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Books

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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Lawn Fawn Moon Boon

November 19, 2014 | by

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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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