April 22, 2014 | by Michael Lipkin
There were no best-seller lists in 1809, but it was quickly clear to the German reading public that Goethe’s third novel, Elective Affinities, which appeared in the fall of that year, was a flop. His first, The Sorrows of Young Werther, had inspired a fashion craze and copycat suicides, and had fired the heart of a young Napoleon. His latest effort, on the other hand, received befuddled notices from critics and little love from the coterie of writers and philosophers drawn to the Great Man. Everyone from the Brothers Grimm to Achim von Arnim to Wilhelm von Humboldt agreed that the book was a bore, that its plot made nearly no sense, and that its treatment of adultery bordered on the distasteful.
At sixty, Goethe was not one to let bad reviews get him down. The universally beloved Faust had appeared in 1808, and by 1810, Goethe was to have completed his Theory of Colors as well as his autobiography, Poetry and Truth. Nonetheless, in the correspondence he sent out around the time of publication, Goethe found himself compelled to admit that he had as little idea as anyone else of what he was trying to accomplish with his most recent book, or of what it had finally become. Then as now, Elective Affinities is an incredible, deeply mystifying read, the headstone of a man who hoped to groom the wilderness of life into an English park where even loss, pain, and death have finally found their proper place. Read More »
April 16, 2014 | by Graciela Mochkofsky
Seven years ago, a stolen first edition of Borges’s early poems was returned to Argentina’s National Library. But was it the right copy?
The world of rare books and manuscripts is full of intrigues, betrayals, and frauds. Alberto Casares has lived in this world for decades; as the president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Buenos Aires, he’s an expert on the subject. He’s got the physique du rôl: a gray, messy beard; a soft body; an intense and wary look.
A few months ago, Casares was offered a seventeenth-century original edition of Don Quixote for one million euros. He recognized it as a well-known forgery from the nineteenth century, worth no more than €200,000. The seller took it away, determined to find a more unsuspecting client, and Casares was left alone with the melancholy of having lost something that was never his to own.
What would some people give to own it? Casares told me, “Bibliographers are willing to commit crimes to follow their mad desire to own things.” He was thinking of a former client, Daniel Pastore, a collector of rare books and first editions, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune and owner of Imago Mundi, Buenos Aires’s most elegant antiquarian bookshop, which closed a few years ago after a succession of international scandals involving Pastore.
Casares was annoyed and fascinated by Pastore, who was eighteen the first time he walked into Casare’s bookshop. He was handsome, rich, likeable, and learned—a good client. But he was also pedantic; he claimed to know more about rare books than Casares. Sometimes he did. But not when it came to Jorge Luis Borges. Read More »
April 14, 2014 | by Jonathan Lethem
Editing Don Carpenter’s final manuscript.
Part of my job as a clerk at Berkeley’s great used bookstore Moe’s, in the early nineties, was to scour the massive wall of fiction and confront the books that weren’t selling. Out of all the staff I claimed this task because it interested me the most, and because it suited my vanity to be able to claim that “I run the lit section.” Codes, written in pencil, and discretely tucked into the corner opposite the asking price, revealed when a given title had hit the shelf. After six or eight months you reduced the price. Once it had been knocked down a couple of times, two options remained: chuck the book into the pile of discards under the staircase, or take it home and read it.
A Couple of Comedians, with its great title and Norman Mailer blurb, got me to flip it open. When right there in the stacks I was met with Don Carpenter’s punchy prose, and with his grabby, wry, and humane outlook, I took the book home. I read it. I loved it. I looked downstairs, in our pocket-size paperback stacks, and found a copy of Hard Rain Falling, Carpenter’s first novel, repackaged with a Tom of Finland–style painting and corresponding jacket copy to sell as “gay lit” (“The hard-hitting novel of a young street tough and his inevitable journey toward prison—and self-knowledge …”). I read Hard Rain Falling and thought it made two masterpieces in a row. The suggestion given by the dust jackets of the two books—and the move from the Northern California bildungsroman of Hard Rain Falling to the entertainment industry hijinks of comedians—was of a writer who, failing to sustain a literary career, had migrated to Hollywood and was, all too typically, never heard from again. Read More »
February 26, 2014 | by Sharon Mesmer
In the summer of 2011, I spent every afternoon Google-mapping the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. I pulled the shades down, turned the air conditioner up, and typed the intersections that define Back of the Yards—named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards—into the search box. I was in the early stage of a nervous breakdown, obsessively attempting to revivify the past, the only place where, I believed, continuity existed. Fifty-First and Loomis was my embarkation point: the intersection where our family doctor’s office was located. An unfilled prescription, from 1965, that I’d found in my deceased mother’s jewelry box provided the office’s address. My mother and I had had a contentious relationship, but that summer I fantasized about opening her grave and throwing her skeletal arms around me—“I thought even the bones would do,” to quote Plath. I used the objects from the jewelry box (grocery lists, a Revlon “Moondrops” powder compact, old Sears charge cards, blue crystal rosaries, a Coty lipstick) to reconstruct her existence, and finding that prescription was like finding the key to a long-locked door.
Going to the doctor had been a kind of family outing—every three months, to get my grandmother’s diabetes checked—and I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed those odd excursions to that tiny office. My mother would go downstairs to get my grandmother dressed: clean hairnet; heavy girdle and thick support pantyhose; rhinestone brooch; nice dress instead of a stained shift; black orthopedic shoes instead of house slippers; and dentures, from the glass on the bathroom sink. Then she’d run upstairs to get my sister and me ready, dabbing Chantilly perfume on our wrists. Read More »
December 19, 2013 | by Stephen Sparks
For several years during childhood, my younger brother and I shared a room. When silence eventually fell after we’d been put to bed, I often began to worry. If I couldn’t hear his breathing, if he didn’t shift in his sleep or answer my urgent whispers (“Hey … hey … ” “What?” “ … Nothing”), I willed myself motionless, listening for signs of life. If I still couldn’t hear anything, I got up, tiptoed across the room, and leaned over him. He was never not breathing. Yet I continued these fretful nocturnal journeys throughout our childhood.
As we grew older, my concern became more practical. I wondered how I would react if I found his breath had stopped, what course of action I would take, and whether I would be able to even move from the spot where I’d be helplessly rooted to the floor. I was haunted by his possible death—an absence I could not understand as a child—and by my inability to conjure a suitable reaction.
I do not fear my own death as actively as I worry about being left to cope with the death of someone I love. And while I have lost loved ones, I’ve managed, because those deaths made sense, to hover at the edges of grief. From there, I watched others muck through it, station to station. (Inevitably, I imagine each of the stages of grief less as a pilgrimage than as suburban park trail, where Denial is a set of monkey bars, Anger a stepping post, etc. Mourning, to me, is a compulsory obstacle course.) From the safety of the path, so to speak, I found myself rationalizing away what felt like an improper response to loss with the argument that we all manifest grief differently. In my case, I insisted, it was by maintaining my distance. As a consequence, I have avoided mourners. I’ve skipped out on funerals. In shameful moments, I’ve forsaken those in need. Never because I didn’t care, I insist, but because I am too weak.
And so I didn’t want to read Bough Down, Karen Green’s memoir of loss and mourning. Despite myself, I brought the book home and put it on the shelf, where I intended it to remain, a vellum-shrouded apotropaic object, its presence enough to ward off misfortune. Read More »
November 15, 2013 | by Adam Thirlwell
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev to a Polish-speaking family on February 11, 1887. At university, he studied law. In 1912, age twenty-five, he traveled through Europe, visiting Paris, Heidelberg, and Milan—for the young Krzhizhanovsky was the pure apprentice intellectual. After the First World War, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he returned to Kiev, where he taught at the Musical Institute and the Theatrical Conservatory. In 1922, age thirty-five, he left Kiev for Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. In Moscow, Krzhizhanovsky wrote articles and gave lectures, in particular at Alexander Tairov’s Drama Studio. He also worked as a consultant to Tairov’s Chamber Theater. Meanwhile, he wrote novellas and stories, which were never published—either due to economic problems (bankrupt publishers) or political problems (Soviet censors). Twenty years passed in this way until, in 1941, with Krzhizhanovsky now fifty-four, a collection of stories was finally scheduled for publication—but then the Second World War intervened, preventing even that collection from appearing. In May 1950 he suffered a stroke and lost the use of speech. He died at the end of the year. (His works—almost all of them unpublished—were stored by his lifelong companion, Anna Bovshek, in her apartment: in her clothes chest, under some brocade.)
Almost no one knew that Krzhizhanovsky was writing fiction, since the state never allowed its publication. They knew him in other guises—as a lecturer on theater, or essayist, or occasional playwright. In 1939, Krzhizhanovsky, despite his restricted publication history, was nevertheless elected to the Writers’ Union—which meant that posthumously he was eligible for the process of “immortalization.” In 1953, Stalin died, and three years later Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress instituted a revisionist anti-Stalinist thaw. In 1957—the same year as Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—a commission was set up to examine Krzhizhanovsky’s literary legacy. It lasted two years and was then disbanded, having drafted a publishing plan that was never implemented. Then, in 1976, Vadim Perelmuter, a poet, literary historian, and essayist, discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive. He had to wait until 1989 and the full thaw of perestroika before he could publish one of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. Between 2001 and 2008, Perelmuter finally edited a handsome five-volume edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s works. Read More »