The Daily

Books

Bodies Moving Through Space

April 12, 2016 | by

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 »

Branded Man

March 23, 2016 | by

The long tradition of outlaw poets.

From the cover of Merle Haggard’s Branded Man, 1967.

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 »

Haunted Convict

February 25, 2016 | by

The rediscovered prison memoir of a nineteenth-century black man.

The inside cover and first page of Reed's manuscript. Photo: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, here.

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 »

Kicked Toward Saintliness

January 21, 2016 | by

On the dark erotics of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

From a German edition of 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 »

Black Ink

January 15, 2016 | by

Henry de Montherlant’s novels have fallen out of fashion, but at their best they’re perfect for our confused age.

Henry de Montherlant, c. 1953.

Henry de Montherlant began writing in earnest after he came home wounded from the Great War, a decorated veteran. France in the 1930s made him a literary star, awarding him the Grand Prix—yet he hated the Third Republic. Montherlant, a true misfit, had many such contrarian tendencies: though he was gay, he wrote caustic articles for right-wing magazines and loathed modernity. In print, he professed admiration for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, writing that France, with its “shopgirl’s morality,” deserved to lose the war. His book Le solstice de juin counseled “acceptance, then adherence” to German occupation and Vichy; after the war, it earned him a yearlong ban from publishing.

Even so, Montherlant was elected to the Académie française in 1960. His plays were staged, his novels published. In 1972, he swallowed cyanide and, to make sure, shot himself in the head. He has made the long slide from fame to infamy, but in his time he was tolerated and even praised, a guilty reminder that there were far more collaborators than Charles de Gaulle’s myth of noble France ever could admit. His literary biographer Lucille Becker writes, Read More »

The Countries We Think We See

January 8, 2016 | by

For Lesley Blanch, travel writing offered a chance to explore her preconceptions about a place as much as the place itself.

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Every travel writer is a character in her own narrative, no less a part of the story than the “foreigners” that story depicts. In my own travels, I’ve found that women in countries that discourage mixed-gender interactions often speak to me more openly about culturally illuminating subjects—sex, love, motherhood—than they might to a male writer. My femaleness, it seemed, wasn’t simply a question of perspective; it was a question of action.

When I raised this subject in a lecture last year, someone in the audience broke in with a question. Why did I feel the need to “insert” myself into my narratives at all? She brought up the travel writer Colin Thubron, whom she cited as the paradigmatic example of the quiet, objective observer. “He doesn’t insert himself into his writing at all!” she exclaimed. Read More »