Wednesday, June 28, 2017

a bower about a dozen yards off

Wondering if this dependable house phenomenon in British literature, after thriving quietly for many years in the service of other things, was seized, expanded, and decorated by Dickens, for Mr Wemmick in particular, but for others as well, e.g., Marley becoming a doorknob, Krook characterising the front of his shop with bottles, Dick Swiveller referring to "his single chamber" in the plural "as his rooms, his lodgings, or his chambers, conveying to his hearers a notion of indefinite space, and leaving their imaginations to wander through long suites of lofty halls, at pleasure."

Jaggers is so secure in his personal cunning and viability that he never locks his house; he never needs to, for no one will rob him. “You know where I live; now, no bolt is ever drawn there; why don’t you do a stroke of business with me? Come; can’t I tempt you?” he says to the best burglars, according to Mr Wemmick. Wemmick, meanwhile, has his moat, his drawbridge, his happy pantomime of security and wealth. Jaggers, as mentioned, is his own security. His protection does not need a look. They both derive pleasure from their different securities. Each one is integral to the state of his own house. The house is about well-being. Wemmick talks about himself being fantastically "besieged" in the future and holding out with his cucumber frame.

Then, he conducted me to a bower about a dozen yards off, but which was approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quite a long time to get at.

The device of the secure house might lead (if you could trace it) to the hidden house, Badger's den in Willows, 1908 - this personal ownership of the mysterious grotto, hideaway, or prison cell, of a Gothic novel, the ruins of a Roman settlement holding up his ceilings, too, ruins domesticated – and it also might lead to the sight of the Twins on their tree, spotted but invulnerable in Titus Groan, 1946. And did the commercial wealth of the Victorians contribute to it; the Great House, the Secret Garden?

(Is the dependable fictional house more particular to this nationality than to others? I am not going to hazard a guess, though now there's Beowulf, their ancient chronicle, the story of a double home invasion, or one home invasion answered with another – the action taking place in Denmark, although the manuscript we have was made elsewhere, English, indoors; and Beowulf himself was no doubt a direct inspiration for Aunty Jack centuries later threatening to Come Round To Your House And Rip Your Bloody Arms Off if you didn't tune in to the show again next week. Observe, if you will, this merging of the hero Beowulf and the villain, Grendel's Mother, standing, in the persona of Aunty Jack, upon a rock, her hand in a boxing glove, grunting at you; how well you can imagine her seizing a foe and wrestling in the dark hall of Hrothgar, or living in a swamp, being of massive nature as she evidently is. That old hall, maybe, developing, coming within the reach of more people, not strictly kings and thanes; Wemmick inhabiting his Heorot.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

he did you

As I was about three-quarters of the way through the end of Anna Moschovakis' 2011 book of poetry, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, I thought of Charlotte Dacre again, remembering that the sources for various bits of her story would only occur to me after I had read a little way into them; so that I might go a whole page into the episode between Victoria's brother and the wife of his friend before I realised I was reading the tale of Joseph and the Potiphar household. Her contemporaries must have felt that pair of stories existing at the same time too; this sense of seeing two things at once, one of them familiar, the other one new but somehow already visible to the end. And the comparisons between Milton's Satan and Dacre's Zofloya were not made immediately. Eventually they were strong and you were convinced. These inspirations were abducted into the book and now they served its purposes even though they stayed unsubmerged. According to the plot, this Joseph-brother needs to be traumatised and thrown out by the friend so that he can flee to the Alps and become the banditti leader whose face is forever masked. Then his sister will not recognise him when Zofloya flies her there magically to escape the servants who have found her husband's poisoned body inside a trunk and the husband's friend Henriquez's sword-transfixed corpse on the floor of his bedroom in a welter of blood while the scandalously young orphan fiancé is first chained up in a cave with a leopard skin and then thrown into an abyss ("because he loved me more than he did you!" she points out to Victoria). And there is the story that will do the work for you, Joseph and Potiphar. It is Biblical but your book is good, fine, it has a moral, it fits.

Then here was Moschovakis, forthrightly telling you that she was about to refer to a chatbot named Anna, and then referring to it, discussing it, describing its conversations with lists, writing letters to it, putting its words into her poems, borrowing its identity, playing with it, etc, without any pretense of unconsciousness toward the source; also without the assumption that you would know that source automatically, as Dacre might have assumed that everyone knew Milton well enough to make the illustration of explicit directive arrows drawn in his direction seem unnecessary or redundant. When Proust writes about the milk boiling over during a metaphorical passage in The Guermantes Way then the description is so long and detailed (I am checking this in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin version, which is all I have on me at the moment) that I think he is writing about something that happened to him recently, possibly even on the day when the passage was written. It is like a diary entry, though he abstracts it away from himself by framing it as if it is a situation that happens to us all, and can be therefore used as a fruitful example of a common problem. It is only his description that makes it familiar, though. It was unfamiliar before he began. To return to Zofloya, the book's modern editor Kim Ian Michiasiw ends his introduction by pointing out that the name itself – "Zofloya" - has no precedent that his research could discover, that it had never existed before, no possible inspiration had been uncovered, and nobody knows why Dacre thought of it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

a self-formed bower

Zofloya, like – all, I think: all? – the other British books I've read from the same period, regards each house as if it is a solidly established and perpetual fact of life no matter what role it plays in the story. It might function as a prison, a nice home, a place of refuge, whatever; but there they are, these immobile and effective containment objects with the human pellets flying to or from their confines. The house is empirical yet unconscious and the pellets struggle with their own agency. Richardson's Clarissa is the story of people changing houses. Charlotte Dacre's Victoria, escaping from an emprisoning house, seeks a city. Being "firm-minded" she is able to spend one night in the woods when she finds a room-substitute, "a self-formed bower," growing from a wall-substitute, a hedge. I notice this because the Oliver house in Hamsun's Pump is affected by whims. There is the question of whether it might be taken away from the family at any moment if Lawyer Fredriksen feels like it. Oliver is inspired to blackmail the lawyer, which makes him feel pleased. He has found a practical use for his own cuckolding; it is smart. Any small opportunity to exercise his independence can bolster him. The smallness or perverseness of the opportunity is discovered by Hamsun here as elsewhere; it takes almost nothing to make someone proud or angry, nothing; the forces in the spiritual, emotional, or invisible world and the physical world do not match in his book; and they cannot measure one another. 

This is an idea the author tests again and again throughout his oeuvre: yes, it's true here, yes it's true there as well, and now it's true again: it's outrageous, Hamsun never gets over it – look at this, he says, peeking at you to see if you get it. (I mean that he will tell you about Oliver's triumph as if with a straight face, while you think … yes: as Hamsun must know you do … but you won't catch me saying so, he tells you by implication, sharing the same kind of stupid cunning as his characters -- their pointless evasiveness …)

He wrote endlessly about smallness; he enlarged himself on smallness. Hunger is literally nothing. 

Nowhere do you see the house-uncertainty better than in two of the doors, which are only in Oliver's possession because he is relying on the real door-owner to feel too ashamed to demand his property back from a one-legged man. Oliver sells the doors to someone else; he's called out, he gets them back; he sulks over them; these doors keep flying in and out of the structure.

If you have plans to change yourself, as Fredriksen does, then someone else viewing it from their own angle will observe an opportunity for their cunning. That is what your plans look like to them. (In this respect, a Norwegian Balzacian.)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

help us to take off

There's one minor character in The Women at the Pump who is like someone from the early Hamsun books coming into this one; he is poor, he has set himself a task that compels him to suffer, and he will not do anything to accomplish it. "He never comes home, no he's a real oddity; he's taken it into his head that he won't come home until he's made a lot of money and can built onto the house and help us to take off," says his father. The son has never made money. He travels on foot around the countryside and plays the mouth organ for his own enjoyment, something he was good at as a child. His parents want to see him again but "he wouldn't come home until he'd become a capitalist." Of course he will never become a capitalist. Oliver, the book's lead character, tries not to become a capitalist by refusing to sell the fish he catches but he cracks eventually. It is from enjoyment that he fishes, though, he says: he does not need to fish. Meanwhile his mother is doing everything she can think of to save the household from starvation. But he does not need to fish; he does not want people to think that he does anything because he has to. And this other son, the harmonica musician, he has stated a need for himself and does not do it; he states that it must be done so that it will not be done; and he has created the thing that he has to do so that he can refuse to make it real. And so reality can be kept out; he is protecting everyone, let's say, from one version of unhappiness.

Charlotte Dacre, in Zofloya, or, the Moor, 1790, says that Victoria has fallen in love – in lust; she seduces him - with her husband's brother Henriquez, but as the Oxford University Press editor Kim Ian Michasiw points out in his introduction to the 1997 republication of the book (and this is true, easily observable, blatant, and strange), the physicality of Henriquez is not described from her perspective nearly as often as that of his servant, Zofloya, who is "of superior height," handsome, "elegant," "graceful," "noble and majestic," well-dressed, and compelling. Victoria's mental reaction to him is detailed more extensively than her thoughts about Henriquez: "Scarcely had her head reclined upon the pillow, ere the image of Zofloya swam in her sight; she slumbered, and he haunted her dreams; sometimes she wandered with him over beds of flowers, sometimes over craggy rocks, sometimes in the fields of brightest verdure, sometimes over burning sands, tottering on the brink of some huge precipice, while angry waters waved in the abyss below."

The Henriquez thoughts are sketches compared to this: "he employed her fancy by night; his form presented itself if she awoke," but there're no paragraphs of specific wandering over beds of flowers, craggy rocks, etc; nor does he have "eyes, brilliant and large" that "sparkled with inexpressible fire."

At some point it strikes even the least subtle reader that Zafloya is starting to remind them of Satan in Paradise Lost.

The love for Henriquez is something that is not happening even while someone is saying to you, "It is real, it is happening," still, your senses (as a reader, your other-than-literal understandings) tell you that it is not occurring, it will not occur, it is not really there – I found this an unsettling position.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


The man at the helm in Knut Hamsun's Women at the Pump, 1920, tr. Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass, is like and unlike the much earlier men in Hunger, 1890, Pan, 1894, etc, the solitary figure who dedicates himself to stubbornness so publicly that he becomes a mystery to all the other characters. This man's covert fantasy is to be the only person in the world who can act. Everyone else should be capable of nothing but reactions. He can't manage the universal equilibrium, though; he jumps in the sea. On the day that one of my work colleagues graduated university two weeks ago his flatmate slit his wrists and walked around the house for a period of time sprinkling blood over the walls and floor in every room – his girlfriend had left him – spraying everything so thoroughly that my colleague and the flatmate's mother spent the rest of the week struggling to clean the carpet. M. saw the colleague yesterday, still wiping down the railings on the patio where the flatmate was found by the police, alive and sitting in a chair. He was discharged from the hospital within hours. As far as I know he has never helped with the cleaning. Anyway, the man in Women at the Pump is more settled than his counterparts in the earlier books, enjoying a wife, a house, jobs, children, and a recognised role in the town. He is relatively satisfied with himself when you compare him to the others. After the third child is born with blue eyes he begins to stalk his wife because he's afraid she is having an affair but then he stops worrying and doesn't stalk her. They produce more children. There is a rumour that he has fathered the illegitimate son of an elderly servant and this pleases him more than anything else.

Near the end of the book you discover that his genitals fell victim to a shipboard accident when he was a teenager so none of his wife's children could have been the result of married intercourse anyway. When this fact appears in the book it is almost as if the recalcitrance of the earlier characters has been given a shape, a point, or even an answer, as though the author is saying, after years of mystification, that things deserve to happen for prosaic and sensible reasons after all, but when you look again then the mystery of the man whose knowledge is produced by his own performance of that knowledge is still there. "One is saddled with the world one creates, as all creators are," says the author. When the man declines to repeat his jealous stalking while his wife is obviously having sex with the powerful lawyer Fredericksen then you see how skillfully he has learned to play his own trick against himself for his own benefit. Now I might think of Stevie Smith in the poem Egocentric, 1966, ending a line with the word "baboon" when all she had to do was to find a rhyme for "Star."

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

prams are pushed along

Wingfield’s innate and unconscious faith in authority and ennoblement is strangest in Beat Drum, Beat Heart, 1946, a book-length poem that spends its first half discussing the suffering of British men during and after World War I without ever suggesting that anyone was responsible for the war or that the soldiers might be annoyed at them. Instead a first-person man-voice wishes that some inhuman power would “Find me a cause | Or a catastrophe” to rouse him out of his postwar ennui, even if it kills him. Alex Davis in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, 2003 says that Drum “counterpoints male brutality with an exploration of the ferocity that subtends female desire” but the distance between a man on a battlefield getting a bullet in the head and a woman trying to pin down her soulmate is so wide that it’s hard to take the counterpoint as seriously as the poet wants; the man-violence and the woman-violence are operating in different worlds, though Wingfield tries to bring them together by giving the woman-half of the poem language like this:

Each fibre through my frame is used, with enough
Force and guile to split apart an empire,
Or exhaust the world with strategies.

There is no corresponding reaching-out in the language of the man-part, which mirrors, apparently unintentionally, the motion that Wingfield depicts in men and women: the women grasping for the men and the men grasping for something intangible. The language around women in the man-half of Drum is casually scornful: “And tramps unwrap things from a newspaper | And women mince, and prams are pushed along”, “But now, as salesmen moving through half-lights | We might be women traipsing | The rainy suburbs, on uneven heels, | In ugliness, unkindness and in waste”. But Wingfield believes that the right man will bring a woman to a mystic point of cohesion and this will perform the same service for her as “a cause or a catastrophe” would for him.

Opening Practicalities: Marguerite Duras speaks to Jérôme Beaujour, 1987, tr. Barbara Bray, just now I found myself reading similar ideas coming out of a different writer. It would be interesting to run Wingfield’s poem through the beliefs that Duras outlines in this chapter called Men.

About writing, Duras says:

The image of a black box in the middle of the world isn't far out.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Another List

Sheila Wingfield: Collected Poems 1938 – 1983, 1983
Kathleen Raine’s poem Night Thought, from The Hollow Hill, 1964
C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950
Enid Blyton, Hollow Tree House, 1945
Arthur Machen, The White People, 1904
Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye, 1928

(N.b. an inclusion in the list should not be read as an endorsement of the book. I decided to add this caveat when I was thinking of putting John Masefield in there.)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

work on the drying ground

The most atypical poem in Wingfield's Selected Poems 1938 – 1983 is possibly this one, When Moore Field Was All Grazed:
When Moore field was all grazed
And Finnesburie ploughed
People were fiery, clever, glum or crazed;
Hard knuckled; and proud
Liars; and well-phrased.
The other poems in the book prefer to resolve their evocations with an aphorism, a lesson, or a short passage of reflection, but Moore Field feels no need. Not Forgetting Aeneas Sylvius, for example, ends by calling everything that has happened so far
… a reminder
Of how short is triumph,
How it never condescends.
And in The Heart That Leapt the poet finishes her description of the leaping heart by calling it a
Shame that it should
Be stilled from beating in eternity
While the narrator in Waking concludes her thoughts about Lazarus by deciding
I must, like him, with all force possible
Try out my tongue again.
Heart was published in 1938 and Waking in 1977, Moore Field between them in 1964; there is not a period when she systematically abandons or changes her habits in the direction that Moore Field suggests. Developments in poetry elsewhere don't seem to have affected her, a point that G.S. Fraser discusses in the introduction, saying that she was "quite outside the literary world." Ann Roper reviewing Penny Perrick's 2007 biography of Wingfield in The Independent, wrote: "succumbing to fear was largely the reason for her obscurity as a writer … it was fear that isolated her, that kept her from entering the very literary world she craved."

She loved her father over her mother; the same father forbade her reading and prevented her from attending university. After that, every criticism seems to have made her retract.

Moore Field looks as if it was written during a spasm of agitation that, in the end, must have seemed complete in itself, without inspirational lines at the end to confirm that the poet was thoughtful. She would have looked back over the work "in tranquillity" before it was included in the short book that would later be incorporated into the Selected, and still she kept it. When I read the rest of the compendium it is not the evidence of the agitation that seems amazing but the imaginative picture of her making a decision that contradicts the ones she made for other poems.

Every time she approved of Moore Field she was a different person to the one who liked The Heart That Leapt. Now she is a little closer to the characters in Knut Hamsun, the ones who speak as if they need to keep their ideas oblique and cryptic as if under pressure from an invisible threat. "[I]ndeed, she repressed everything that didn’t accord with her strange, self-enclosed vision of the world," said another reviewer of the Perrick biography. "Unpleasant, self-serving, snobbish, cold, hypocritical, deceitful, appalling to her children ..."

But at the same time the Hamsun characters want you to acknowledge that these feelings are intense. They need other people to understand the subterranea of their thoughts without comprehending the thoughts themselves.

My feelings towards Moore Field are something like the ones I have toward this paragraph from Hamsun's Rosa, 1909, tr. Sverre Lyngstad

It rained for two days and two nights, the fish were stacked and covered with birch bark. There was no work on the drying ground at the moment and the weather was somber and unpleasant; but fields and meadows shot up, grew thick and swayed in the wind.

I find the recalcitrance in them both very satisfying.

(In Hamsun it is the refusal to let you say the weather is bad.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

where everything is silent

It's frustrating to read the Collected Poems 1938 – 1983 of Sheila Wingfield and see how often she stops (how she halts either the entire poem or else a gesture of thought) once she has mentioned one of the words that meant so much to her; kindness, gentleness, or something that stands for them, such as trees, flowers, birds, nature in general; or else she brings up nobility or honour, or things that embody them, eg, ancient kings, as if she either feels or hopes that these things are so valuable that she must sabotage her own thinking forward movement so that their profundity will not be superseded by further speculation. She is moved in Thou Shalt Not Carry a Fox's Tooth (from her last book, Cockatrice & Basilisk, 1983) when she looks at a water-wagtail on a rock in a stream and decides that "such entirety | Such lack of harm" may be "a hint | Of grace". This notion of "entirety" seems to be common to all of the things she prefers - an entirely peaceful scene, or the king as an ultimate figure - an invocation of some spot beyond which she cannot go. Probably she saw herself overwhelmed and compelled to stop when she reached these points, possibly she even wrote in order to stop writing. "We wish to explore the vast domain of goodness where everything is silent," Apollinaire, La Jolie Rousse, 1917, tr. John Berger.

Monday, April 10, 2017

people stream past it

Walking through the Getty Center last weekend I caught sight of a painting that I recognised without knowing how I recognised it or why, and as I was recognising it I had two impressions at the same time, one, that that it was important and intelligent, and, two, that it was mediocre or ordinary.

I knew why I thought (without seeing it clearly yet) that it was mediocre or ordinary, because it was neither huge nor small, there was nothing in the picture that tried to impress you; the colours were low-key blues and browns and there was a lake in the middle; it looked like an ordinary landscape, not Dutch, but with a similar placidity. And it seemed especially flat because I had been looking at Rubens' green and red Entombment, c. 1612, which was at the opposite end of the same room.

Then, although I was not seeing any more details, I realised that it was one of the two paintings I had been reading about only a few weeks before in T.J. Clark's 2006 book The Sight of Death: an Experiment in Art Writing.

The idea that this was the same painting I had been reading about did not interest me very much. I could remember some of the things Clark had said about it but they did not change, I thought, my way of looking at the work now; and primarily I remembered how irritated I was at the end of the last chapter when he waited in the last rooms of the National Gallery recording cutting thoughts about visitors who were ignoring the other painting he describes in the book, Poussin's Landscape With a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648. "[F]or several hours during the day thirty-plus people stream past it, one or two of whom give it a passing glance."

Too often at the end of gallery visits I have used up almost all of my time on other work and the terminal rooms have to be sprinted through against my desires. At the end of that visit to the Getty I wanted to stay longer with Lorenzo Lotto's The Madonna and Child With Two Donors, c. 1525-30, and also Jacopo Bassano's Portrait of a Bearded Man, c. 1550, which has an enigmatic grey shape ballooning in from the left side of the canvas. To the artist this must have been the shadow of the man's head but there is no pictorial evidence that the greenish background is actually a surface that would enable a shadow to exist and instead it looks as if someone has laid in the canvas flat on the ground and dropped a cup of grease on it. The man is looking away. Another painting in a different Getty building shows you a group of clean middle-class people gathered in a public place to enjoy the sight of a multi-coloured featureless biped performing an unidentifiable action on the paving in front of them. The label identifies it as a puppet but it might as well be a monster and I picture it as one.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

a purely bi-dimensional figure in outline upon the surface of my mind

Going back repeatedly over several days to Czurda's Almost 1 Book | Almost 1 Life I decide that what I like about it are the lines that feel like non sequiturs whenever I come across them, these cousins to the "rare, almost archaic phrases" that Proust's narrator discovers in Bergotte and which have no real force out of context: "mistresses are normal in aristocratic circles she thought and handed him his fur hat" (Mutilation With Intent). It's because of Proust that I think of them as long excerpts even though they are almost always short, or shortish anyway: but I still have that impression; he says:

I now no longer had the impression of being confronted by a particular passage in one of Bergotte’s works, which traced a purely bi-dimensional figure in outline upon the surface of my mind, but rather of the ‘ideal passage’ of Bergotte, common to every one of his books, and to which all the earlier, similar passages, now becoming merged in it, had added a kind of density and volume, by which my own understanding seemed to be enlarged.

The surprise is similar each time; therefore I can open the book anywhere, and have the pleasure that you might have in a nice dream: look, you say; we're flying again, we are aware of our situation. Books that can be sampled anywhere have to be developed by the reader who adjusts themselves internally and unconsciously as Proust's narrator does until they have their conception of the object in a state that can be regarded in the way that a petroglyph artist so many centuries ago must have regarded (judging from the way they treated it) a rock, the figures positioned without regard for the edges of the space, and no apparent idea that in centuries to come the idea of compositional framing would come to seem necessary. So, similarly the book, once you have developed it properly, has no shape or beginning, middle, end, no form like that: you have reformed it to a prehistoric ideal.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

then to another again

Reading Swann in Love again in the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation and arriving at the line about Swann's jealousy resembling an octopus "which throws out a first, then a second, and finally a third tentacle, fasten[ing] itself irremovably first to that moment, five o’clock in the afternoon, then to another, then to another again" I'm struck by the stated absence of unification between the person and the memory (since the octopus that touches something could easily have been an amoeba that absorbs it, but no: an octopus retains its separateness from a thing it holds) , thinking that memory and human being in this book are like a pair of lovers under the same author, meaning they exist at a distance and cannot approach one another without some kind of mistake, trick, accident, or bit of good or bad luck. (Here it is Odette writing a letter to Forcheville). The conceptual movements of lovers and memories are governed by an unplanned set of rules. They cannot be consciously tricked. And the same frustration sits behind Proust's recollection of both phenomena: the lover or memorist has no control; they grope, they are gripless.

Friday, March 17, 2017

a pine smell

The curtness of Elfriede Czurda in Rosmarie Waldrop's 2012 translation, Almost 1 Book | Almost 1 Life (a combination of two books originally published in '78 and '81), is something like Beckett's mutter in How It Is, which is a tone of resistant exhaustion (if that's a reasonable interpretation) that seems to wear down the speaker after even the shortest utterance; then the strength or insensitivity is regained for a moment, the next few sentences uttered, then the gap again with an implied rebuilding below as the speaker hardens themselves or takes another breath towards perishing. Czurda is not – now that I think about it I am not considering very much of Czurda here, mainly pieces like Paranoia I: the rearrangement of words in that style, whereas elsewhere it is more Stein, not rationed.

But the speaker in Paranoia I has a constellation of fairytale things: a virgin, some wolves, and a monk's robe; appearing in different configurations. And all through the book there is a love of storytime adventure details: the journey through a jungle in all that matters is the road, the vision of the grandfather galloping across the steppe on a gelding, the desire for some sort of joy, fun, or figuration, the speaker not really despairing, or at least they are rescuing or distracting themselves.

claudius takes the rifle's pine smell and hands it to the virgin paranoia is contagious even a pine smell could have contacted it and rushed to the pater and borrowed his robe the robe would have hidden it since the hole had been mended

Meanwhile Vernon Watkins was not as much like Edward Thomas as I thought he'd be: more rapt in glory effects, more in love with heavenly endings, messages of hope, etc; softer, as if the lure of that romantic distraction or variety is too much for both of them, and it coaxes them off into metaphor, Czurda corkscrewing inwards with it, Watkins working to stream out (I like Czurda very much, I want to add --).

Friday, March 10, 2017

à conto

Seeing Arno Schmidt referred to as "the German Joyce" (a phrase everywhere) makes me think of the essential difference between Joyce's creation of Bloom or of anyone in Finnegans Wake, and Schmidt's attitude towards Kolderup, which is so detectably mindful and anxious as he places the importance of the character above that of the atmosphere – this character needing to have their completion as if they were a person who could deserve things. And the wordplay that Schmidt establishes refers back not so often to the deep history or myths that Joyce implicates in all human civilisation but to the desires of the characters, their bodies, or their behaviour, beholden to disgust, or lust, irritation, manners, itching, dripping, etc; Butt telling Kolderup that he is "smiling supersilliously" in Act Five, Scene Four, or a man getting "invulvd with all the duennas who run into=him, à conto his >well-larded doubull pouch" in Act Three, Scene Two. This is not to say that Joyce doesn't implicate bodies in his work, but Schmidt (and I may be wrong) seems to dwell more quick gratifications or itches than on settled habits of bodily preference such as kidneys for breakfast. The way he writes must be helping me with that impression: it's not relaxed. The bifurcating and reassembling of the words is being done to increase the amount of flesh in the book and make it superhumanly ridiculous. Joyce's bodies stay closer to the humanly ridiculous and don't go this far beyond it into the monstrous, smelly abundance of Atheists (Schmidt stresses smell a number of times …).

Friday, March 3, 2017

= Comedy

Trying to parse the difference, in my own mind, between the early (1949-64) short stories in Arno Schmidt's Collected Stories, 1996, and his longer School for Atheists: a Novella = Comedy in 6 Acts, 1972, I come back to the idea of sex: one-dimensionally randy in the Collected (the separate shorts tending to repeat the same Benny Hill barnyardery) but finding new permutations in the Atheists, this book much longer than anything in the Collected (three hundred pages in the 2001 Green Integer translation by John E. Woods), with a fair number of characters coming and going more or less rapidly so that a greater number of variations become possible even when the same act is being described.

This is accentuated by his new technique (practiced across the duration of Zettel's Traum, 1970) of dividing a page into columns with asides printed in one column and the ongoing story in the other (footnotes becoming sidenotes), which gives you the effect of a wider surface and more complications. The story seems more vivid simply because it is more changeable, the movement of the randiness and misogyny seem open to alterations (not shut down into pursuit, as it often is in the shorts) and there is a sense of pleasure that does not come from the sex itself (the descriptions are not pleasurable or erotic and the people in them are usually not having any fun that might be transmitted to you since the author frequently experiences body horror or Rabelaisian disgust) but from change.

There is also the Prospero figure of William Kolderup, towards whom the author feels a sentimental kindness that saves the character from the complete humiliation that the book hands out to other people. When I realised that the story was going to end with him then I anticipated the soothing descent (soft ramp into after-story oblivion) that would be there. I thought, "He doesn't have the heart to dump Kolderup."

Thursday, February 23, 2017

feel that

Butor's Letters from the Antipodes is a reaction to Australia but not a book about Australia; for though the material it draws on is factual documentation it is not a factual book. The complexity of the structure, its dependence on interruptions, somehow places the facts into the context of an impression, without the network of dependence that facts are supposed to have on one another.

Perhaps the sense of independence (of things happening on their own and being reported on) is essential to the impression that factual things are happening; that a piece of writing is factual. When, instead, you have the feelings of the author replacing the independence of natural logic, its networks being assumed into one central thing (that is somehow understood as if it were not natural, or it's natural but not nature …).

Pam Brown's article in the latest issue of Cordite ends by suggesting that Antipodes is a book for the internet age since "within the framework the reader is able to scroll or to browse fluidly and open the text up to a thematic encounter at any chosen point." I've been going back and forth over that idea ever since I read it, first disagreeing because the machinery you would have to learn before you could "browse fluidly" seems so perverse, and the author's presence, as I've said, is always with you, never invisible in the way that the intelligence of the internet seems invisible (Butor's invocation of Raymond Roussel is not appropriate only because they both visited the same continent).

But Butor's book is like the internet in that it does not mimic or complement any of its fragments: it is not sympathetic to Captain Cook's memoir, it does not mind that the Nude Girls ads in the Brisbane Courier-Mail were not written to be run together in one line; it does not care that the Jules Verne novel it borrows from, In Search of the Castaways, 1867-68, is supposed to be a tense adventure, it will arrest the action whenever it likes. Likewise the internet does not care if an article or story was written to reward sustained attention from the reader; it will exert a resistance to the structure of the individual objects; it will shatter and disturb them, it will subvert them with its sustained lack of care and attention, which is apparently eternal and bottomless, and will outlast whatever effort they can exert; it asserts itself as the dominant framework through which the world is anticipated.

You notice that though Butor described himself as an author who was addressing a subject (Australia) to French readers who were generally unfamiliar with it ("I feel that I'm a pioneer in French literature"), he does not try to make it clear and felt, whereas his Spirit of Mediterranean Places, 1986, describing countries they would already know, is clear and plainly written.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


If The Porthole is a mimicry of a collage, in that no source material has actually been cut apart, and Tristiano is a collage created out of (primarily) a single person's work in slightly different modes, then Michel Butor's Letters to the Antipodes, 1981, is closer to the process that creates the type of visual collage people are used to: multiple sources, disassembled, and placed back together in a new order; some things left out, others emphasised by their placement. There are strategies in Antipodes that don't have equivalents in the other Butor books that I've read, such as the word "red" inserted in the joins between segments, and the names of authors added to the ends of the excerpts sometimes ("VERNE," "COOK") and of course the entire text being printed in red ink; then the "ooo" at the bottoms of the pages; this constant reassertion of himself as a controlling force over a text that he has not, for the most part, written, (though letters from himself have been cut up for material too), these methods that resist his own disappearance or effacement.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

a poetic experiment made possible

Adriano Spatola was in Gruppo 63 with Nanni Balestrini, Umberto Eco, Amelia Rosselli - whose selected poetry in translation I read last year, Locomotrix, 2012 – and a list of other names. I wish I knew more about that movement.

Describing the Balstrini book at slightly greater length than I have so far:

In 1961 I created Tape Mark I, a poetic experiment made possible by using the combining processes of an IBM calculator (which was the name given to computers back then). A series of pieces of sentences were put together one after the other, until they formed a sequence of verses, following simple rules transformed into algorithms which guided the machine. The number of possible results was huge, and just a small number of variants were published in the Almanacco Bompiani 1962.

He was going to try the same process on a novel but the work of reshuffling the sentences for each copy would have been too onerous. "The printing technologies of the time did not permit the realisation of such a project." A single book was created in 1966 and named Tristiano, "An ironic homage to the archetype of the love story." That last line must have been the modern blurb-writer's inspiration for the sentence, "Inspired by the legend of Tristran and Isolde," which occurs close to the beginning of the first paragraph on the back cover of my 2014 translation as if Tristran and Isolde is a key selling point. The headline at the top of the paragraph reads, "A love story that tests the limits of literature". The love story element in Tristiano consists of two figures, both named C (most of the proper names in this book are C, including those of towns and cities, so that in some sentences C and C, who may be cheating on C with C, are travelling to C), but referred to generally as "he" and "she", hugging, arguing, driving together; and appearing in other sentences that indicate a partnering idea. "He massaged her shoulders and smiled at her," for example. But the constant insertion of further sentences that have nothing to do with them -

The right side looks like an undeveloped film or a specimen on a slide.
Creeping thyme Thymus serpyllum the horned poppy of the Alps Papaver alpinum var. achantopetela the bitter Nordic buttercup Ranunculus acer borealis there are still a few examples of Thalictrum alpinum the Atragene alpina var. sibirica in the Alps.

for instance, or

A very simple almost banal story that could be summarised in a few lines.

- which I understand as a sign that Balestrini collaged his own preparatory notes about the work into the work itself – these lines, appearing wherever the computer put them, kill the possibility of any forward momentum. This (did I say so before?) is something I find absolutely peaceful. No sentence can be understood or relied on as the consequence of any other sentence. Then there is a patch of calm around each one that seems unimpeachable - a sense of platonic equality - making Tristiano the most unnatural book that has ever been written.

Monday, January 30, 2017

human beings only take advantage

As I look at The Porthole again I believe that I could spend a long time going through the book page by page and listing all the variations that Spatola finds in this thwartation or resistance play. Why did Samuel Richardson write books that put him (not him but his written voice) in situations of apparent anxiety and why did he (his voice) exacerbate those situations instead of ending them? Asking, "Why did he create such a perfect character as Grandison?" might be something like the same question. You picture a man observing his voice as if he is watching a very exciting film. Spatola describes a war in which his character Guglielmo takes part on both sides at once (meaning that the name "Guglielmo" is partaking in contrary actions simultaneously in different places), torturing people, stealing horses, etc, baffling the normal expectation that an author who writes about conflict will ask you to sympathise more with one body of combatants than the other. This is a bit shocking: shouldn't he give you a position; shouldn't he find some noble rebels or reluctant army recruits or something to sympathise with? Removing a dead war-horse's shoes, the narrator 'I' also removes its "glasses, watch, ring, gold teeth, hair, and orthopedic limb." I think of Alice in Wonderland's argument for the dominance of algebraic principles in language. By insisting on the vigilant mediation of words, the Wonderland characters point towards a hypothesis of language that has been changed from a common property to a private one. As a Wonderland person you are not inevitably unhappy. You appear abrasive to others, but your privacy ensures your character. It is like having a house to live in. If Alice could handle language algebraically like the others then she would not have to worry so much about warping and stretching. She would be the manipulation of formula.

The inhabitants of Wonderland are living machines in costumes. (Is a living machine also a malfunctioning machine?) Reading the art historian T.J. Clark's 2006 book The Sight of Death I notice how often he refers to boundaries in his work; how he notes the overlapped straightnesses of the landscape in the two Poussin paintings and the outstretched arm of the fleeing individual in Landscape with Man Killed By a Snake, c. 1648. I am interested in his appreciation of the stillness this helps to create upon the canvas; and how his description of a real event, a trip to Michael Heizer's Double Negative earthwork, 1969-1970, is a lifeless sketch. The people in the car gave a "great shout" when the cutting finally comes into view, he says, a phrase so routine in British English that he can rely on it to represent nothing much. Returning to the boundaried world of the paintings he goes back into evocation again. Double Negative has not been an opportunity for thought. Eventually he comes to this idea about the intersection between the painter and the world: "The lake's level, or the balance of branches on a tree – human beings only take advantage of order already present. It is just that nature gives no such clear priority to such orders." It will be interesting to see if Heizer really goes through with the plan to shore up Double Negative with concrete.

Monday, January 23, 2017

flew forth two

When I said that The Porthole, 1964, reminded me of Tom Jones, 1749, what did I have in mind? A rough impression that the parts about the mother at the start of Spatola were similar in their approach to the reader to this passage from Jones:

First, from two lovely blue Eyes, whose bright Orbs flashed Lightning at their Discharge, flew forth two pointed Ogles. But happily for our Heroe, hit only a vast Piece of Beef which he was then conveying into his Plate, and harmless spent their Force.

Since Fielding is setting the audience up to anticipate a certain outcome and then thwarting it, as Spatola does; both also making their awareness of the thwart part of a game that carries on to the ends of the two books; the mood of teasing play being carried on throughout Jones, and the luring/thwarting pattern of the mother passages being mirrored later in Porthole – there's this in the Arianna chapter for example:

It was a small room, three quarters or more were taken up by her wardrobe, and the rest, by her childhood bed. A light rain fell in the twilight on the poorly-lit street. A warm, light rain fell on my street: I slowly moved closer to her. No one spoke.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the black princess jersey she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the flared satin dress she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the wavy blue wool dress with lateral draping she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the orange wool dress with kimono sleeves she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the military-style cloak fastened at the neck she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the lovely printed pastel-colored wool overcoat she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the short tulle and lace formal dress she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the double-bellied skirt with open panel she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the new fine tulle bridal gown she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the slender three quarter-sleeve, turtle-neck bodice she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the fluffy multi-layered skirt she wore.

(tr. Beppe Cavatorte and Polly Geller)

Etc, etc, for over a page, changing the spectacle of an imaginary person into the mechanical production of a real sentence; which I interpret as, at least partly, the author inviting you to see how his trick is done, or how his trick could have been done if he had chosen to be a realist. The expectation you might have formed after the first paragraph was not inevitably going to make the next part manifest itself as you anticipated; your expectation was not fate. (Samuel Richardson believes in fate and fears it, the agitation before the wedding in Grandison so incredibly roused by the thought that this upcoming event cannot be stopped.) You don't expect this much repetition either; it carries on past the point where the point has been made. It takes on, I think, a kind of abrasive mechanical autonomy. At the same time you know a human being is behind it. The human being is expressing freedom by appearing not completely reasonable and human. Clarissa and Tristano (and Grandison as well as Clarissa) are made of movements so small, it seems to me (and to Richardson, who said that he wanted to reduce his books by editing them but there was nothing inessential he could find; in spite of him they needed all their atomies) that they seem to bunch in on themselves, without moving out towards the reader, as Spatola and Fielding do, grabbing them, touching them, changing tone --  Richardson is contrastingly serious -- maybe culminated atomie is the least whimsical thing --.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

it can fight or ransack

The Porthole is against ideas of coherence and secret enormousness (Modernism and Bleak House – what did modernism mean in Italy?); it's a splitting-apart that works consistently throughout its length to maintain the split; the detail in the first paragraph preparing you to know this mother-character better – there must be a reason why she is being filled in with this remark about the pencil behind the ear – but then she is removed and there is nothing to connect her to except the word "mother" again, attached to something that is not her.

"Mother" is placed in impossibility, not by any quality of itself, but by the restrictions of bodies.

If the author writes "mother" again in a distant future chapter then what is he referring to?

He has addressed Guglielmo's mother so that the phrase "Guglielmo's mother" is not restricted to a phenomenon with recognisable habits such as tucking a pencil behind its ear; so, instead, it is attached to an absence or impossible overabundance of character, so impossible that it negates or even ignores its own constituent parts. I want to say that this makes her non-monolithic. In the Love Novel chapter Spatola might be arguing for the power of the anti-monolith and the paradox, but on the other hand he might be asking you to regard everything that is being said as "All the clichés of political debates," because he places that phrase roughly in the middle of the mass of points, some of which are repeated in ways that could make you interpret them as ridiculous things to say* though I prefer to read it as the author's own fidelity to his idea of vital paradox and certainty-repulsion. The point of the book is given priority over the points in the book, in my understanding. If the Porthole pointed to a larger form (a definite political statement, a set of well-drawn characters) then it would not be true to its own faith in paradox. Deducing that the author is thinking about this consciously as he writes and that the paradox is not the byproduct of a desire to write nonsensically.

You can imagine him adjusting his paradoxes to make them more paradoxical.

* e.g., making a point in a calm mode, "a society would not be capable to establish its economy on a large scale, by domesticating man, if it could not find weaker societies, which it can fight or ransack …" then again in a frantic tone: "Do we find weaker societies within reach? Do we destroy them?"

Thursday, January 5, 2017

the eye fixed on the fisherman

I failed to use excerpts from books as far apart in style and intent as Scott G.F. Bailey's murder mystery The Transcendental Detective, 2014 (which I could call "a page-turner" if I were writing blurbs, since I had a sincere desire to know who had murdered whom and why, and kept reading because of it), and the 1964 Italian book L'oblò or The Porthole by Adriano Spatola, (tr. Beppe Cavatorta and Polly Geller) "a singular novel that evades any kind of categorisation and remains even more important today for its remarkable achievement in that fertile period of Italian literature," according to the tripartite publisher. The same "fertile period" included Nanni Balestrini's Tristiano, 1966, another book I didn't quote. There are similarities between Balestrini's book and The Porthole but only superficial ones, I think, Spatola proceeding humanistically (you can imagine a person at a desk, planning striking contrasts), and Tristiano arranged by a machine (I believe you would know this even if they didn't tell you since there seems to be a willingness toward accidental repetition and no effort to create contrasts, the computer taking on the personality of chance. Compare this to the Porthole chapter called A Love Novel in which the questions deliberately escalate).

The mechanics of Balestrini's plan were so advanced that the book couldn't be published as he wanted it until 2014. Every copy is different. I read no. #11246.

My preference for Tristiano over Porthole resembles my preference I think for Clarissa over Tom Jones.

One of Porthole's techniques is to state an apparent fact the way that normal stories do and then write another fact cancelling it out, in a succeeding paragraph and in the same tone, without acknowledging the earlier assertion. The book opens directly into scene-setting with realismistic details, Guglielmo's mother "sitting on a chair, her right elbow propped up on the table (pencil in her hair)," tallying up the grocery bill, when "they" come through the door and kill her. "And he hadn't been born yet." Later, says the author, they killed his father. "But he hadn't been born yet." His mother is not human but a cow. She is a Samoyed or a Belgian sheepdog, she is an ant reformed as an earthworm; and her son is born in an attic, next to a freeway, on an island in the Dead Sea, and on the Adriatic Riviera. His father is a stable-keeper, his father is a demon, his father gave birth to him by laying an egg, his father is a truck moving at 100 miles per hour.

One consistent element is a hole that Guglielmo sees through: somehow throughout the book, no matter what he is doing, he (or something) is also in some sealed location looking through a hole. The sealed location seems degraded (this is not the metaphor of the lighthouse-human looking through the erected windows of the eye); his mother's anthill is mentioned; he is trapped inside a building, and his detached eye is brought up as well, wandering around.

In the river, the eye that the fisherman pulled to shore. The fixed eye that the fisherman pulled to shore. And when it was on the shore, the eye fixed on the fisherman and recognised him.

Spatola later suggested that the title-eye-hole-porthole "indicates a particular method of 'viewing' the world" which "passes before the writer much like it would in front of a camera," and the translator Beppe Cavatorta quotes this in order to make an argument about "the Spatolian eye [that] simultaneously records the things and actions of the world that surrounds it, as well as 'non-things, ' non-actions'."

But when I see that Spatola's method is explained with a reference to assemblage art while the author for the rest of his life (1941 – 1988) made concrete-collage poems that look like large single shapes then I say, "What if I thought of it as a stand-in for the eye of the single viewer ever-present throughout the viewing of a two-dimensional artwork, which, here, has to be placed inside the text, looking at it all at once, because no reader's eye is able to do what the eye of a viewer looking at a visual collage can do, which is to be all over the work with a single glance?"

Sunday, January 1, 2017

face out

Marble turned out to be a wonderful medium for rendering what all sculptors strive for: that is to make the piece seem carved from the inside rather than chiselled from the outside.

(Mark Cartwright, from the Greek Sculpture page at

Old symbols collapse,
forming black holes

A yard strung with plastic Jack-O-Lanterns,
some filled with poinsettias

Pictures of dolls
and of Hilary Clinton
taped face out
over the windows

(Rae Armantrout, Collapse, from The Pretext, 2001)