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The Sam Weller Bump

April 14, 2015 | by

Dickens the authorpreneur.

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Bigger than the Zuckerberg Bump, bigger even than the Colbert Bump or the Oprah Bump—arguably the most historic bump in English publishing is the Sam Weller Bump, triggered not by a tastemaker with a megaphone but a sharp-talking, warm-hearted servant.

In June 1836, Charles Dickens published the fourth installment of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the many shilling monthlies that were the backbone of Victorian publishing. Printed on low-cost acidic paper and sold in pale green wrappers, they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare. But many of these readers had grown accustomed to the gobbets of melodrama offered by the cheap press—they were utterly uninterested, then, in the picaresque misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his chums as they bowled through England collecting scientific information for the betterment of mankind. The first three installments of Pickwick barely sold four hundred copies.

But that June, sales began to grow by orders of magnitude: from four hundred to four thousand to an astounding forty thousand as the serialization drew to a close in November 1837. Everyone up and down the social ladder began to devour Pickwick, from butchers’ boys to John Ruskin, who read Pickwick so often he claimed to know it by heart. Copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud as family entertainment. The critics effused with praise. Dickens, who was twenty-four and expecting his first child, had become a household name. Read More »

Dear Mr. Jarecki

March 23, 2015 | by

How Gordon Lish’s first novel anticipated The Jinx.

DearMrCapote

From the paperback cover of Dear Mr. Capote.

Like every other sentient being with an HBO subscription, I’ve been riveted by the layers of mendacity, hypocrisy, voyeurism, manipulation, deception, dysfunction, and psychopathology on display in The Jinx. Robert Durst is as compelling a creep as has ever appeared on an LED screen; he seems like a character sprung from Patricia Highsmith’s dark imagination. (The Talented Mister Durst?) Andrew Jarecki, with his distinctly Mephistophelean facial hair, gives off his own aroma of brimstone. As I watched the series—rapt, but with a queasy feeling of complicity—I felt I’d encountered something like this before. Then I remembered what it was: Gordon Lish’s skilled, twisted, and exceptionally prophetic first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983).

The self-proclaimed “Captain Fiction,” Lish is most famous and/or notorious today for his writing classes, which more resembled EST sessions than workshops, and his hyperactive editorial pencil—which, depending on your point of view, either butchered or rescued much of Raymond Carver’s fiction. By 1983, Lish was riding high as an editor at Knopf, but through most of the seventies he’d been the fiction editor of Esquire, where he had almost single-handedly engineered a sea change in the style and substance of American short fiction, publishing the work of such minimalists as Carver, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, and Amy Hempel. Lish also convinced Truman Capote to publish the first two installments in his long bruited-about novel-in-progress, Answered Prayers. Capote had bragged that it would be his American answer to Proust, and the first of the chapters to appear, in June 1975, “Mojave,” received rapturous praise. Buoyed by this response, he gave Esquire another chapter to publish later that year, the incendiary and staggeringly impolitic “La Cote Basque, 1965,” which spilled a dump truck’s worth of dirt on his high-society friends and exiled him from the fancy circles and acquaintances he had so assiduously cultivated. Its publication sent Capote’s career into a terminal tailspin, perhaps the most disastrous miscalculation by a major writer in our literary history. Lish, too, has his Mephistophelian side. Read More »

Max Blecher’s Adventures

March 9, 2015 | by

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Max Blecher

Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, newly reissued, is not a memoir, a novel, or a poem, though it has been called all those names, and compared rightly with the works of Proust and Kafka. Blecher belongs in that company for the density and lyrical force of his writing, but he is also a recording diagnostician of a type the twentieth century had not yet fully birthed, but the twenty-first is honoring in the highest degree.

This is a book that soothes without sentimentality. Blecher chronicled his dying from both the interior of his body and the outside of nonexistence. He made that veil permeable: his words are vehicles traveling through the opaque membrane that surrounds the seemingly solid world. These are the “adventures” of the inside and the outside exchanging places, while being somehow exactly the same in the light of Blecher’s extraordinary sensibility. Nobody knows how to die. Max Blecher, because he was young and a genius, suggests a way that investigates, rediscovers life, and radiates beauty from suffering.

“Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul.” Read More »

Divine Ordure

February 5, 2015 | by

A master class in hailing Satan.

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An illustration by Félicien Rops for a bootleg edition of Là-Bas.

“The odor from those incense burners is unbearable … What do they burn that smells like that?”

“Asphalt from the street, leaves of henbane, datura, dried nightshade, and myrrh. These are perfumes delightful to Satan, our master.”

When J. K. Huysmans published Là-Bas (Down There) in 1891, it caused an immediate scandal in France. Huysmans serialized the novel in L’Écho de Paris, a newspaper; readers wrote in early and often to express their revulsion, threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the serialization was not halted posthaste. Not long afterward, when the book itself came out, it was banned from sale at railway kiosks, thus ensuring that it loomed all the larger in the public imagination. Controversy followed the book abroad, too—no one bothered to attempt an English translation for more than thirty years, and even then, the U.S. Society for the Suppression of Vice ruled that it was simply too immoral to see the light of day.

The outrage stemmed from the book’s frank depiction of Satanism—it culminates in a Black Mass, vividly described. Its protagonist, a novelist named Durtal, has pursued his interest in the occult to its logical conclusion, and he’s startled to learn that a thriving underworld persists in contemporary Paris. Huysmans conducted extensive research for the novel, basically embedding himself among a group of Satanists; he was disenchanted with ordinary life, and he wanted literature to present a thrilling alternative to quotidian reality. But he went too far. He grew so distressed by the darkness and evil in Là-Bas—and, perhaps, in his own soul; the novel’s subtitle is “A Journey into the Self”—that he came to regard it as a black book; he wrote a white book, En Route, to cancel its negative energy. (It’s sort of the same way that Prince, a century later, recorded Lovesexy to exorcize the demons of The Black Album.) Later in life, Huysmans converted to Catholicism. Read More »

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The First American Novel

January 21, 2015 | by

The Power of Sympathy turns 226.

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The first-edition title page of The Power of Sympathy.

William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature was published 226 years ago today, in 1789. It’s generally considered the first American novel, though you won’t find it on many (any?) short lists for the Great American Novel. To speak with the kind of prudence it so sternly advocates: the passing centuries have hidden its charms.

An epistolary novel in the style of Samuel Richardson’s PamelaThe Power of Sympathy tells the story of Thomas Harrington, a New Englander who has fallen, against his father’s wishes, for a woman named Harriot. He dearly yearns for Harriot as his mistress: “Shall we not,” he asks her, “obey the dictates of nature, rather than confine ourselves to the forced, unnatural rules of—and—and shall the halcyon days of youth slip through our fingers unenjoyed?” (Actually, Harrington says all of this with “the language of the eyes.” Early Americans excelled, you see, at conducting complicated conversations using only their peepers.) Read More »

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The Death Instinct

December 12, 2014 | by

The autobiography of one of France’s most notorious criminals.

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Mesrine’s mugshot, 1973.

On the morning of November 2, 1979, a gold BMW pulled up behind a blue truck stopped at a stoplight in Porte de Clignancourt, in northern Paris. After a moment, a tarp covering the back of the truck opened to reveal four men with rifles. They opened fire in unison, blasting holes into the windshield. The man driving the BMW was hit fifteen times; the woman in the passenger seat was blinded and crippled by the attack. Her pet poodle died, too. And that was the end of Jacques Mesrine, France’s public enemy number one.

For nearly twenty years, Mesrine had humiliated the country’s judicial system with repeated high-profile bank robberies, murders, and daring prison escapes. But now the police had caught up to him. His bloodied corpse laid limp in his car, left out for the paparazzi. One of the officers tossed Mesrine’s wig, riddled with bullets, onto the car hood like roadkill into a dumpster. That last detail comes from one of the many YouTube videos you can watch of the shooting’s aftermath, waiting to be compared with Jean-François Richet’s 2008 two-part film Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, both starring Vincent Cassel. And through the bullet holes of mythology, you can see in this tableau a bit of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and a little bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo dying on the pavement, calling Jean Seberg a bitch.

This was a fitting death—and has been a fitting afterlife—for Mesrine. He was France’s most famous criminal not only because of his crimes but for the way he hot-wired the machinery of fame. While he was on the most-wanted list, he gave interviews and was photographed for the cover of Paris Match. Two years before his assassination, Mesrine wrote his autobiography, The Death Instinct, while incarcerated in the inescapable La Santé Prison, from which he later escaped. It was 1977, a bleak time for culture and politics: in England, it was “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten whinnying “no future” into recorded oblivion; in Germany, it was the Red Army Faction, their crimes, and their deaths in Stammheim Prison. For many in France, a few decades out of existentialism, the late seventies were a time of startling political conservatism, a time when the hopes of ’68 were being actively erased. It was this regime of erasure that Mesrine fought against, and that killed him two years later. Read More »

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