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Lawn Fawn Moon Boon

November 19, 2014 | by

fourfootedbeast

An illustration from Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents, 1658.

The excellent Public Domain Review is making its first foray into print with a new anthology, The Book of Selected Essays, 2011–2013, celebrating their three years as dedicated spelunkers of the public domain. They’ve amassed an incredible collection of esoterica—stuff that, as their editor Adam Green writes, “didn’t quite make the cut when that mysterious editor on high was working away with razor blade and glue upon the reels and reels of recorded past”—much of which I hadn’t encountered before. How, for instance, had I never heard of Christopher Smart?

Smart was an eighteenth-century English poet, an intimate of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Henry Fielding; in 1755 he got a gig producing a weekly paper, The Universal Visitor or Monthly Memorialist, and the job so overworked him that he had some kind of a nervous fit. It’s not clear whether he really went mad or not, but he was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics—an admirably blunt name, no?—where he wrote one of his more enduring works, Jubilate Agno.

As Frank Key writes in the Public Domain Review,

Smart never completed the work, which consists of four fragments making a total of over 1,200 lines, each beginning with the words “Let” or “For”. For example, Fragment A is all “Let”s, whereas in Fragment B the “Let”s and “For”s are paired, which may have been the intention for the entire work, modelled on antiphonal Hebrew poetry. References and allusions abound to Biblical (especially Old Testament) figures, plants and animals, gems, contemporary politics and science, the poet’s family and friends, even obituary lists in current periodicals. The language is full of puns, archaisms, coinages, and unfamiliar usages. Dr Johnson famously said “Nothing odd will do long; Tristram Shandy did not last.” Jubilate Agno is, if anything, “odder” than Sterne’s novel, and perhaps we are readier to appreciate it in the twenty-first century than when it was written.

Indeed we are.One of the great joys of Jubilate Agno,” Key says,is in its sudden dislocations and unexpected diversions.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem’s most famous passage, a long consideration of Smart’s cat, Jeoffry: Read More »

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Enlarge and Linger

November 14, 2014 | by

On William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

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William Gass teaching at Washington University, 1974. Photo: Washington University Magazine

In the heart of the heart of William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, deep inside the title story, the narrator contemplates his cat, Mr. Tick: “You are a cat—you cannot understand—you are a cat so easily.” The confident Mr. Tick, unlike the narrator, does not worry over his mortality or think about the burden of self-consciousness. He does not care that the past is past. He does not fear possibility or imagine himself as anything other than the cat he is. Mr. Tick spends his time murdering birds and walking across rooftops. Content just to be alive, he moves elegantly, “his long tail rhyming with his paws,” leaving our forlorn narrator to fend off loneliness on his own, with the only weapon he has at his disposal: words.

Words are free, there for the taking, and William Gass makes sure we are aware of their infinite potential. Words can be used to command, to describe, to denigrate. They can be strung into sentences and bellowed in a song “in such a way that from a distance it will seem a harmony, a Strindberg play, a friendship ring.” We understand nuance and learn how to prepare for consequence with the help of words. We can make beautiful things with words. Those inclined can dare to treat the medium of language as an inexhaustible source of art.

Art is the business of serious writers, Gass insists. A brilliant essayist as well as one of this nation’s most important novelists, he argues in his essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” that the task for a serious writer is twofold: “He must show or exhibit his world, and to do this he must actually make something, not merely describe something that might be made.” In his emphasis on making, Gass, who turned ninety this year, is proposing that the meaning generated by a work of fiction goes beyond its mimetic familiarity. The purpose of an imaginative narrative isn’t to confirm what we think we already know about reality; rather, it offers “a record of the choices, inadvertent or deliberate, the author has made from all the possibilities of language.” A fictional cat may reflect qualities of a real cat, but it is better appreciated as a product of the author’s agile mind. Read More »

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Everyday Blasphemies

November 12, 2014 | by

Dubliners at one hundred.

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An illustration by Stephen Crowe for de Selby Press’s new edition of Dubliners.

It was a priest who first convinced me to read Dubliners. On the face of it, this might seem strange. Joyce had a lifelong hatred of clergymen, and claimed the sight of one made him physically ill; in “The Sisters,” the opening story of Dubliners, he chose a senescent priest as the first, and arguably most disturbing, of the many images of decay and paralysis that pervade the book. But in the Dublin of my teens, the priests were running the show; it was even possible for priests to be celebrities, and it was the most famous of these who took my class on retreat at the end of Transition Year, in June 1991.

Joyce writes about a religious retreat in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which an unnamed preacher terrifies the boys with a lengthy description of the torments of hell. Ours wasn’t like that. There were beanbags and unlimited biscuits; the celebrity cleric, who had become famous in the sixties as the Singing Priest and latterly hosted a hugely popular radio show, spoke to us like we were his friends. Even though the retreat consisted for the most part of the usual list of prohibitions—don’t do drugs, don’t have sex—his gravelly voice and inner-city accent gave him a convincing authenticity. Then, for reasons I still can’t quite understand—modernist literature was not at that point high on our list of temptations—he started talking about James Joyce. According to the Singing Priest, Joyce was one of the greatest hoaxes ever to be perpetrated on the Irish people. Far from being a genius, he was a charlatan, a phony, a false prophet. Furthermore, the priest continued, nobody in the world had actually read his famous novel Ulysses, and anyone who claimed otherwise was a liar.

Well, this came as a surprise. My father was a professor of Irish literature at Joyce’s alma mater, University College Dublin; in his study at home he had multiple copies of Joyce’s books, including Ulysses, as well as innumerable books about Joyce’s books. Had he been pulling the wool over our eyes for all these years? Read More »

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In Which André Malraux Kills Death

November 3, 2014 | by

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An engraving by Fernand Léger.

André Malraux was born today in 1901, and his first novel, Paper Moons (Lunes en papier), was published when he was only twenty. If that provokes pangs of jealousy, bear in mind that the print run was limited to 112 copies. The National Library of the Netherlands has a terrific post about the first edition, which was published by Éditions de la Galerie Simon, one of the most forward-thinking publishers of its day.

As that small print-run indicates, Simon wasn’t a major operation. Malraux’s publisher, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had a shrewd and prescient eye for writers and artists. He was also an art dealer, one of the first to find merit in the work of the Cubists, who were largely written off as pretentious pranksters at the time. As a publisher, he sought work that “accomplished in words what the Cubists did with paint”; accordingly, he published early work by Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Raymond Radiguet, Pierre Reverdy, and Antonin Artaud, among others, often with artwork from his friends. In the case of Lunes en papier he called on Fernand Léger to contribute several wood engravings. This was not, it must be said, a popular or canny decision at the time:

Léger [had] caused a sensation at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 with his Nude in the Woods (Nus dans la forêt). Kahnweiler was immediately intrigued and attempted to contact its creator, who had previously made a living as a draughtsman for an architectural firm. Léger was mockingly called “tubiste” because of his tube-like presentations: he felt isolated and unappreciated.

As for the novel itself:

Lunes en papier continually subverts the reader’s expectations, starting with the cryptic subtitle and the warning in the front of the book: “There is nothing symbolical in this book.” The three stories are absurdist in nature, with strange plot turns and metaphors, airy, sometimes humorous in tone, while still dealing with seemingly serious matters, and ending with the death of Death … Malraux would later qualify his first effort as a “gloire de café.” But it suited the Surrealist and Dadaist ideas of its time extremely well.

There’s a translated excerpt from Cipher Journal that includes the bit where Death dies. More specifically, Death—a woman in a dinner jacket that makes her look like an insect—receives a visit from a dubious physician, who informs her that she may be going bald. He prepares her a bath of nitric acid. She slides on in and begins to corrode; by the time her servant intervenes, it’s too late, and Death has resigned herself to dying. Read More »

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Material Objects

October 22, 2014 | by

Lessons from Rare Book School.

Edward Collier, Trompe l'Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, 1699.

Four stories underneath the stately Georgian campus of the University of Virginia, I was with a group of rare-book experts scrutinizing a five-hundred-year-old Italian woodcut of two chubby infants. They framed a capital letter L. One, with a look of insouciant concentration, was thrusting his butt over the downslope of the L to defecate on it.

“The woodcut accompanies Andreas Vesalius’s discourse on the muscles of excretion,” Roger Gaskell, a rare-book dealer based in Cambridgeshire, told the group. It turns out that Vesalius, the Renaissance physician remembered today as the father of modern anatomy, had an intensely strained relationship with his publishers. “This initial letter differs from the others in the book—despite the fact that the printing house had a perfectly good L already cut,” Gaskell said. “So I rather suspect this shitting putti was a message to his publisher.”

Over a coffee break, the members of Gaskell’s seminar mingled with three others led by such luminaries as Mark Dimunation, the chief of the rare-book division at the Library of Congress. They were gathered in a warren of windowless basement rooms for an annual rite of passage in the world of antiquarian texts: Rare Book School. Read More »

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Wanna Be Like Everyone

October 14, 2014 | by

Italy in the Years of Lead.

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Photo: southtyrolean, via Flickr

In the Italy I first knew, the Italy of the midseventies, political debate seemed to constitute the molten core of every dramatic conversation. My Italian was good and improving, but it never really got good enough to penetrate the mist of political verbiage. “Compagni, cioè, nella misura in cui” was the standard Italian catchphrase, mocking the loopy revolutionary discourse of the time: “Comrades, I mean, to the extent to which…” If the militant jargon was eye-glazing, the newspapers printed a language that can only be compared to the incense-clouded Latin of the Catholic Mass, a series of hieratic shibboleths that resembled Abstract Expressionist dance, the high holies and sacred mysteries of a Kabuki facade behind which deals were being cut.

But one aspect of the political debate became dazzlingly clear to me on a July afternoon in 1977 when my flatmate Angela burst into the small apartment we shared; she had the day’s newspaper and sat down to read it at the kitchen table. Angela was tall, with a crazed serpent’s nest of curly, hennaed red hair, intensely exorbital brown eyes, stunningly uneven buckteeth, and a dangerous temper. She dressed in the uniform of leftist Italian students: vest over peasant blouse, long embroidered skirt, Dr. Scholl’s clogs, oversize velvet purse riding at hip height.

As she read one article, something broke in her usually impetuous demeanor. “Oh, mamma mia, quanto mi dispiace,” she keened softly, expressing her sorrow. A NAP militant—Antonio Lo Muscio—had been shot and killed by police on a piazza in Rome, and two female comrades were shot and wounded. Angela was openly mourning the death of people who had killed policemen and hoped to overthrow the state. I was already afraid of her temper and her glare, but I was now aware that her political beliefs went to a place much more glamorous and romantic, and far scarier, than I had guessed. Read More »

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