Tuesday, November 24, 2015

DIPTYCH BEFORE DYING can this be read?

          For some time now in the delusion of being a writer I have been writing what I thought should be called DIPTYCH BEFORE DYING, based on the two journeys --- to Newfoundland and Mexico City--- I made with my father in the weeks before his death in the summer of 1973...recently i have thought it should be a TRIPTYCH as I discovered the imagined death of my first wife in Venice in the Spring of that year, while in Venice on the way to Bulgaria.  At the beginning of August we were staying at the Hotel del Prado on Reforma, in Mexico City... so

          The guy in the hotel tourist office gave us the tickets and said in the summer they try out young bullfighters.  It gives them, what is it you say, experience for the regular season…  You can’t learn to fight the bull in your head, I’m sure you know this, you can’t do it only in the country out there in a village way beyond the city: you have to come into the city eventually, be in the big stadium… these are not good seats but they are high up… that is the best way to see it for the first time, away from being there too closely, to see why people come to see what they are seeing, up too close it is all personality and something to be written about and make photographs of and you look at the people looking more than they’re worth.  And you can’t understand what they are saying… Americans always insist on the best seats in the house... you don’t want that, I think.
          However, did this man: here is the descriptive pause in recollection:  ---thick brown frames of eye glasses, heavy black hair combed back from the forehead, a broad face, blue suit jacket, white shirt and black tie, neither tall nor short as he never stood all the time I was in the office--- the brown envelope with the tickets had been handed across the desk to me, silver ring on the second finger of his right hand with a small green square of stone: enough you might say--- begins to talk to me in the office off the waiting room with the faded posters and the broken down over-stuffed leather covered  chairs which in the years developed wounds that had been sewn together, but never healed, he was saying, when he could see my hand was on the sewn wound of the seat of the chair next to the one I was sitting on. 
          The woman who sews our chairs no longer seems to be coming by the hotel, I can’t account for her disappearance as we pay her well and in cash and she did her work quickly with no expectation of something more, I think, but one can’t tell people all the time what to do and she was one of those people, maybe as your hand can feel on the wound---  the words from a song:  in mortis examine--- that is what your fingers are moving over and I have seen you with your father is it?... when you came for the car to see Teotihuacan… that is another reason for the seats I found for you and your father as already it is all too close to you and I am sure you feel this as he goes to sleep or if you awaken and see him sleeping, preparing his face, we say here, sleeping, preparing our last face to be remembered, something, maybe the only thing we do not have to do, to remember that---  what we looked like when we were last seen, though they remember and you will remember forever and ever as they say, ever and ever… replacing the living with the last memory, with your father you will enjoy going to the bullfight, it is not to my taste but it remains here and it will remain here though I am not in any way… sitting up in the heights you will not be targets for the wild ones who like to throw things and as long as your father keeps his hat on he will not be a provocation… it is written about in one of the English language books about Mexico that the little boys like using the bald heads of the gringo for target practice--- I do not know in pursuit of what it is they are training.
          Eduardo has come into existence.
          We never say Eddie or Ed like the Americans do in their constant intimacy, their constant drawing the wagon train into a circle, even if only on the basis of a person’s first name, Eduardo was saying, once the tickets for the bullfight had been pushed across the glass topped desk, I had a friend who called me Ed.  He had heard the name in an American movie he had seen and liked the sound of it, as it was foreign and we each saw the other as a visitor from some other place: I wanted to come from Russia and sometimes I wanted to come from China, don’t ask me why, while my friend wanted to come from the US of A.  He liked saying that: the US of A.  He liked the sloppiness of the Americans and told me the formality of our people will be the death of our people:  as you can see we were both experts before our time.  My friend said we were so formal we had a code worked out for the different coughs a person could utter for a multitude of purposes… and I’d ask him where his English originated and he would look at me as if I was talking about the dark side of moon or some other place at which point in an impossible to believe change of topic he asked if I was… and I will complete that sentence for you as it gives the wrong impression
          You are to take a taxi, Eduardo says, as a pause came after his sentence.  I notice as his hands moved about on the desk, moving pages from here to there and then straightening the little pile that a blue and white paperback book moved into view and then disappeared but not before I had seen the title The Clothes of a Dead Priest.  The author’s name was unfamiliar to me yet it seemed close in spelling to John Currier or it could have been John Carrier. 
          I did not ask Eduardo about the book as I thought his revealing it was all he had wanted to do, though I could not understand what he had wanted to tell me by showing this book.   
          A taxi, from the front of the hotel and the driver will know where to leave you for the entrance these tickets will allow you to enter.  I doubt the stadium will be very crowded since it is summer time but those attending will be there for the most honorable of reasons:  the tickets are cheaper, they can really feel superior to these toreadors, they will be encouraging of the young and sometimes the comedy is of the highest order since it is wrapped in blood and death, even if everyone involved is not of the first rank. And you should feel no compassion for any of it: this is the hardest aspect of going to such a spectacle, it is a moment away from the usual, a necessary turning from so as to turn back.
          Sea deep thoughts are to be kept away from yourself and you should enjoy wondering when the boy with the beer will be up to where you are seating yourselves … these trivial details are finally more productive, if one must be vulgar about such a matter.  There will be an element of winnowing to be witnessed:  the last days of the aged horses, the bulls that in some way are defective, not being fully worthy of being killed by a master… and while the bull hardly has much of a chance and the toreador runs his risks, there is always an unbalance… the superficial wounds inflicted on the bull, don’t ask anyone their opinion of any of this as this is your advantage of not speaking Spanish… the banalities of protest and explanation. 
          Trust yourself to what your own eyes see and be able to ask your father what he sees and I do hope he will be able to find words for what he sees as such a spectacle is more ably described by he who is closer to his own final moment but I fear I might be intruding upon your own wish to be closer to the end of the story, am I not right?
          I had been listening to Eduardo’s voice and while it is probably impossible for a reader to believe I could have remembered this conversation at this great remove---as the old books would have it--- I have to say Eduardo is here as close to me as the skin on my fingers is to the bones it covers.  Though there is no way I can claim to be an anatomist and use the resulting authority to plead my case:  yes, I did remember what Eduardo had been saying though I am willing to grant  some of my memory might be frazzled by the passage of the something or other, but that is neither explanation nor defense of the veracity of my transcription of his sentences.
          If it rains and it is likely to rain on such a Sunday, a boy will appear with clear plastic rain capes and the fight will go on no matter the weather… as in football matches: the weather contributes its share to the struggle, unlike baseball that is so easily defeated by the weather, baseball the constant humiliation of its players by the whims of the weather through which the football player and those in the impervious struggle with the bull labor for a conclusion must to be achieved no matter.
          I dislike the poverty of our languages to describe this weather my friend in Arizona calls the monsoons, admitting in his choice of this word, a failure of linguistic imagination, a poverty in need of bringing over from the far east this word, monsoon, but no matter, a Sunday outing for you and your father different from what you are used to--- I am sure--- back at home as it is for me also--- a time to rest, to sleep away the gloom that always descends with a fierce swipe of a mental scalpel that cuts always after two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon any strength we might have as we, the two of us know, the week will again be here and this foolish day of rest and never asking: rest for what?
          It makes me nostalgic, Eduardo says, leaning back against the high back of his chair which seemed to shrink him to only his voice though of course a man, really, a man who had found these tickets for the bullfight and who was not going away and would be at the hotel in the morning and was saying do look in.
          Would it be possible to imagine I handed Eduardo this photograph 

which I had taken during the intermission when these young men wheeled out this platform with a large Pepsi Cola bottle wobbling and after a few minutes in the rain they found as they tried to return the platform that the wheels had become stuck in the surface of the ring and additional workers were called into both push and pull the platform from the ring so the rest of the program could begin?
          There would be no need for the evidence, Eduardo was saying,  I do not always believe what I see as I am sure you are also skeptical of those who retreat and that is the necessary military word for this defection from the art of the tongue, if I may wax on before your scorn melts me to a puddle.  You have seen something we would not have seen and for that I can only thank you--- though of what significance can it have as already it is a form of ancient history, due only to evaporate as the color of your photograph will fade or as in some cases burst into a sort of golden obliterating stain?

I wonder if this is readable and if there is anymore the possibility of seeing something like this into what was used to be called book form? Please, keepi in mind that this is a prepared slide from a longer manuscript.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

SEAGULL BOOKS: The Best Publisher in English

         Seagull Books is now the publisher to go to for what is the best in world literature.  About the only other publisher of its authority is Robert Calasso’s Adelphi Editions in Italy.  Seagull’s seasonal catalogues are the first I look forward to. Of course there are other publishers, Archipelago, Open Letter, Dalkey Archive, New Directions and Two Lines  but for the breadth of their interests and the actual shape and feel of the books Seagull is in another class. 
         Of course one is curious about FSG but they seem to do fewer and fewer real books--- though in the immediate moment SUBMISSION by Michel Houellebecq and recently the ZIBALDONE by Leopardi as well as PARALLEL LIVES by Peter Nadas--- mitigate that reservation to be sure but as far as I can tell at the moment there is nothing very much to expect of  poor Alfred Knopf at 100 years with a picture of the aged Sunny Mehta posing with another relic Patti Smith in the Wall Street Journal society page--- such is the fate…
         Seagull Books originating in India is distributed by the University of Chicago Press---  they have German, Italian, French lists as well as books in many other fields beyond what I am mostly interested in, literature…  My shelves are filling with their books.  It is as if they have opened a delightful river of non traditional books dominated by the fragment and obsessive narrators, remembering suddenly Nicanor Parra saying to me sometime in the early 70s in  The Only Child  a bar on West 79th Street NYC:  “to echo him: the I is always another.”  Parra did not have to mention Rimbaud and it is this sort of intelligence and understanding at work in the selecting of books and authors by Seagull and here I will list some--- and you can see by the list why--- Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Laszlo Kraznahorkai, Alexander Kluge, Pascal Quignard, Yves Bonnefoy, Hans Magus Enzenberger, Jorge Luis Borges, Ingeborg Bachmann, Max Frisch… and in the mail yesterday: PAPER COLLAGE (Selected Aphorisms and Short Prose)  by Georges Perros, drawn from three books originally in French (1960-78) from Gallimard of this recluse’s thoughts…: at random:  It’s wrong to complain. If we knew where we came from, where we are and where we are going, it would be absolute hell.
         Pascal Quignard is a re-discovery for me as I had read now too long ago THE SALON IN WURTTEMBERG (Published when Grove Press was owned by a Getty woman and George Weidenfeld) and ALL THE WORLD’S MORNINGS… those were relatively traditional novels as Quignard at least based on the five books that Seagull has published: THE ROVING SHADOWS, THE SILENT CROSSING, ABYSSES, SEX AND TERROR, THE SEXUAL NIGHT. 
         What I treasure in Quignard is his ability to reveal my absolute ignorance and illiteracy when I attempt to compare my own memory and learning of what is in reality world literature.  His books rely upon the suggestive fragment, brief prose passages sometimes connected, often times not, ranging across the whole of world literature with a wonderfully sensuous understanding of the ancient world and in this he can only be compared to Roberto Calasso in their shared understanding that the---  like Krapp I now slam the tape machine off so as to avoid revealing my own pathetic attempt to understand either of these writers.
Of course Quignard is not much reviewed in the US---where if you are praised by the NY Times it is a form of abuse, such is the state of newspaper reviewing--- and the same went for Ingeborg Bachmann’s WAR DIARY written as an 18 rear old as WW2 comes to an end and her affair with a British soldier who turns out to be an exile Austrian Jewish guy who eventually leaves for what will be Israel… another text adding to our understanding of the only woman one really knows from the German language as it were… and there was Max Frisch’s DRAFTS FOR A THIRD SKETCHBOOK :  “what our American friends expect: a miracle!... they want to be feared and loved at the same time.  If we don’t manage that, they see it as anti-American”… to add to the long ago published notebooks from the 70s another writer who disappeared for the most part from America…
Here are two passages from ABYSSES  by Quignard and allow them to stand in for all the books by all the authors I have both  listed and not listed as being published by Seagull Books:
Libraries and museums took over from churches and palaces.  Sacred places where all the members of a group began to worship, gathering in silence around something neither-found- nor-lost (the fascinus of Osiris).  Societies that were increasingly religious and mythologizing, adoring themselves in the reflection of their past.  Flocks of sheep, horned animals and dreams circulating endlessly around the empty, trans-temporal envelope 
In the great age of exploration, the whole of the known world become drenched in ecclesiastical Latin---a fact we might well find astonishing.  All the more astonishing, indeed, as Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek were all more likely to have been spoken in the houses of Yeshua than the tongue of the Romans, which was merely the persecutory language of the triumphal arches and crucifixion.
          But I can not stop in the past--- if there is such a thing--- as Seagull has also published two books of conversations  with Jorge Luis Borges conducted by Osvaldo Ferrari in Borges 84th year:  and the most startling in ways that seem obvious in our moment of typing and reading…  Ferrari mentions that the American landing on the moon was welcomed by Borges but the rest of the world seems to have quickly forgotten it….  This leads to a discussion that in recounting sounds pretentious  in our dumbed down times but to just list some of the proper names:  Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Eric the Red, Melville, Whitman, Berkeley, Plato, Seneca, Saint Brendan, Denis de Rougemont, Columbus…...  of course it is not… but Ferrari and Borges tease the landing out and finally Borges is asked why this great adventure is now not talked about, marveled over:  “No, one doesn’t talk about it because one talks about elections, one talks about the saddest subject of all which  is politics. It is not for the first time that I’m the enemy of the State and of States and of nationalism which is one of the blemishes of our time.  The fact that each person insists on the privilege of having been born in one or another point or corner of the planet, no?  And that we’re so far from the ancient dream of the Stoic, that time when people were defined by their city--- Thales of Miletus, Zeno of Elea, Heraclitus of Ephesus, etc, who would say that they were citizens of the world.  It would have been a scandalous paradox for the Greeks..
       Later there is an aside, “the moon of Virgil and the moon of Shakespeare were already before the discovery, no? … There’s something so intimate about the moon…There’s a line in Virgil which talks about ‘amica silentia lunae’, which refers to the brief period of darkness which allow the Greek to get down from the wooden horse and invade Troy.  But Wilde, who doubtless knew about this, prefers to talk about “the friendly silence of the moon’.  And in a line of my own, I’ve said:  “the silent friendliness of the moon/ I quote Virgil badly) accompanies you.’
         That seems a good place to stop as you search out the Seagull books catalogue at University of Chicago Press.
         But come to think of it there is a better place—last week I read with my students in Freshman Composition 2 at BMCC  Peter Handke’s TILL DAY YOU DO PART OR A QUEST OF LIGHT (Seagull Books) in which a woman from what seems to be a Roman tombstone begins to speak and we realize it is the voice of the women mentioned in Krapp’s Last Tape… the only possible response to this great work of art where she takes issue with Krapp and what I have always enjoyed about the play when Krapp concludes:   “I can feel the fire in me now…”
         And I could even go on to Ralf Rothmann or Patrick Roth or Annemarie Schwarzenbach--- whose life and literary works trace out the sexual frontiers that are coming to be taken for granted in the US: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annemarie_Schwarzenbach… 

         Yet… it is a struggle to disbelieve that  it is now really all too late for such a publisher… I hope I am wrong since Seagull originating in India…maybe still has the ancient optimism from before KA---to echo Calasso...
AND A PS PS  when I went to fix some typos:  APOSTOLOFF  by Sibyl Lewitscharoff...caught my eyes across from where I am sitting--- a going to Bulgaria... and I have only scratched the surface!!!!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


       Reading THE CATACOMBS by William Demby has had a devastating effect on me or rather on my understanding of--- for want of a better phrase--- my literary career, my literary ambition or what I once called rather grandly A Writing Life.
       I have had the hardcover of THE CATACOMBS for many years with its stark black and white dust jacket with only the photo of a black man in profile; a man who I assume is William Demby.  The dust jacket informs the reader of Demby’s  life in Italy where he worked in the film industry with Rossellini and Fellini and  in 1951 he published a novel Beetlecreek after studying at Fisk University on the GI bill following service in the segregated US army during WW2 where he had ended up in Italy. He returned to the US in 1963 and THE CATACOMBS is published and copyrighted in 1965.
       I have often thought THE CATACOMBS was the solitary novel by an American to be compared to the best really modern European or world novels that could only read in translation since American fiction seemed so old-fashioned, so dead in the water as it were:  Julio Cortazar’s HOPSCOTCH or Jean Genet’s OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s IN THE LABYRINTH or THE FLANDERS ROAD by Claude Simon or KAPUTT by Curzio Malaparte or THE MARQUISE WENT OUT AT FIVE by Claude Mauriac and of course finally JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT by Louis Ferdinand Celine and the novels of Samuel Beckett: HOW IT IS and the trilogy, MOLLY, MALONE DIES and THE UNNAMEABLE.   
       A few American books had really been interesting but were never mentioned by professors:  ON THE ROAD, THE NAKED LUNCH, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and CITY OF NIGHT. 
       THE CATACOMBS is: a “Bill Demby” is an American living in Italy working in the film industry, reading both American and European newspapers following as does his reader the Algerian War, the rise and fall of the OAS, the killing of JFK, the Freedom Marches and much else.  The daughter of a college sweetheart is in Rome and Bill Demby announces to her that she is the subject of a novel he is writing which will describe her affair with an Italian Count who works for an airlines.  The girl is an extra in CLEOPATRA , a movie then being made in Rome starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor with a cast of thousands…
       The language of the novel is deliberately flat, matter of fact and by avoiding any convoluted heightened linguistic elaboration Demby is fixing the novel, the narrator, the invented and “real” characters into the 244 pages so we have the most vivid depiction of what it was like to be alive for a brief moment in the early 60s in Europe.. more accurate than just a folder of clippings as he places both “Bill Demby’,  the girl, the Count into arecognizable place and refuses to judge them, yet  gives them sure freedom instead of a defined authorial psychology complete with subtle ironic ambiguities much beloved by academics in the 1960s and forever it sadly seems.
       The novel upon publication was executed by a reviewer in The New York Times who accused it of having no plot, not developing interacting characters, and  refuses to “engage the reader’s sympathy… one simply yawns over.”
       NOW, I will rest my interest on why that reviewer is wrong by quoting from a passage where “Billy Demby” remembers as he is reading in the Italian newspapers of the death of the Pope:
“Never in my life have I seen so many Negroes in one Place.  This Freedom March is a continuous flow of smiling dark faces.  Slowly the clean well-groomed self-conscious well-behaved crowd of marchers shuffles past  the solemn neoclassic government buildings… I think: “Yesterday I was in Rome.  As yet I do not feel  part of this well-groomed well- behaved revolution.  To the contrary I feel cheated.  It all seems like some gigantic hoax, a public relations stunt.  Everything seems false, contrived—the mobile drinking fountains and latrines provided by the Army… And my father says nothing.  He is meditating--- like a cattle merchant—on his pipe, but the pipe is not lit.  We have no tape recorder.  His father sold baked sweet potatoes from a pushcart on the slum streets of Philadelphia.  My son is a Roman schoolboy watching this Freedom March on tomorrow’s TV in Rome…”There ain’t been nothing like this in Washington before!”  a disembodied voice behind me says.  And suddenly it doesn’t seem real, there are too many people.  I haven’t the slightest idea what we are doing here, where we are going. To the tomb?  For a while longer I let myself be swept along with the flow of the mournfully singing crowd.  Now I am hungry.  We hail a taxi.  My mother greets is at the door. She puckers up her lips so that I may bend down and kiss her.  As a child, it always embarrassed me to kiss my mother, but now I do so almost eagerly, as an anchor to fix my position in time and space.  “Welcome, big boy!” my mother says.

                  Yes, a mere  moment  in a book that has a first page, a last page and when closed is put on the shelf mirroring the fate every single human reading this essay.
       However, for this reader it is passages like this which reveal Demby as a great writer, singular, ethical, without guile or cunning… and well knowing why he is to be eventually discarded and forgotten since the whole book does not seem to be in accord with what a Black writer--- to particularize Demby but the same is really true of all writers--- is supposed to be writing according to the demands of the academy and the marketplace:  flattering addictive romances of plotted lives the consumer is supposed to care about and be urged into whatever is the required action of the moment…
       Conscious always of both the long history of Italy and Rome and of the constant demand of public events as depicted in the newspapers William Demby is describing in the immediate his own experiences and as he is so particular they become universe such that I sitting here in a slum room ] on East First Street in what is now called the East Village of Manhattan am aware through the newspaper of hordes of the poorest of the poor descending on Italy from across the Mediterranean as the Chinese economy goes into a terrifying descent and in two days my teaching begins again at Borough of Manhattan Community College where I will walk into a room where the majority of students will be at least 45 years younger than the person here typing this line. 

       Here and then here as is “Bill Demby” bending to kiss his mother allowing me feel and in the final pages of his book which if I was a better typist I would fully reproduce beyond these fragments for why give it all away:  “…Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were married today in a simple ceremony in a Montreal hotel room…Today’s surprise ceremony culminated the well-publicized romance that began in Rome two years ago during the filming of CLEOPTARA in which both…”)  (In the restaurant across from the Catacombs, along the ancient Appian way in Rome the waiter is putting the finishing touches to the table.  Doris (the daughter of Bill Demby’s friend) and the Count are still standing before the blazing fireplace.  Doris is saying: “Well. I guess you might call this our Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter coming so early this year…”  The tagliatelle arrive in a big bowl shaped like one half of an egg… [here ensues what will be the end of their friendship]  (And the warm hum of my IBM Executive electric  typewriter  abruptly makes a pocket of silence….) as Doris and the Count go down into the catacombs where an Irish priest is explaining, “The number of separate graves in the Catacombs has been estimated at two million and more, of all races and colors…”… “The count walks with desperate calm down the dark cold corridors shouting silently, his teeth chattering, his fingers clenched, far now from the warm compact circle of English speaking tourists listening to the spiel of the cheerful young Irish priest guide: (“Doris!... Doris!... Where are you, Doris?... Where are you?... Doris! Doris!  Where have you gone?”)