May 5, 2016 | by Max Nelson
John Cleland wrote his (very) erotic novel, Fanny Hill, in prison. What did he mean by it?
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Merle Haggard and the long tradition of the outlaw poet, here.
John Cleland’s sentences often resemble the sexual encounters he imagined in his best-known book—a two-volume novel called Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill, published when he was in debtor’s prison between 1748 and 1749, reissued in a censored edition the following year, and presented in both cases as an autobiographical letter by a former courtesan named Fanny Hill. A typical Cleland sentence goes on past any moderate end point, “wedging [itself] up to the utmost extremity.” It makes unexpected, spasmodic, sometimes baffling detours, “exalted by the charm of their novelty and surprise.” It drifts so far into the ridiculous that sometimes it seems “that on earth”—as Cleland’s heroine comments in one passage about the “women of quality” she and her colleagues once wanted to resemble—“there cannot subsist anything more silly, more flat, more insipid and worthless.” But then it keeps going, escalating until it seems to have been “driven forcibly out of the power of using any art.” Read More »
April 29, 2016 | by Robert Cohen
Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me turns fifty.
I am gazing, as I write, at a black-and-white photograph of Richard Fariña with his wife, Mimi (née Baez) Fariña, taken backstage at the Newport Folk Festival nine months before his death—fifty years ago this week—at the age of twenty-nine. To call the photo romantic would be an understatement. Mimi, her face a dark flower offered to an invisible sun, appears to be literally bursting out of her flip-flops as she executes some twirling, Isadora Duncan-y ballet step; while Richard, swarthy and black-haired, his eyes fondly delta’d (the Ray-Bans in his hand having apparently proven useless against all this brightness), looks like he can’t quite believe his luck, to have aligned his future with this lovely, exuberant sprite, a princess in folk’s royal family. He’s having a pretty good run of it for a guy who plays the dulcimer. And technically he doesn’t even play it that well. Read More »
April 12, 2016 | by Edward Gauvin
How Blutch’s graphic novel Peplum shatters the Satyricon.
In an interview after Peplum’s first publication in book form, Blutch tells of a reader who asked him why he was such a difficult author. “But I don’t feel like I’m difficult at all!” he exclaimed. “I don’t understand why I get asked that. What I do is fairly simple, and not at all intellectual. In my stories, I try to favor action.” And in action, Blutch’s book abounds: stabbing, stoning, amputation, eye-gouging, sex, seafaring, Attic dance, pirate attacks. Yet these sequences are as artificial as they are visceral, feral, and formal at once. Taking as its title the European term for the sword-and-sandal cinematic subgenre, Peplum offers a decidedly different take on the toga epic—one of aporia and ambiguity, a fractured tale of antiquity in all its alien majesty. Read More »
March 23, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The long tradition of outlaw poets.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, here.
Early in the first volume of Panegyric—the bad-tempered, ironically self-deprecating eulogy he wrote for himself in the late eighties—Guy Debord sang the praises of a kind of writer he knew he could never become. “There have always been artists and poets capable of living in violence,” he wrote. “The impatient Marlowe died, knife in hand, arguing over a tavern bill.” Five hundred years earlier, in the picture Debord goes on to imagine, the medieval poet François Villon presided over a cluster of writers who lived raggedly and riskily at the banks of the Seine. These were outlaw poets, “devotees of the dangerous life”—starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art.
Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up—when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject. In some cases, the poetry they write from this position turns out bitter, sour, and defiantly indigestible, full of lines that dare their civilized, comfortable readers to tolerate rude language, unhinged imagery, and wild variations in refinement and shape. In others, it comes off as a seductive, pining lament, a plea for pardon or a performance of rueful self-blame. Some of the great outlaw poets shuffle unpredictably between these two tones. “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am,” Merle Haggard sang in 1967, less than a decade after the end of his two-year term in San Quentin: “but they won’t let my secret go untold; / I paid the debt I owed ’em, / but they’re still not satisfied; / Now I’m a branded man / out in the cold.” He could write an equally convincing song that placed the fault on precisely the opposite side: “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied; / that leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” Read More »
February 25, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The rediscovered prison memoir of a nineteenth-century black man.
On the back cover of the manuscript of his prison memoir, which he completed in New York’s Auburn state jail sometime after 1858, Austin Reed pasted a clipping of the third chapter of Lamentations: “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath … / He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail. / He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old.” Around the thirtieth verse, the tone shifts to one of reassurance—“For the Lord will not cast off forever”—and then, by the fifty-fifth, to one of retributive anger. The last verses Reed excerpted are a plea “out of the low dungeon” for God to avenge the poem’s narrator against his enemies: “Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord.”
These lines suggest the tone and shape of a literary genre: a lament in which sorrow coexists with requests for divine vengeance. By placing them at the end of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict—acquired by Yale’s rare-book library in 2009 and published last month with helpful editorial comments by the scholar Caleb Smith—Reed was making a strong suggestion about the kind of book he’d written. The text itself, however, is an amalgam of genres that wouldn’t seem to combine: a picaresque memoir in which sermons jostle up against pulpy adventure anecdotes; dutiful recollections of fact move with little notice into fantasies and dreams; radical gestures of black empowerment share the page with the coarsest kinds of racial caricatures; and assertive denunciations of the prison system coexist with passages of meek and guilty self-recrimination. It’s puzzling to make sense of these apparent contradictions—to decide what Reed meant his book to do. Read More »
January 21, 2016 | by Max Nelson
On the dark erotics of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.
On September 11, 1895, the deputy chaplain of Wandsworth prison wrote a worried report about one of his new charges, Oscar Wilde, who had been transferred from Pentonville two months before. “He is now quite crushed and broken,” the chaplain recorded:
This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices are again getting the better of him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.
The possibility that a famous author had been driven to masturbating during his internment in Wandsworth would not have reflected well on the prison’s authorities, who immediately denied the charge and changed the indiscreet chaplain’s assignment. One wonders how they would have reacted to Jean Genet’s short film Un chant d’amour (1950), which the French author, playwright, and criminal directed in collaboration with Jean Cocteau soon after writing the last of the five novels that earned him international fame. Midway through the film, a poker-faced prison guard peers one at a time into a row of cells, each of which turns out to contain an autoerotic peepshow more wild, graphic, and uninhibited than the one before. A convict rubs his exposed member against the wall of his cell; a smiling bather lathers himself lasciviously in soap; a young black man, one of the many dark-skinned figures in Genet who appear to their white observers as sexual threats, dances with a tight grip on his open-flied crotch. Read More »