Thursday, October 17, 2019

KULTURA INTERVIEW ABOUT THE CORPSE DREAM OF N. PETKOV





This interview appeared in KULTURA, the most important monthly Bulgarian magazine of culture (October 2019) in a Bulgarian translation.  The interviewer is Dimiter Kenarov one of the very best Bulgarian poets, journalists and is author of the forthcoming biography of the murdered Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov to be published by GROVE PRESS in the US.  He suggested we do a Nabokov style interview and supplied a few questions to which I wrote answers.  Again his suggestion reflects the very sophisticated literary culture of Bulgaria.  I doubt that very many American writers or journalists would know what a "Nabokov style" interview was.


1--     Your first trip to Bulgaria was in 1967. How did it come about? What was it like for a young American to visit communist Bulgaria and what were your first impressions? Did they change over time?


       I got off the train at Sofia in September of 1967 and walked up what I now know is Hristo Botev Boulevard. It was getting dark and I had a map carefully transliterated into the Latin alphabet from the Bulgarian tourist office in London. I stop at a kiosk and asked the girl, tourist information? She replied, I speak English a little. I married this girl, Lilia and we left Bulgaria in the following spring on our way to Dublin by way of Venice, Paris and London.
      I won’t go into the complexity of getting married in Bulgaria in 1967 or about being arrested for writing on a tablecloth.
      But my life in Bulgaria was with that first walking on a street in Sofia.


2--    When did you first hear about Nikola Petkov?


       Lilia and I lived in a bedsit on Grosvenor Square in Dublin, a good address but the wrong city. I taught English to foreign students and Lilia served lunch in the lunch room of this Dublin Tuition Centre. At night the lunch room became a late night supper club with a  menu of which no prices were listed.
      We got a call from Michael O’Riordain who was a bus driver and head of the Irish Communist Party. He explained that his son had been approached by Lilia’s mother in Sofia as she had something for her daughter who was living in Dublin. The boy was in Sofia for a world youth conference for peace organized by the Bulgarian communist party . We went to see O’Riordain and he apologized as we came into his house saying, “My son, the son of a revolutionary had lost the sausage your wife’s mother had sent to her daughter by way of his son. He was embarrassed and as compensation he said, I want to give you a book about that great Bulgarian revolutionary, George Dimitrov and it is the only book I have in my library about Bulgaria. 
      We thanked him and of course regretted the loss of the lokanka.
      On the way home I read in the book DIMITROV WASTES  NO BULLETS by Michael Padev. Yes, it was about Bulgaria but it was a careful expose of the trial and execution of a Bulgarian Nikola Petkov. So Lilia and I had a good laugh at how could this communist give us such a startling anti-communist book…? 
      I guess O’Riordain had not gotten beyond the title… which was a quote from the debate in the communist controlled parliament leading up to Petkov’s show trial and execution.


3--   What was it about Nikola Petkov that piqued your interest?



        As you might know in the 1960s there were few books about Bulgaria and this book moved with us to America and moved with us between Wisconsin and Virginia and on to Manhattan.
        I was in Bulgaria again in 1973, two times...once in the spring to visit Lilia’s mother and a second visit in December as Lilia was concerned about her mother in Sofia and then her sister and nephew who had fled Bulgaria for Yugoslavia and going on eventually to the refugee camp near Vienna. 
       But that is another long story... I could tell you of visiting my nephew and his mother in a gypsy village in Yugoslavia as they had escaped the Yugoslav bounty hungry police and the only people in Yugoslavia at that time who a person on the run could turn to were the gypsies…
         I could recite all the peculiar aspects of life in Bulgaria, the shops where Bulgarians shopped with dollars…the lack of shoes of large sizes…the desire for American chewing gum, a girl named Harritena Beleva who I never forget who I met as we sat in a café on then Plastat Lenin inhabited by deaf-mutes but that book on Petkov was always patiently waiting…
        Finally in the late 70s and in the early 1980s when I worked as foot messenger (for more than 20 years in fact) and having written and written what now looking back were holding actions, as it were, since they lacked the arrived spark of the inevitable, essential and necessary vision: the hanging of Nikola Petkov… and deeper down I had remembered a note which Hannah Green had affixed to her very great short novel The Dead of the House, three words: vision, record, memory.
         And now years later I can think the book came from being Roman Catholic born, and of course concerned with one’s soul and I had read the exercise in Ignatius Loyola’s SPIRITUAL EXERCISES in which one is told to imagine being on your death bed and looking into the faces of those looking on and imagining what they are thinking about… and from somewhere I knew that these hangings in eastern Europe were not clean executions--- if something like that can be said to happen though maybe in England with their history of professional hangmen who write their memoirs--- I knew there in the East, a person was suspended from a rope and allowed to slowly strangle to death and I remember Hitler taking pleasure in looking at the films of the suspects in the failed attempt on his life in 1944 being hanged with piano wire and slowly strangling to death.



4--   Your book, among many other things, includes a collage of newspaper clippings, official press releases, memoirs of Petkov's contemporaries, and personal interviews that you did. How did you set about your research?


I have always been attached to the first person narrator and was told by my friend the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra in a bar The Only Child on West 79th Street near Broadway in Manhattan, the simple line, “I” is the other…” Nicanor went on that night about the accident of our meeting and how we would meet at the oddest times then and much later but I heard that line, I am the other and he quickly told me he was not being original, “Who wants to be original…” there was a pause and he said one word, “Rimbaud.”
        So of course the book begins, “I Nikola Petkov was hanged…”


5--    Did you feel you had access to enough sources? Could you talk about your writing process? What were the biggest challenges?



         One aspect of having then a Bulgarian wife was that there were few Bulgarians in the US but gradually one somehow meets many of them and that lead to Petkov’s nephew confined to a nursing home in Brooklyn by a unhealing wound on the bottom of his foot that kept him bed-bound--- he talked of his uncle while I listened--- and to Cyril Black, a half Bulgarian who had set up the School of International Affairs at Princeton, replied to my letters…          I was nobody but probably few knew of his connection to Bulgaria, so I was not just a stranger… maybe this has disappeared today when everyone relies on cell phones and Google and the internet… and there are books--- imagine that--- in libraries and fortunately not a lot of books back then on Bulgaria… sometimes obscurity has its advantages… Princeton University Library (probably because of Black being on the faculty) had a copy of Petkov’s trial as the communist regime was proud of this trial and published translations in all the major world languages transcripts of the trial…the book had never been checked out as I remember…and of course I had my wife, her mother and her nephew… as sources… what more did I need?


6--   What was it like, on a psychological level, to imagine the voice of the dying Nikola Petkov in an apartment in Manhattan?


         I had the good fortune to have older parents and as a child we spent a lot of time going to funerals and my parents did not believe in baby sitters so we were taken along to these funerals which seemed always at Christmas time… I remember hearing my parents and the relatives talking about the deceased as she or he lay in his coffin—usually there were two days of this and then the funeral Mass… so death was not un-common but even then I wondered why would a person eat breakfast since I remember hearing an aunt saying her father had just dropped dead an hour or so after eating breakfast… My child mind never came to really understand this… and neither does my adult mind.

7--   Your book reworks the grey facts of history into something close to literary myth. Could you talk a little about the relationship in your fiction between facts and imagination? What does fiction give us that non-fiction fails at?


       When it comes to words like myth, even fiction for that matter --- literature professors are always asking kids to trace myth and this or this or that and of course Joyce had great fun having on the critics… but you got to give these dogs a bone… and students chew the chewed over remains. I think I would rather stick to my apostolic namesake THOMAS who said he would believe when he could put his fist finger into the actual wound of the Risen Christ… of course when he does see the Risen Christ…I just accept the body and allow myself to be consumed by jealousy of someone like Hermann Broch who writes The Death of Virgil…and see if I can nudge myself into his company with my own sentences and of course it is probably delusional but I gave a reading at the 192 Bookshop in Manhattan and they gave ma shoulder bag with a sentence on it from Borges, “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” 
        Maybe another time, if there is another time, I will tell what Borges and I talked about at Columbia in 1972---there has to be some loose strings... and I have never read from my novel in Bulgaria… a few sentences it is true… but maybe a Bulgarian will be reading it now in Bulgarian and I might one day be able to hear of that… with a biography we always skip ahead to the death scene as it were by an express train, as if that is the only reason for a biography… while with a novel we read or should read sentence, paragraph by sentence, by paragraph.



8--  You seem to work in the tradition of modernist, avant-garde literature exemplified by writers like James Joyce and Flann O'Brien. Could you talk a little about your literary influences? What do you think is ultimately the task of literature?


The first novel I actually read was LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe... in high school in Patchogue on Long Island we were forced to read crap by Thomas Hardy and George Eliot—but there were comic book versions of these books and fortunately back then there was no obsession with getting students to be writing essays..
Thomas Wolfe is not much read though I was happy to discover that one of the greatest German language writers Thomas Bernhard did a translation of a play by Wolfe and Peter Handke (almost his equal) says he loved LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL so maybe these two writers knew something far more important than the dumb professors who now enforce draconian politically correct required reading lists that avoid writers like Wolfe... but I will give you a list of writers I think should be read if one wants not to be illiterate: T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hannah Green, James Joyce, Thomas Bernhard, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jose Lezama Lima, Flann O’Brien, Louis FerdinandCeline, Ernst Junger, Miquel de Unamuno, E.M. Cioran…Max Stirner…Faulkner…Kerouac…Turgenev… Uwe Johnson, Nelida Pinon, Blanchot… Julian Green, Edward Dahlberg, Jean Rhys, and get a copy of Ezra Pound’s ABC OF READING…there it all is…


9--    Why do you think it took such a long time for your book to be published in Bulgaria?


          When my book was published in 1987 in the USA the socialist/communist regime was looking forward to celebrating 50 years of 9 IX… in 1992 my book did appear in Svremenik but to find a copy of that--- in 2010 the Sofia city library couldn’t find their copy--- but it was one of the first signs of a change though in the early years of the changes people wanted to catch up with the avalanche of crap literature the communists had denied them--- they wanted to eat to their fill the shit the mass-market ate in in the West…but such runs its way and now finally maybe there is a change… people, young people want to know—the best of the young---others just want to get on with the forgetfulness and I wonder: what is wrong with that… yet, I am pleased by the few young who do want to know—but that is always the case…Julian Rios said better to say “long seller” than “best seller”...in the US and I am sure soon enough in Bulgaria the charity shops and second hand shops won’t stock yesterday’s best sellers as a best seller is always being replaced by another best seller… all that happens is they replace the supposed author with another name and the suckers fall for it every time.



10--  I've noticed you're following closely Bulgarian literature and have read most of what's available in English translation. Who are the Bulgarian writers that you find most interesting and why? In your view, what are the failings of Bulgarian writing?


          Georgi Gospodinov and Victor Paskov… they trust and trusted what they actually saw… Paskov I think drank himself to death and that probably meant he was very much alone…I have no gift for languages… but the books that get translated seem too often to be imitations of what is fashionable in the grotesque world of the small presses which could be better described as coterie presses—I’ll publish you if you publish me…
         I would rather read a novel by a Bulgarian writer who carefully catalogued all the variety of destroyed sidewalks in Sofia… I love walking about the streets off of Botev maybe because that is the first street I walked on in Sofia but then I discovered that Romain Gary lived on that street with Lesley Branch when he was the French consul in Sofia after WW2... why hasn’t a Bulgarian written about that… I hope some Bulgarian writer will write about the little houses that used to be Nadeshda that got torn down to build another complex… or who has celebrated limonada, that unique Bulgarian soft drink that came in a clear bottle with no label… or the walking back from the local bakery eating the warm heart of a loaf of bread before he or she gets it home.
       But I must not forget Zachary Karabashliev whose novel 18% GRAY is very very good and is one of the very rare books about life in the United States which actually gets an America I recognize... I would like him to Michel Butor's MOBILE another unique novel centered on the United States and absolutely essential for understanding the United States of America.


11--    Do you think Bulgaria has failed to work through its communist past? What are your impressions of Bulgaria today?


         Of course four weeks and two more weeks make me an authority on such… I am shocked at the huge gap in every art museum I visited in Varna and Sofia: where did all those paintings from say 1944 to about 1980 go to… you have paintings pointing to those years and then you get the reaction to those years but... no paintings…
        The Germans suffer from the same problem: where are their paintings from1933 to 1944… we all know why... but still the absence tells me something serious has been avoided and possibly it has something to do with the fact that the changes in Bulgaria did not come about from below… but… that is all beyond this conversation though I could point to the unpublished psychological reports of Dr. George Kamen who did write an unpublished report, “The Rulers, The Victims And The Silence” ( A Possible Outline Towards a Psychoanalytic Understanding of Post- Totalitarianism).           I doubt there is little interest in such in the Bulgaria of today.


12--    Short newsy texts and social media are filling up most of our reading time and our attention span is close to zero? Is there a future for books and particularly for the more challenging, experimental tradition that requires deeper engagement with the text? Is the Republic of Letters dead?


        I would need a large fee to answer such a question…that’s a question for six figured salaried academics to answer in their professional capacity as masturbators of the significant commentary while on the EU financed gravy train... but of course long ago the American academic world entered into a paralyzed sterility which is the condition of 99% of literature departments in the USA and I guess their Bulgarian counterparts are rushing to catch up… books have always been a small part of a nation’s imaginative world… and today real books are read but never within the academic world… real books are passed one to one between individuals… and it was such individuals who remembered Hermann Melville long after he had disappeared into the customs shed, it is individuals who know that James Thomson BV wrote the two greatest poems in 19th Century England, Insomnia and The City of Dreadful Night. It is individuals who pass along Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard, it’s individuals who pass along Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life and I am telling you to read Parallel Lives by Peter Nadas and Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson and I do so on the basis of my book The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov.  Take it or leave it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

GEZA OTTLIK: HOW NECESSARY HE IS

For many many years I have had a novel SCHOOL AT THE FRONTIER by Geza Ottlik in my library.  The novel was published by Harcourt Brace (A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book)  in 1966 and in spite of coming from such a distinguished house it was not reviewed in the US.

Over the years via there is the gradually dawning realization that from Hungary were coming writers who have lead me to write: if James Joyce were alive today he would have learned Hungarian as he had once learned Norwegian and it is probably no accident that Bloom is of Hungarian origin.  

Only the stupid or poorly read are unaware and have not read the books of Sandor Marai, Imre Kertesz, Peter Esterhazy, Peter Nadas and  Laszlo Krasznahorkai...

The purpose of this brief post is to remind my few readers of Geza Ottlik whose writing and whose shadow is out of which come all of the writers I have just mentioned.  It took me years to find a copy of BUDA and then the making contact with the translator who tells me that the version of School at the Frontier was cut and at times is a little incoherent and needs to be freshly translated and he took the first step by translating BUDA that came out after Ottlik's death...

I won't go into the complex history of Ottlik, who during the very darkest days in communist Hungary was not allowed to publish... but for days now I have been living with this paragraph centered upon the central voice in the novel which is an attempt to describe the place of Buda in the lives of the characters readers first met at that school they all attended so long as  the nightmare of the 20th Century descended on Hungary and world--- and let no one think the 20th Century was anything more than another long murderous moment in the enduring --whatever you want to call human existence...

from the novel BUDA by Geza Ottlik:

..."my good friend, a writer in Buda, asks, "say BB how much longer are we supposed to live?"
---Listen, dear Bandi, dying is what I dread; me too, I'd like to get it over with.  The sooner the better. (A man's life may be seen as a urological episode: blood, stool, urine at the beginning, and it seems, at the end as well.) Meanwhile you will need a little more time to finish what you have started. (or to leave it behind in some semblance of order...) I turned my unfinished canvas around to face the wall so as not to see it all the time, and be influenced by what was good in it; I need something totally different here, something I cannot fully see yet; I'll find it eventually. (By myself, in my head.) I will.
The bad stuff in the painting does not disturb me.  What do I need here?...

From BUDA by Geza Ottlik translated into English by John Batki  and published in Budapest by Corvina in 2004 


Geza Ottlik wrote a brief article "On the Novel" from which...

"The novel attempts to create meaning on this side of language. How can it do this when it has nothing but language itself. First, language itself was born of a stratum on this side of language and is a derived system of signs referring back to that reality. Second, it is in itself a reality beyond language. For example, we simply retranslate its crude generalizations, its abstract functions, we assemble what it has torn apart and use it in its entirety. In the beginning was not the word but the sentence; it is this we break up into its component parts. In the beginning was not the sentence but the paragraph; it is this we expound into sentences! In the beginning was not the paragraph but the novel, and the novel was preceded only by silence itself."





Wednesday, September 18, 2019

HOW I SPENT AN HOUR AFTER GOING TO THE DENTIST TODAY IN MANHATTAN

Today, I went to look at art on West 24th Street in Manhattan


I resisted the temptation to add words to these photographs of the art.

I also resisted putting the artists name on any of the pictures of their art.

I am not sure of this absence as I am sure each of these artists wants to have words found for their art. 


On looking again at a version I had left out writing between these two pictures but now I have done so
I am surprised by the content of some of these pieces of art.


Have I revealed myself in the taking of these pictures




The pictures were of art that was in the galleries on West 24th Street between 10th and 11th Avenue in Manhattan.


The above picture is of something that might be called a sculpture.


This picture above contains a "living" human being who is taking a picture. This was an accident.


I was looking at these pictures after noon on the 18th of September 2019.

I had one verbal exchange with people in a gallery as a woman excused herself for talking about going to the dentist and I said I didn't hear what you were saying so you don't have to excuse yourself.  The woman explained that her father had been a dentist and she knew a great deal about dentistry--- all of which was in response, it seems, to a person who was behind the desk who it seems was complaining about going to the dental clinic at NYU where she had a procedure done by many students.  I said I was just at the dentists and he is very good. A third woman asked for his name and I wrote it out on a small piece of paper. I told the first woman that I had been going to dentists since I was a child and the name of the dentist I went to in Patchogue was Dr. Pierce, a terribly foreboding sort of name I only realized much much later after I had left Patchogue and heard that the doctor had lost a hand by sticking into a lawnmower trying to dislodge something or other.


I am not sure what to call this something or other...


it comes from an artist working in Alexandria, Egypt.  I do not think I can claim that he was inspired by the novels of Lawrence Durrell 

Monday, August 19, 2019

BEING IN SOFIA AND WHAT I BROUGHT BACK TO EAST FIRST STREET IN MANHATTAN Part One


For 42 days I was in Bulgaria.
Not for a moment did I miss being in the United States of America. Of course I missed individual people.  
What an awful debilitation to be labeled an American writer.
Would it be ever possible to simply say: I was  born in Brooklyn, New York, 
lived in Patchogue a small village 60 miles from New York City on Long Island,
am in the world.
This has nothing to do with politics.  Every country in the world is as pleasurable, as inviting, as repulsive as the next.  



a hotel in Pula

but I live in Manhattan on East First Street and go on weekends mostly to the house my wife owns in New Jersey.  In many ways I have the best of all possible worlds if one is to be living in Manhattan.  

So the matter is not a dreary disquisition about money or how an individual finds himself.  Rather it is question of how to define myself when I now say I have written three published novels and one of them was recently translated from its original English into Bulgarian.  Do I think of myself as an American writer?  The convention seems to be that either a passport, or a birth certificate determines the adjective that precedes the noun writer.


The Happy Kebabchita, Sofia


THE PAST
I could recite the list of American writers I have read and usually all of their books: Melville, Faulkner, Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe and on and on... but now save for a few novels nothing much remains... but what I am trying to understand how to continue with the writing 

But the pictures are urging another approach.  
The hotel in Pula, now in Croatia but in 1967 it was in Yugoslavia.  I had stayed there on a journey from Dublin  to Milan, to Venice, to Trieste as I was on my way to Turkey to visit friends but when I got off the train at Sofia in September of that year my life changed as I walked up Hristo Botev Boulevard and stopped to ask a question to a girl in a kiosk...

In June of this year that hotel in Pula and the town itself was the subject of a conversation with a writer translator from what is now Croatia who was also a guest of the Literature House in Sofia, Dinko Telecan.  Dinko had translated THE WHITE GODDESS, THE GOLDEN BOUGH of many books and was himself a novelist, traveler and poet. He knew the work of Nicolas Bouvier who is truly great and known only to a few---but that seems always the case in these United States... and after telling me Pula was a dump as was the hotel--- I persisted in the conversation and found a safe island in the work of Laszlo Krasznahorkai... now of course another name...and he knew --as he said--- of course and even I could echo that of course we knew the novels of Miroslav Krleza--didn't everyone--- of course I know I have just lost people thinking what a snob, what a name dropper--but so what::: I found THE RETURN OF PHILIP LATINOWICZ and ON THE EDGE OF REASON in my years in Patchogue... as at one time in even in the United States books by so-called foreign writers got translated and published... and of course he knew that James Joyce had begun his teaching career in Pula before going to Trieste and we both paused for Italo Svevo who in certain worlds is as well known as the name,  James Joyce... 

78-
What I am trying to suggest is  that once one is  beyond the cold censorious academic and journalistic walls of today's United States of America there is a far brighter world of the literary imagination... that sees  and feels and knows a world that is far more interesting than what passes for a literary culture in the United States... there is not a single contemporary American writer---beyond James McCourt, Madison Smart Bell, Stanley Crawford, Tom Whalen whose new books I am waiting for  and of the dead I find it appalling that Hannah Green's THE DEAD OF THE HOUSE is not seen as essential reading as is Hal Bennett's LORD OF DARK PLACES and his very short autobiography THE VISIBLE MAN which was published in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series Volume 15.  I was one a tiny select few who convinced Jon Rabinowitz to republish both of these books at his Turtle Point Press.  

[][][] That Hal Bennett's novels and stories are not better known than Toni Morrison's tells me too much about what so-called American literature is all about and while not written with the linguistic inventiveness of say a Celine, all of Bennett's  work shares an essential attitude as once said by Celine---"you have to be a little bit dead to be really comic" while Hannah Green's novel and her Little Saint a non-fiction book about her long visits with the painter John Wesley to the small French town on Conques and an essay "Mr. Nabokov" create a small perfect oeuvre sharing the sophisticated enthralling stylistic verve of Nabokov's Speak, Memory.
                                  




Monday, May 13, 2019

LOOKING AT JAMES JUTHSTROM'S PAINTINGS


I have been looking for the last few weeks at the paintings of JAMES JUTHSTROM (1925-2007) at the Westwood Gallery on the Bowery, NYC.  
He had a long career of painting and these are  from one period of his life.  
I have been taken by my first glance of the painting as a whole and then the presence of what seems like a second painting in the midst of the first glance.
I am not prepared to go on in the usual art world manner... and want only to mark this moment of looking.  
I will look at the pctures again on Wednesday.  That is what they command me to do.
More information about the painter is available via google, of course but for now I am just sharing these pictures.  












The best art criticism begins with: LOOK.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

WALKING TO THE ANDES THIS MORNING


-->

                                           TWO.
A GERMAN OFFICER IN OCCUPIED PARIS The War Journals, 1941-1945 by Ernst Junger has held me for the last two months because on every page or so they send me to what he is either reading or thinking about reading or remembering having read. 
Of late, because of reading Junger, I have gone back to: William Faulkner’s PYLON,
to Washington Irving’s THE SKETCHBOOK,
to the Book of Esther in the Old Testament,
 to Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament,
to Marcel Jouhandeau’s MARCEL AND ELISE, the only one of his many books in English but  more a small anthology that has been translated into English (of course more of his books should be in English but what stands in his way: he was  homosexual, long married to a woman, a strict Roman Catholic and for a time a very pro-German or at the very least indifferent to the German occupation,
-to Leon Bloy, the French writer Junger turns to frequently and of which I have dipped into his only book available in English PILGRIM OF THE ABSOLUTE—which in an essential book for understanding the appeal of Catholicism--- at the very end of Junger’s  life, when he was well beyond a hundred years old  he would become Catholic--- he was no fool, 
to looking at the art of Cocteau
to chatting with Picasso,
to visiting Braque (I SHOULD PROBABLY QUOTE THE WHOLE OF THIS VISIT but I will  not as it so clearly states  why while here are many good artists in the world--- that is all they are: good and ah, why not: (the few greats) They are like the Andes, whose absolute elevation is divided in half to our sights by the ocean’s surface.  Yet their domain spans the sphere of the condor’s wings down to the measureless reaches of the ocean’s depths


                                          FIVE
Junger also in the diaries details the on-going military situation both in France and his entries detailing a mission to the Russian front is so fierce and disturbing in the felt detailed observations--- equaled only by the work of  Curzio Malaparte--- they re-enforce my personal belief that Junger is the single best writer on what being in combat feels like and I have never really understood why people might think that he is in anyway a war monger when in fact he shows just how awful the experience is and why he wishes it on no one… unlike so much of what passes as anti-war memoirs which always stroke the sentimental for all its worth and thus become a useless form of preaching…
                                         SEVEN
This morning as so many mornings I walk to The Strand Bookstore and often also to Alabaster Books around the corner from that. I always look at the bookstalls on the sidewalk and this morning I found a nice copy of Hannah Green’s LITTLE SAINT and of course the clerk in ALABASTER did not know who Hannah Green was… but no matter as I felt myself to be Leopold Bloom out for his walk  (IN ULYSSES--- please surely you know this) and standing at the bookstalls in the shop near O’Connell Bridge in Dublin looking at a book by Paul de Kock and later thinking about a novel SWEETS OF SIN…
AND JUNGER also goes looking through the bookstalls along the Seine and into many of the tiny bookshops that used to give Paris its special charm even for one like myself who does not speak or read French but who also liked to go grazing through the bookshops of Paris imagining to see one of my books which might have escaped English--- I will have this pleasure in June when in Bulgaria I will go into bookstores there and see my THE CORPSE DREAM OF N. PETKOV having escaped its English incarnation…
Of course Junger read French and while I do not know for sure I remember while in the trenches in WWI  he  was reading and how appropriate it seemed, TRISTRAM SHANDY by Laurence Sterne… and opposing him in those fields was David Jones whose IN PARENTHESIS is the literary equal of Junger’s STORM OF STEEL.. nothing else compares, really, save only Alan Seeger’s poem I HAVE A RENDEZVOUS WITH DEATH--- it is no accident that Seeger was in the same class at Harvard as T. S. Eliot.
NINE
A final quoted passage by Junger after one of the many visits with the very rich American who stayed in Paris all through the war, Florence Gould where here is a conversation with a Marie-Louise Heller of whom it is asked: “Marie-Louise, you are certain you can’t remember your husband’s birthday anymore?”
“Yes, but on the other hand I can never forget his death day.”
This retort is apt for in death that person is permanently linked to us—as I now feel about my father."

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

ANNIVERSARIES by Uwe Johnson


                                    
 FOR SOME TIME I have found it difficult to write about the books I am reading and my own writing as it seems one writes into an abyss by way of this blog yet of course all writing that hopes to last beyond a day--- is written into the abyss and this sunny March day walking on Second Avenue in Manhattan urged me to share the opening of an essay of mine that is in the current issue of THE HOLLINS CRITIC, a rare readable actual print journal yet one that is available electronically  via good libraries as I know it is from the New York Public Library

                          TRUTH AND FACTS
        An essay on ANNIVERSARIES by Uwe Johnson
                                      

                                               PREFACE
                                                           
1
Uwe J.[Johnson] last and solitary 10 years in England always fascinate me. Shortly after his death I met a bookseller in Richmond that knew him. And when Sebald invited me to a symposium in Norwich I met there the late Michael Hamburger that was his friend. Speculations [About Jakob]... a very innovative work. I keep a very good Spanish translation, Conjeturas..., from 1973, annotated, with a critical introduction and bibliography. No publisher will do this kind of work in Spain anymore. And his Spanish translations are out of print. But I believe Zamyatin was right: the future of Russian literature, and of literature, for short, is in its past. The rich past will erase the pastime. And the eyes of a new and real reader will follow the lines and the lives of St. Patrick's Day...

(from a letter from Julian Rios (author of LARVA) to the writer of this essay)

2
The tendency of every age is to bury as many classics as it revives.  If unable to discover our own urgent meanings in a creation of the past, we hope to find ample redress in its competitive neighbors.  A masterpiece cannot be produced once and for all; it must be constantly reproduced.  Its first author is a man. Its later one--- time, social time, history
                                              ----Philip Rahv


ONE


         ANNIVERSARIES by Uwe Johnson is a great American novel though written in German but now available in a complete, precise and very readable translation by Damion Searls.

ONE
I began writing this essay about Uwe Johnson’s ANNIVERSARIES on September 1, 2018, the 79th anniversary of the beginning of World War Two and I am writing the essay in a small town in New Jersey, home to a former Michelin tire factory that closed in 1930 though the main street is still crossed by Pershing, Haig, Foch and Joffre streets with a little side avenue named for Petain and an American Legion hall named for Joyce Kilmer as is the elementary school.  Everything remains and is forgotten.
ONE
I had thought more provocatively to have started my essay with:  ANNIVERSARIES  by Uwe Johnson is one of the greatest New York City novels  and of course it begins at a New Jersey beach town and will end at a Danish beach town.
       ONE
Or, Uwe Johnson’s ANNIVERARIES From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (giving its complete title) is the freshly translated, definitive and complete 1668 page novel constantly centered on the year of 1967-68 in the life of a German woman living at West 96th Street in Manhattan remembering or being placed in times that include both the Nazi past and the then present divided Germanys, while constantly mirroring those lives in a daily reading and quoting from The New York Times. 
And one will be happy to know that this woman has nothing to do with the so-called Upper West Side intellectuals who were memorably described as inhabiting a world of “Keeping up with Niebuhrs” by the writer James McCourt.  A world of Lionel Trilling, Meyer Shapiro, Norman Podhoretz, Irving Krystol, Susan Sontag and Reinhold Niebuhr.  And there will be nothing about the Democratic Convention in Chicago!
         The novel opens: 
“Long waves beat diagonally against the beach, bulge hunchbacked with cords of muscle, raise quivering ridges that tip over at their very greenest.  Crests stretched tight, already welted white, wrap round a cavity of air crushed by the clear mass like a secret made and then broken.  The crashing swells knock children off their feet, spin them round, drag them flat across the pebbly ground. Past the breakers the waves pull the swimmer across their backs by her out-stretched hands.  The wind is fluttery; in low-pressure wind like this, the Baltic Sea used to peter out into a burble. The word for the short waves on the Baltic was: choppity.  The town is on a narrow spit of the Jersey shore, two hours south of New York by train.” (3)

An opening wordier than: “Stately plump Buck Mulligan…” or “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” but closer “From a little after four o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that – a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that sight and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler…”
SO TO  “There was a depression over the Atlantic.  It was travelling eastwards, toward an area of high pressure on Russia.”   The last quotation is the opening  of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. 
Of course the same ocean now joins these two novels forever, underlining what one can only hope to urge: Johnson has written the necessary masterpiece linking the United States and Europe--- and why not allow for Germany standing in for all of Europe in the way the United States can represent the New World  imaginatively since no other book I know of does this while  of course one is aware  that the central character of Celine’s Journey to the End of Night spends a long time in the United States and Michel Butor in his book Mobile creates a wonderful European recreation of the whole of the United States—while recalling the more fantastic version of the United Stakes created by Kafka, a writer who had the benefit of never coming to the  US---but the  essential point is that the experiences of both places are  given equal weight in Anniversaries thus avoiding the common and usual dichotomy of the visitor and the visited… whether long or short term it matters not at all.
TWO
ANNIVERSARIES closes 1668 pages later:
“As we walked by the sea we ended up in the water. Clattering gravel around our ankles. We held one another’s hand: a child, a man on his way to the place where the dead and she, the child that I was.” (1668)

New Jersey and the Baltic!