Sunday, June 23, 2013

the worst author

So say there are accents of different kinds pushing the energy of a book in one direction or another direction; there is the author's personal accent, the accent of the tempo on the page, the accent of Johannes Bobrowski in Levin's Mill, the accent-adopting accent of Vivienne Cleven in Bitin' Back, the accent of Dostoevsky (I read The Idiot earlier this year), the accent of Tolstoy; and sometimes an article in a magazine will ask you to choose: are you a Dostoevsky person or a Tolstoy person, where do you migrate, which accent, which area of what probability, which field of exclusion, which coastline, which natural features, which diet, which culture's habits? Where will you live?

(I will not live anywhere. I think I will migrate like a bee.)

As I am reading I am trying mechanically to decipher a personality, not the author's; it is as though I am staring at a face, or in other words consulting a map covered with geographical representations, knowing that it is not the earth. In May Seraillon pointed me at Irene Iddesleigh by Amanda McKittrick Ros, "the worst author in the English language" -- is her reputation -- the Inklings used to read her and laugh -- what a picture, these dons laughing at that woman who had made her patchwork so seriously and faithfully, like someone patching a religion together out of bits and pieces they've discovered and treasured, having faith in those patches, as she evidently did, putting them next to one another humourlessly and continuing on through the strange juxtapositions as if those juxtapositions were not happening, and as if the familiarity of her materials had blinded her to the possibility that they might not fit together -- as if she might say, "I see them in the world together all the time, they are always suitable" -- this absolute faith that one popular object would go together with another popular object and the Faithless Mother storyline would adhere to the Bluebeard Husband storyline with a kind of magical popularity-glue.

Or think of Grimm's fairytales before they were polished and regulated, the strange twists, the remarks like cul de sacs, possibly responding to a desire or question from the oral-story audience in the originals, the odd remark hardening there like a cast around the shape of the question, Ros's brain travelling through the shapes of motifs she'd seen in the books she knew (she was not a broad reader, writes Seraillon) and Irene Iddesleigh hardening around them, the brain removing itself, the cast remaining.

"Outsider art," wrote Tom, and he is right, Ros takes her forms from the established world but the way she assembles and fills them is personal and not normal; it must respond to a personal fantasy. Ferdinand Cheval built his palace out of the rocks he took home from the roadways in his wheelbarrow, one rock started it, a rock with a strange shape like the bark of a fir tree, discovered by himself, then the palace developing over thirty-three years, a little Southeast Asian maybe, a sort of jungle vision in a French paddock. Henri Rousseau, who found himself entering a dream, he said, when he visited the hectares of botany in the Jardin des Plantes, responded to his fantasies by painting tropical landscapes; and the animals in them he never saw unless stuffed or caged, though in the paintings free.

He deserved to be a member of the Academy, he said, an ambition that seemed realistic to him; Ros wondered if she would win a Nobel prize but never did she win one.

Yet if they are both supreme manifestations of themselves (forcing this Themselves idea through into the solid world as Mervyn Peake's characters do without thinking, and Peake's characters are best at this when they are static or hardened, before they begin to change in Gormenghast, book two, when the idea of the ultimate concrete Self begins to withdraw from other people and make itself problematic in Titus) and if they have miraculously emerged from the detritus of the world shining their personal lights through a mass of stuffed animals, public gardens, forest photographs and other objects that have tried to mob them in the same way that these same objects have already mobbed others, and smothered others, and clung to them, shaping them, worrying them, but these two dove into the detritus of the world and dominated it baroquely into their own images until it lay demurely astonished by the transformation that violates the nice guidelines of taste, then what further prize could we give them I ask you, when they have already mistaken all the world for their own property?


  1. One prize awarded in this category that I love: Jacob Bronowski, in the final episode of his "The Ascent of Man," putting at the pinnacle of the ascent Simon Rodia, the builder of the Watts Towers.

    A really tremendous take on Amanda McKittrick Ros is provided in Elizabeth Taylor's novel Angel, an oblique portrait that is as deeply sympathetic as it is amusing and that leaves one with the irrefutable hard fact of this strange trajectory - or that of a character like Ros. I'm not aware of a better depiction, in fiction anyway, of this phenomenon of the outsider artist who assumes his or her work to be the optimal vision of the world.

    1. See, that's useful to know. How did Rodia explain his reasoning? And have you been able to find any of Ros' other books online? I've been searching but Iddesleigh seems to be the alpha and the omega.

    2. I had to go back to watch that brief episode, which doesn't quite fit the way I remembered it (and which is only the final episode of the first part of the series). Bronowski sees Rodia as evidence of the irrepressible desire to create and his towers as a kind of pure monument to the builder himself (as opposed to a king or god or hero as with other monuments). There's a nice line from Rodia himself: "You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered."

      I couldn't find anything other than Irene Iddesleigh online either, but my library had a copy of Delina Delaney and an excerpt from her unfinished novel, plus an Amanda Ros reader with a good number of selections from all of her novels and books of poetry.

    3. A Ros reader, by god, and Delina Delaney, and none of the libraries near me have even one of her books, not even the university library has her, and the first result I see when I try to search through their site is a set of statistics for a catalogue named Amanda Ross-Ho, about "Amanda Ross-Ho: teeny tiny woman" from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2012.

  2. "You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered."

    Cecil Gray wrote an essay about Pietro Raimondi, a nineteenth-century Italian composer who wrote three oratorios to be performed separately and then simultaneously and two operas, one tragic, one comic, to be performed together on the same stage [Contingencies and other essays. London: Oxford University Press, 1947].

    Gray reached a similar conclusion from Raimondi's example- if someone cannot be a great artist, they should try to be an extraordinary artist.

  3. He could probably have come to the same conclusion writing an essay about Liberace.