Welsh epics and Arthurian romances:  never has the modern reality been more neatly summoned up: 
49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.
Coming sergeant.
Pick ‘em up, pick ‘em up---I’ll stalk within yer chamber.
Private Leg … sick
Private Ball … absent
’01 Ball, ‘O1 Ball. Ball of No. 1.
Where’s Ball, 25201 Ball--- you corporal,
Ball of your section
Movement round and about the Commanding Officer.
Bugler, will you sound 'Orderly Sergeants'.

            And I would allow Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front though it is finally too sentimental and ironic but if read in conjunction with the two novels that Remarque as a sort of sequels THE Road Back and THREE COMRADES. 

And there you have it.
            But…  but…  I know no books either fiction or nonfiction that describe the great other First World War along the Eastern Front, in the Balkans, in Africa, in the Far East.  There is The White War by Mark Thompson which does justice to the Alpine war between Austria and Italy…  Solzhenitsyn tries in The Great Wheel,  August 1914 to describe the great battled at Tannenberg   and there is Viktor Shklovsky’s  A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY  which is an attempt to describe the war that was endured in the far east of Turkey where was the war was joined by the Russians…         

               For the Civil  War In the United Stares we are fortunate to have Shelby Foote's great narrative of the War Between the States from a sort of Southern point of view and we have Bruce Catton’s more popular version from the Union side… but at least we have these grand narratives  there is none for World War One.

Monday, November 4, 2013

BENN and LEOPARDI: how not to despair to death

 five                             IMPROMPTUS Selected Poems and Some Prose by Gottfried Benn translated by Michael Hofman and ZIBALDONE by Giacomo Leopardi, both published by Farrar Straus and Giroux are the two best books published this year 2013  in the United Stated.  Both books are sadly quite expensive though the Leopardi is now down to $47 at Amazon and the kindle version is 36.  The Benn is at $25. 
            I usually do not mention this fact but the reality of money is ever present.  Neither book will be exhausted after one or a hundred readings.  If you bought the new Pynchon novel most likely you did not finish reading it and are not now likely to and if by chance you did you will never re-read it… same goes for every single book on the best seller lists, again this year.
            The Zibaldone is  the inexhaustible notebook of the greatest Italian poet after Dante.  I have already written about them but what is finally heartening about them is that they are devoid of any cheering reflections or news: they truly reflect the accident of a person’s birth and the sure death to follow within X of years.  And with more than 2500 pages…
eight                          Gottfried Benn was a German poet.  His years: 1886-1956.  He was a medical doctor.  He did not leave Germany during 1933-45.  Any other details are trivial and a distraction away from the words he put on the page.  I read him as an equal with T.S. Eliot and Paul Valery and David Jones and Ronald Johnson. 
            Of course I know it is not a horse race but it is good to lay down the calling cards.
            Like most literate people born in the 20th Century into an English speaking country I discovered Benn through the New Directions anthology PRIMAL VISION and read a few additional pieces in the Benn volume in The German Library published by Continuum.  Michael Hofman’s volume compliments these books and adds some new selections and his own versions of some of the best known Benn poems.
            I wish I could afford to give this book to every friend and acquaintance.
            Many readers will remember that T.S. Eliot quoted in The Three Voices of Poetry  from a Benn’s lecture Probleme der Lyrik.  Strangely, all three anthologies do not include a translation of this lecture and you would have to travel, according to Google, to a small college in Texas to read a translation and commentary on it.  However, Eliot’s description and commentary is exemplary: 
What asks Herr Benn in his lecture, does the writer of such a poem, “addressed to no one,“ start with?  There is first, he says, an inert embryo or “creative germ’  [ein dumpfer schopferischer Keim] and, on the other hand, the Language, the resources of words at the poet’s command. He has something germinating in him for which he must find words; but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order.  When you have the words for it the “thing” for which the words had to be found has disappeared,  replaced by a poem.  What you start from is nothing so definite as an emotion, in any ordinary sense; of it is still more certainly not an idea; it is--- to adapt two lines of Beddoes to a different meaning---a
                         bodiless childful of life, in the gloom
                Crying with frog voice, “what shall I be?”
  I agree with Gottfried Benn…

+++the proof is always in th actual poems++++
Ten                              And we have the most memorable of the Benn poems  the one that stays always fresh as  it were.
              Beautiful youth
The mouth of the girl who had lain in the rushes
Looked so nibbled
When they opened her chest, her esophagus was so holey
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
They found a nest of young rats.
One little thing lay dead.
The others were living off kidneys and liver
Drinking the cold blood and had
Had themselves a beautiful youth.
And just as beautiful was their death, and quick:
The lot of them were thrown into the water.
Ah, will you hearken at the little muzzles’ oinks!

This poem is from early in his writing life.  And from later in the life:
                        Fragments  1955
30x endured agonies at the dentist’s
100x treated myself to expensive imported roses
4x shed tears beside open graves
Left 25 women
2x had a pocket full of money and 98x not,
At the end of the day you take out an insurance policy
At 12.50 per month
To be certain of being buried.
What are you? A symptom,
An ape, a gnome---

            OR from the so-called middle of the life as if anyone can define that for himself, a something that arrives only after.
A shadow on the wall
boughs stirred by the noonday wind
that’s enough earth
and for the eye
enough celestial participation.

How much further do you want to go?  Refuse
the bossy insistence
of new impressions---

Lie there still,
behold your own fields,
your estate,
dwelling especially
on the poppies
because they transported the summer---

Where did it go?

Seventeen           And then there is the prose of Benn.  None of the three books of Benn’s writings including this wonderful current anthology, make room for the longer prose works in their entirety.  Instead of the German on the facing pages I wish that Hofmann had given those pages over to a complete versions of the NOVEL OF THE PENOTYPE, THE PTOLEMEAN and DOUBLE LIFE… But do not allow this quibble to standing in your way to acquiring this book.
            We always need books from writers like the Benn in “Aging as a Problem for Artists remind us:
With your back to the wall, in the wretchedness of fatigue, in the grey of emptiness, you will read your Job and your Jeremiah, and you will stick it out.  Draft your prepositions as harshly as you can, because when the epoch draws to a close and kills your song you will be measured by your sentences.  What you don’t write will not exist.  You will make enemies, be alone, a nutshell on the sea, a walnut shell emitting  odd clanking noises, rattling with cold, trembling with your own revulsion at yourself, but don’t send out an SOS--- in the first place, no one will hear you, and in the second, your ending will be peaceful after so much travail.

            If Hofman who translated Ernst Junger’s STORM OF STEEL has the courage to translate the great prose books of Benn then it might be possible to reorder the history of the recent century when it comes to the German language:  Gottfried Benn, Ernst Junger, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson in Germany with Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann and Robert Musil in Austria with Robert Walser over there in Switzerland