I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
Longtime readers of this blog will know that The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is one of my favorite books. While I think it stands as a very good book by nearly any standard, it has several qualities that appeal particularly to me. To boil these down, my affinity for the book is tied to the vast geography it covers, including many exotic locales and a few mundane. I also like the book as an example of Latin American magical realism that is stylistically different from Borges or Garcia Marquez, but to me just as satisfying.Mutis is still relatively unknown, and were it not for the NYRB's impressive packaging of Maqroll, really a collection of seven novellas, and Edith Grossman's typically readable translation, it's likely that Mutis would have almost no presence among English-language readers at all. Prior to the NYRB edition of Maqroll, a pair of earlier collections had been put out, one containing three of the novellas and another containing four (those editions were also translated by Grossman). Aside from that, Mutis had published some short stories and quite a lot of poetry, much of it featuring "Maqroll the Gaviero," who would star in Mutis' novels.As best as I've been able to tell, none of Mutis' poetry has been published in English-language editions, but in 2004, a small Canadian publisher Ekstasis Editions, put out a thin collection of some of Mutis' short fiction. Maqroll does not appear, but the book, The Mansion offers what felt to this reader, a batch of stories in which Mutis tries out the various writerly tools that he will wield to great effect in Maqroll.The first portion of The Mansion is a novella, The Mansion of Araucaima, which supposedly was Mutis' answer to the director Luis Bunuel who claimed that it wasn't possible to write a gothic story set in the tropics. The idea being, I suppose, that the lushness of the region is at odds with the castles and dark mood that is emblematic of the genre. (It should be noted that the Bunuel story may be apocryphal. I read about it a few years ago, but more recent Googling hasn't turned much up about it.)Regardless, Mutis' effort is fairly successful, and appropriately moody and dark. As he does in Maqroll, Mutis experiments with structure in The Mansion of Araucaima. He divides the story up into brief chapters, focusing on the different characters and on their dreams (the dreams presumably being a key gothic element) before, after much stage setting, he offers a chapter called "The Events," during which the novella's narrative commences.The remaining stories also play with structure. Frame stories abound (Maqroll, of course, is a frame story which contains other frame stories). The stories in The Mansion start with sentences like "The pages you are about to read belong to a bundle of manuscripts sold at a book auction in London a few years before the end of the Second World War." and "A few facts surrounding the death of Alar the Illyrian... came to the attention of the Church at the Council of Nicaea when it discussed the canonization of a group of a group of Christians who had been martyred at the hands of the Turks."While Mutis takes the reader, in this handful of stories, to many arcane places and dreams up snippets of immersive histories and mythologies, they also feel like explorations and fragments (one story is in fact subtitled "A Fragment"), as opposed to fully formed pieces. As such, it is impossible to recommend the book ahead of Maqroll, which makes, out of the threads that Mutis plays with in The Mansion, a deep and layered tapestry. Maqroll perhaps also benefits from Grossman's translation, which seems to disappear into the narrative, whereas Beatriz Hausner's translation of The Mansion is more workmanlike. For those who have already read Maqroll and have an interest in Mutis, The Mansion will be an instructive and brief diversion. In terms of pure reading pleasure, however, rereading Maqroll might be a better bet.
For over five hundred years, barring a few interruptions, Frankfurt has been a magnet, both commercial and cultural, attracting publishers and printers, scribblers and spies. From neighboring towns to neighboring lands, then later from all of Europe, and eventually from all corners of the globe, anyone with a vested interest in the printed word would make his way to Frankfurt.Gutenberg might have been there, back at the beginning, in 1454. Maybe. We're not entirely sure. But Peter Weidhaas makes a good case for it, illustrating the possibility with a short tale of a man of Gutenberg's demeanor walking through the narrow streets of Frankfurt as the book fair was taking its nascent steps.This little bit of speculation opens Weidhaas' recently-published A History of the Frankfurt Book Fair. No stranger to the fair, Weidhaas served as Director from 1975 through to the new millennium, and is uniquely positioned to offer colorful detail on the five hundred-year-old event. While at times there might just be too much detail (do we really need a half-page list, in the middle of the narrative, of publishers and printers attending the fair in the early 1500s?), there are still enough fascinating tidbits and tangents, woven together with what amounts to a quick history of printing and the printed word, to make this an engaging read.The fair rose and fell and then rose once more. Whether he attended or not, Gutenberg's presence was felt, as, in the 1400s, Frankfurt began to gain fame as a center of trade for the printed word. Printers came to the city in droves, not just in Frankfurt, but in its arch-rival Leipzig.We get a glimpse into the development of paper as a replacement for parchment, and the rise of the paper mill, allowing information to reach the masses (or at least the educated among them) instead of just the economic elite who could afford paper's pricey precursor. The demands of the book market were beginning to be met. By 1498 there were 118 publishers in Europe.Weidhaas gives us a taste of book culture at the time. The development of Humanism led to a revival of the classics. And there was a rise in popularity of travel-related publications. Let's linger on that for a moment. What we're actually talking about are accounts of voyages by Columbus and Vespucci to the New World and Marco Polo in China. Travel lit indeed!From Weidhaas's peek into the 1500s, we find out that books were shipped unbound, and would be bound upon arrival at the fair. Later, much later, books would be sent bound and so could be sold year round. Publishers would eventually not need the fair (as it was then) to sell books. But then, as now, it was the sale of books that drove the book fair.Some colorful asides from that era: Weidhaas gives us a scathing account by Erasmus of getting a room at a German inn, and Weidhaas also notes the popularity, in the mid-1500s, of prose versions of German epic ballads from the Middle Ages - many with such titillating and enticing titles as "Emperor Octavian, how he banished his wife and two sons to a life of misery; and how, amazingly, they were once again reunited in France with good King Dagobert." This verbosity was effectively an early form of sales advertising.While money was the driving force, Frankfurt was also becoming an intellectual hub of the time, despite not having its own university until 1914. Professors would meet each other at the fair; as would librarians, poets, archivists, mathematicians.Pamphlets of Martin Luther's writings were made readily available to the people of Frankfurt. And later, during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), we see mathematician Johannes Kepler flogging his books at the fair.Then there was a long, protracted fall. Between 1680 and 1690, nearly every publishing house in Frankfurt collapsed due to the indebtedness of publishers. As a result of this there was an anti-Semitic backlash, Jewish financiers becoming the scapegoats for the failure of the publishing houses, and regulations were imposed forbidding trading to Jews. In fact, it was the wars instigated by Louis XIV, and repercussions of the War of the Spanish Succession that crippled the economy.As well, the Reformation had moved the intellectual hub north, and the center of trade was shifting east, giving Leipzig an edge over Frankfurt. Bookshops in Frankfurt turned into bars.By the mid-1800s, even Leipzig was in decline. Book fairs - as they were envisioned then - had had their day, as the book trade was no longer dependent on fairs.The modern era of the Frankfurt Book Fair, after a few false starts, began in the late 1940s. The 1950 fair was a major success. It was both a cultural exchange and a trade show emphasizing merchandising and marketing. A literary peace prize had also been established - Albert Schweitzer won it that year - giving the fair an added PR boost.There was no shortage of intrigue in the post-war book fair. The Cold War and the building of the Berlin Wall led to the infiltration of West Germany (and the Frankfurt Book Fair) by East German spies! Beginning in 1967 and continuing into the 70s, undercover agents (using pseudonyms) from East German publishing houses were covertly checking out the activity at the fair, seeing which of their authors had books there.Weidhaas also flags some modern trends: the rise of paperbacks in the 60s to the more recent rise of the CD-ROM, the effects of the fatwa issued against Rushdie and the necessary security for publishers exhibiting his books at the fair, the banning (for two years anyway) of Iran from the fair, and the rise of inflated advances for big-name authors, at the expense of niche writers.A couple of caveats: When Weidhaas comes to the part of the fair's history that was under his watch, and needs to refer to himself, he does so in the third person, which I actually found curiously endearing.Also, some of those same chapters are loaded with a bit too much minutiae - details of who exhibited where, and lots of internal politics. Those bits strike me as being of interest to those who were in attendance, less compelling to a casual reader. But as the book is divided into short chapters, it's easy enough to skip over bits. It's guaranteed there will be a fascinating surprise around the next corner.
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Halfway through Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada, the young narrator, Dell, having been abandoned by his family, is spirited across the border between Montana and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in the back seat of a car driven by family friend Mildred Remlinger. The world Dell has known in Great Falls, Mont., is in ruins following the arrest of both of his parents in connection with a botched bank robbery, and the world he is about to enter is entirely unknown to him: Ahead, where the highway was only a pencil line into the distance, two dark low bumps became visible on the horizon, backed by blue sky in which there was not a floating cloud. I wouldn’t have seen the bumps if I hadn’t looked where Mildred was looking. It was Canada there. Indistinguishable. Same sky. Same daylight. Same air. But different. How was it possible I was going to it? The two dark low bumps cohere into huts for customs officials on this lonely border road, and once Dell passes them, the novel, which has been spinning its wheels for more than 200 pages, suddenly locks into gear and begins to cruise toward greatness. In part, this sense of velocity is literal: after weeks of hanging around waiting for his parents to commit the idiotic crime announced on the first page of the novel, Dell is finally on the move, in the back of a car driven by a near-stranger, observing the world not through the eyes of a bored and perplexed teenager, but through the eyes of a first-class novelist inhabiting the consciousness of a frightened 15-year-old boy. Buzzards hang “in the sky, curving and motionless.” The night air is “sweet as bread.” The land itself is not merely land, but in a marvelously unforced way, an indicator of the narrator’s sense of loss and lostness: Once we were out of the hills, there were no landmarks...There were even fewer trees. A single low white house with a windbreak and a barn and a tractor could be seen in the distance, then later another one. The course of the sun would be what told you where you were -- that and whatever you personally knew about: a road, a fence line, the regular direction the wind came from. Ford’s characters, too, which in the American portions of the novel, have been largely made up of loose collections of physical description and character tics, become stranger and far more interesting once we hit Canada. The first person Dell meets in Canada is the novel’s single great achievement: a gruff, unsavory Métis Indian named Charley Quarters, who lives alone in a filthy trailer and spends his days leading Americans on geese-hunting expeditions, but also wears lipstick and eye shadow and writes poetry. Charley Quarters is the real thing, the sort of character who could exist nowhere but in fiction, but who feels utterly alive and real on the page, and for 50 pages or so, this odd, misbegotten novel comes alive as Dell settles into his strange new world, living in a shack in the middle of ghost town in the process of being reclaimed by the surrounding prairie. And then -- splat -- the book dies again, never to show any more than the occasional sign of life for another hundred-odd frustrating pages. In truth, Canada is two novels, neither of which has much to do with the other, or, for that matter, with Dell, its ostensible narrator and central character. In the first novel, set in Montana in the summer of 1960, Dell’s parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, rob a bank in a manner so criminally inept and for reasons so lacking in basic common sense that Ford is forced to spend dozens of pages just making it sound like actual human beings might do such a thing. The second novel, set in the fictional town of Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, focuses on Arthur Remlinger, a mysterious American hotelier and one-time political hothead who is in hiding after committing a politically motivated crime in Detroit years before. Neither of these crimes, along with a double murder that, again, Ford announces on page one, make much sense, but from the reader’s point of view, the far larger problem is how little they touch on the life of the narrator. The bank robbery, which puts his parents in jail and causes his twin sister, Berner, to run away to her own, separate fate, radically alters the trajectory of Dell’s life, but up until then, it really has nothing to do with him. For 200 pages, Dell moons around Great Falls, friendless, reading obsessively about chess and beekeeping, while his idiot father loses job after job and gets on the wrong side of some no-good local Indians, leading him to conclude that his only hope is to pack his wife in the car and rob a bank in North Dakota without bothering to wear a mask or otherwise cover his tracks. Once in Canada, after a few chapters in which Dell finally seems to be participating in his own life, Ford loses interest in his fate and changes the subject to Arthur Remlinger’s crime, which has even less to do with Dell than the bank robbery. The reader is asked to wade through page after page of exposition about what Arthur did years ago and why he did it, largely delivered in summarized dialogue by Charley Quarters. Why is Charley telling young Dell all this? I couldn’t figure that one out, but by then, frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn. One comes away from Canada feeling as though a less gifted author was trying to write a knock-off of a Richard Ford novel, and has made a hash of it. All the classic Fordisms are there: the sensitive teen at the mercy of hopelessly bad parents, the lonesome Western landscapes, the borderline clichés dressed up as prairie wisdom, the sense that all is in elegy to a lost and fallen world. But unlike in Ford’s best work -- the first two Frank Bascombe novels, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, and the excellent story collection, Rock Springs -- where all this stuff works, in Canada, the old Ford magic comes off as half-baked and pretentious. Richard Ford has earned his place in the pantheon of late-20th-century American novelists, and 15 years ago, one could plausibly argue he was among the best Americans writing, but his later work -- that is, most of what he’s done since he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day in 1996 -- has seemed of a lesser quality. Now, this new book, Canada, exhibits a degree of badness that makes one wonder if the earlier stuff was really all that good. Wasn’t Frank Bascombe always a wee bit of a gasbag? Didn’t some of the stories in Rock Springs seem a little, well, contrived? If you have a soft spot in your heart for Frank Bascombe and the other hard-luck characters in Ford’s earlier fiction, you may well want to skip this trip across the border.
1. Lars Iyer's first three novels -- Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus -- formed a loose trilogy, although each stood on its own. The books concerned a years-long conversation between a fictional writer and lecturer in philosophy, Lars, and W., his friend, tormentor, and colleague. They longed for nothing more than a truly original thought, or at least for a guide: someone who might either help them to think or, failing that, someone who might at least let them watch while thinking occurred on the premises. Leaders came and went: Do you remember how he spoke?, [W.] says of our first leader. His seriousness? He wasn't swayed by us. Our idiocy was annulled. Just for a moment, we were quiet. Just for a moment, idiocy was interrupted and we were calmed. It was marvelous, W. said. In Iyer's new novel, Wittgenstein Jr., the cast is different -- the characters this time around are a class of Cambridge philosophy students, who mostly move in a first-person-plural herd, and their young professor, upon whom they bestow the nickname Wittgenstein on the first day of class -- but many of the concerns are the same. The longing for an original thought, for profundity, for intellectual flight. The tension between a) the aforementioned longing and b) a certain undergraduate tendency to fill the pages of the philosophy notebook with drawings of penises, which is to say the tension between whom you wish you were and whom you actually are. Thought as transcendence. The commercialization of higher education. The friction between the desire to think -- to really think -- and the baffled philosophy student’s self-loathing desire for someone else to do the thinking for them. But in the new novel, a leader has finally appeared. The professor lectures before a class that drops from 45 in the first week to 23 in the second, from there to 18, and finally to a tenacious but utterly baffled 12: None of us understands the problems he is wrestling with, we agree. None of us can follow his method -- what is he looking for? Not all of us care, of course. Mulberry is drawing cocks in his notebook. Guthrie wears sunglasses over closed eyes. Benwell groans audibly when Wittgenstein asks him a question. No one’s sure whose idea it was to call him Wittgenstein, but it seems somehow fitting. He is a maddening teacher. No one quite follows what he's trying to convey. But he seems, in some essential way, like the real thing. 2. Wittgenstein Jr. begins in the first-person plural, and it takes some time for the narrator, Peters, to emerge from the crowd. Once he does, the book shifts gradually from we to I, from a crowd of students to Peters alone. He emerges as a fully-realized character only toward the end. This unusual structure could be seen as a mirror of the transition from adolescence into adulthood, but it also serves to echo one of the book's major concerns, which is the way sustained dedication to a rigorous discipline can separate a person from the rest of the world. From one of Wittgenstein's early classes: He tells us about the vistas of logic. About logic’s austerity. Logic makes you lose the world, he says. Logic drives you away from the world, into the eternal ice and snow. How to survive alone away from the world, in the land of ice and snow? Is there a way to live out there without being eaten alive? I'm reminded of a moment in Marilynne Robinson's magnificent Gilead when the narrator, a minister, reflects on this order of thought: I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation...and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. 3. But Wittgenstein doesn't want to remain in the desolation, or to retreat from it; he wants to travel through it, to pass the limits of his understanding, beyond logic itself, to think himself to the end of philosophy and step out into a clean and altered world on the other side: What will he say when the last words of philosophy are spoken?, Wittgenstein wonders. What will he say, when the spell of philosophy has been broken? He’ll say nothing, he says. He’ll open his eyes. He’ll look up at the sky. He’ll laugh. The year at Cambridge passes; Wittgenstein's students drink themselves into oblivion at house parties and pass out on lawns and worry about the future, fall in and out of love and OD on exotic combinations of banned substances, act out scenes from Shakespeare and go for walks with Wittgenstein and try to understand what he's talking about. As the months pass, Wittgenstein’s lectures grow darker. There are classes where he hardly speaks at all, and when he does, he's often alarming: “There is a cost to thought, he says. He’ll pay with himself. He’ll sacrifice himself.” Where the book falters slightly, in my opinion, is in its narrative tension. The Spurious trilogy was largely plotless, and was none the worse for it: plot was very much not the point. Here, the outlines of a plot appear, when Wittgenstein’s students begin to fear that he’s suicidal and move toward trying to save him. But this tension fades out, and other threads assume prominence; later it seems that this wasn't so much a fully realized plot as a gesture toward plotting. But this is a minor qualm, and the novel is stunning. Wittgenstein Jr. is Iyer's strongest book to date. He has again managed to write a book that’s funny, unexpected, and profound, and his prose is suffused with a calm beauty. The book functions beautifully both as a story about a haunted young professor -- a leader of the kind who appears once in one’s intellectual life and then is remembered forever after -- and a portrait of the last few frantic minutes before adulthood.
Here in Sioux Falls, one of our local Lutheran private colleges puts on a library book sale. In name, it's a sale of epic proportions. In actuality, it's just a clever way for literary junkies and bibliophiles to stock up their collections and appear smarter than they are while the library clears out horribly outdated editions of unread literature.And it works - I'll never read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, and I'll probably skip W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, but I'll be damned if I'm leaving them off of my bookshelf. Think of how intelligent I'll look!Admittedly, though, the books I buy and subsequently read tend to be all over the radar, and book sales of this sort truly fit my fancy. I mean, at fifty cents a book, you'd be surprised how willing you'd be to pick up some book that you may have heard of, or a book that you swear to have some vague recollection of a former college coffee buddy raving about - a willingness that wouldn't be as strong if it was spotted at Barnes and Noble for $13.99 plus tax.So my book stacks grow. Some of the authors are well known. Others are barely recognizable. And in time, I've found that I rarely - no, I'd say never - seem to find a real stinker of a book. Some are disappointing, yes. But never bad. Maybe I'm just really lucky, or I'm smart enough to take suggestions from those who already like the same books I do. Or maybe I'm like a literary garbage disposal, grabbing everything I read and devouring it with the same gusto I would a handful of vegetable scraps.So it came as quite a surprise when I finally picked up Atonement - Ian McEwan's tale of childhood misunderstanding and wartime barbarics - at the Augustana College Book Sale. Sure, I'd heard of him. Sure, I needed the book. I realized, rather shamefully, that I hadn't read anything by McEwan, one of the literary world's darlings, in my entire life. I didn't know what to expect - was he going to be wordy, an intelligent but inaccessible cacophony of allusions and pomp? Was he going to be so brilliant that I'd never look at literature the same way? Was he going to be just another English twit, barred from my life forever because of a critical over-acclaim? How could I continue to write a monthly book column (which I then condense into a smaller and more jovial version for this very website) and not have read McEwan?Would they take away my library card?Well, no. They wouldn't. But I figured I'd better read Atonement before it was too late. And here's the best part: he's actually good. Initially, I was simply pleased with what I was presented: a well worded, brilliantly researched account of high-class English life in the 1930s, followed by a gruesome account of retreat during World War II. Of course, it only got better as I fell further and further into its pages.Atonement is set out as a narrative: Briony, a ten-year-old girl who is committed to a life of writing, her sister Cecilia, and the son of their family's hired help, Robbie, prepare for company. Over one day, Cecilia and Robbie rekindle a flame while Briony, without knowing, extinguishes it - possibly forever. From this day, we jump ahead to World War II and the British retreat from Dunkirk. Then, it's a jump forward to 1999 - nearly 70 years after the first fateful day.McEwan's novel isn't just a "symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness," as the back cover so brightly puts it. It's a book that accurately recreates the mind of a child - Briony, in this case - and puts weight behind her thoughts and actions. The ideals of children are real, and Atonement illustrates this notion by showing us the consequences of an immature jealousy and unfounded protection. Through this, lives are forever changed because of Briony's unwavering account of a violent crime - the rape of her cousin by a stranger.It's wonderfully constructed, and McEwan writes at a level that's detailed, yet not too much so. Some of the narratives seem superfluous, but upon finishing Atonement I realized how important each account was. Four different voices populate its pages, and each helps give a full panoramic picture of the story as it unfolds. The clever way it's spelled out is central to the book, and it forced me to look at each character differently as the same scene was described again and again.Atonement shows how deeply an overactive imagination can quickly wreak havoc on those who are closest - how a misinterpreted event can lead to one person being thrown to the wolves, while another laments over a lost love. Themes run rampant throughout the book - too many to count, and much too much to write about in one column (if I could even pick them all out) - but even those who enjoy a good story, regardless of underlying themes and vague references, will enjoy McEwan's novel.My favorite part, though, was the subtle little twist at the end - which I will hold back for those who have not read the book. It's clever, and while many considered it an easy out, I thought it was brilliant. Atonement deserves all the praise it received - I felt the entire gamut of emotions while pouring through each of the characters. I was angry, I was despondent, and I was bitterly jealous. All because McEwan made each character feel as if they were a part of my own family.I scarcely think I need to ever visit the posh fields of England's upper class. I've lived it already - right there where the river flows gracefully though the fields and a horrible crime can cause children to lie, adults to glaze over with adoration and relief, and the law enforcement to barely bother to find the truth. As long as that little darling says it's true, it's going to be true. How horrible. Literarily, though; how wonderful.Now, I wonder what W. Somerset Maugham would think of it all.Oh, who am I kidding? I'll never know.Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May