In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first in this series was with Cercas; the third will be with Marías.
But the middle panel of the triptych is Álvaro Enrigue. His internationally acclaimed novel Sudden Death is a dazzling synthesis of fact and fiction in which a single tennis match ties together the fate of indigenous Mexico and the cultural revolutions shaking Europe at the time of the Conquest. Enrigue is also a scholar and the author of Hypothermia. I sat down to talk to him at a packed Greenlight Bookstore in 2017, on the occasion of Sudden Death’s paperback release. (The audio can be found at Greenlight’s website.) What follows is a lightly edited version of our discussion.
The Millions: Your novel, for all that it’s about a tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, is also about exile and empire and vagabondage and translation, and of course, Mexico. So to start with, I’m wondering if you had any initial reflections you wanted to offer on immigration, cultural exchange, or Mexico itself at this particular moment in U.S. history, for which your book seems so suited …
Álvaro Enrigue: It’s interesting, because the seeds of this ugly thing that we’re seeing now were planted precisely when I was writing the novel, which were the years just immediately posterior to the crisis of 2008. I think it is obvious in the novel that I was really, like, politically angry at the time. It was the moment in which Northern Europe had begun to articulate this awful discourse about Southern Europe … as if England or Germany or Denmark could be anything without Greece, without Italy, without Spain, without the freaking South of France, without the material of Mediterranean culture.
Like, what would be of the European culture without that nuts Roman citizen who was St. Paul? What would be of Europe without tomatoes, which are Mexican? Without chocolate, which is Mexican? Without pasta, which is, quote “Italian,” which these Chinese Italians eat, before people begin to move around the world?
TM: You’d have a bunch of white guys in helmets just banging into each other.
AE: So this idea of calling the Mediterranean countries that can be considered the birthplace of whatever we have of culture … the idea of calling that accumulation of countries thieves just drove me crazy.
But now [in 2017] I can see that my indignation [of 2008] was really cute. [Laughter.]
Because subsequently we saw the stadiums, you know: “[Who’s going to pay for the wall?] Mexico!” It’s millions of guys that pee and poo and eat like me, shouting the name of my country, Mexico, as if I were stalking their children. Now I’m used to it, because one gets used to things, you know? But when it began to happen, we would turn off the TV at home so the children couldn’t see. So …
TM: This is so interesting to me—
AE: I don’t know if I have a posture; postures are for politicians—
TM: Postures don’t make for good conversation. But something you said that I hadn’t thought about is that while you were starting this book, you happened to find yourself in a place of political anger … and I mean, I remember writing in 2008, feeling this same sort of sense of political rage, and thinking there could be a connection between fictional history and present-day fact, like, somehow, oh, I know, I can talk about 2008 via the ’70s, 1977. And then I go flipping back through your book today, and you have a moment where Quevedo sort of bids goodbye to the Apollonian side of himself, and it’s like he embraces the dark half of himself where everything is bad, and one of the things you say is, he’s a nationalist, misogynist, homophobe—
AE: He became a monster.
TM: And I’m wondering if in some way you were writing, you know, the present moment in 2008, and also seeing its roots in the 16th century.
AE: Well, very obviously, you know? Not that it’s obvious in the novel or anything, but these ideas come from … well, that may sound too much like a seminar, which I don’t mean it to become by any means—but the first globalization happens precisely in that moment [in the 16th century]. What stood between Europe and China was Mexico City, Tenochititlán, What would make world commerce possible was the fall of Tenochtitlán. Because to cross through the south of Africa was incredibly dangerous, no? Once you passed the Canary Islands, that part of the Atlantic becomes tremendously difficult—
TM: And there are dragons, I think—
AE: Well, people remember that Magellan was eaten, you know? Like, the first guy who circled the world died, eaten by people. So it was not easy. [Laughs.] It was not an easy world. In a moment when Christopher Columbus was completely crazy, in the letters to Queen Isabel of Spain, he says that the purpose of crossing the Atlantic is to reconquer Jerusalem. Which is fascinating. “If we go the other way around,” he thinks, “and we cross this little thing, which is China—”
TM: “We’ll sneak up on them from behind.”
AE: Yeah, yeah, “We arrive from behind and surprise them!” [Laughter.] But there happened to be a little mass of land there.
Anyway, when [the Europeans] stand in front of the Americas, they discovered that maybe they could really make it to China that way. Of course, no one was thinking about Jerusalem—except Christopher Columbus, who had a pass from some monk. What everybody wanted was to connect Europe to China. So when Hernán Cortés is sent to map the coast of Mexico, what they are thinking about is that: opening up commerce with China.
Of course, history must be more beautiful than that, to be told to the children. So the conquest of Mexico becomes an epic in which men who are very manly defeat men who are very manly—what you write an Iliad about. But what they were after, really, was money. And when Mexico City falls, you just have to go a little bit more, to the Pacific Ocean and then you can cross it to China, with no storms, with no problems. There’s a reason why it’s called the Pacific, no? So what they were thinking about was that, and I think that many of the problems of the world we live in now, and more than anything, many similitudes (if that word exists) between that world and ours, come from the fact that there were these moments in which the world kind of crunched and the bad guys imposed a discourse.
Francisco Quevedo wrote a fantastic novel when he was young, called Vida del Buscón, which is very fun, very open, very politically critical of empire … and which shows this very fluid sexuality that was the usual trend in the 16th and early 17th century … and yet when he died, he would be writing this incredible text that we would call fascist. What happened in the middle there? Greed. That was the generation that discovered, “Huh, we can own the world. The world is something you can handle. We can circle it, and we can just extract all the gold we want.”
TM: And one of the ways that you’re binding all this stuff together in the novel is that you’re sort of tracing the movement of objects and people that seem to be connected. So that Anne Boleyn’s hair becomes a tennis ball, the ball gets used in the match … I don’t want to give away the game, as it were, but if you actually follow the objects in the book, part of what you start to see is that this enormous explosion you were just pointing to in Southern Europe, of culture, of ideas, of ambition, is in fact funded—economically but also culturally in some way—by the contact with North America.
I mean, you were just talking about this big sort of myth about manly men beating up other manly men and then taking their stuff. But it seems like in a lot of ways what was taken from Mexico becomes a much more dynamic and subversive and transformative element [for Europe] in the book than does the conquest itself. Like, as you write it, Caravaggio doesn’t become Caravaggio without an encounter with Mexico.
AE: Which was an obscenely nationalist gesture!
TM: Yeah, no, I love it. “No Mexico, No Caravaggio!”
AE: But the thing is, Caravaggio could have seen that mitre [an iridescent feather headdress that, in the book, inspires some of Caravaggio’s greatest effects]. He was in that environment, it was true that he painted these paintings for the owner of the mitre. So he could have seen it, or not. They were certainly miraculous objects.
TM: Can you talk a little about the mitre and the feather art used to make it, for people who haven’t yet read the book?
AE: Well, after the conquest, the Nahuatl artists of Mexico were not used to paint. Or they would make paintings, but instead of paint they would use tiny little bird feathers and put them together and produce shades of color, and create with that. It was a type of art that became very popular in the 17th century. It was very expensive to buy a piece made like that—you can imagine why, you know? It was incredibly demanding and difficult to do. And most of this art also is religious art, and I think that point is important, because for centuries those pieces went into museums, and were only there. And if you see these paintings, they are very, very impressive. More when you learn that they were not made with paint, but were made with feathers.
And there was, in 2006, maybe, in Mexico City, at the international museum of art, a big global exposition about these things, pieces of feather art that had been recovered from all over Europe and all over the world. The creator of that exposition is a friend of mine, a professor of art at Columbia University named Alessandra Russo. She was working with other researchers and historians, but she was in charge of certain parts of it.
So she was one day having lunch with the workers who were setting up the exposition, and they were sitting on the floor of the museum, and the guys tell her, Have you seen the paintings from here, now that you are sitting down here? They were eating a torta.
AE: A torta, a tamale, surely. And she turns to the pieces and discovers that if you are under them, looking up, they shine. They stop being a painting and become something that produces its own light. The feathers, even at 400 years old, were still capable of projecting the light of the window, reproducing it. And everybody becomes excited with the discovery, and puts some candles on the floor to see what happens, because that’s how those paintings were intended to be seen. And what they discover is that these things become simply hallucinatory.
TM: I can’t believe you didn’t put these workers in the novel! That’s a great story: “Look at that, up there!”
AE: [Laughs.] I have put them in a dozen interviews instead. It’s amazing.
TM: And so in the book … I don’t even know that “spoiler alert” is apposite to this book, but I will just say that Caravaggio has an encounter with this feather art, which is—
AE: You already spoiled it! [Laughter]
TM: Oh, it’s spoiled?
AE: I have been moving around all over the place with the book now for four years, and no one ever noticed that the book is not about people but about objects. That the characters are the objects, not the persons. It’s a novel in which you can have Galileo and Cortés and Caravaggio and Charles the First and so many important characters, because they are not really the characters. The true characters are the tennis balls … so you already spoiled it.
TM: I think you’re selling yourself a little short, though, on character. I think that Caravaggio is a fascinating character in the novel, and so is the daughter of the emperor, who has three names, one French, one Spanish, none of which I can pronounce. But what I was going to say is, the description of the featherwork is so extraordinary … I read the book when I was in Europe, and I found myself in Milan like three weeks later, and I kept saying, “It says right here in the book that this [featherpiece] is in the Duomo!” and no one knew what I was talking about. And it occurred to me that it could have been entirely fiction, a sort of Borgesian game. So I’m wondering, for example—actually I don’t want you to answer this question, but—you allege that the Anne-Boleyn-hair tennis ball is in a department of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, the Archives of Historic Sporting Equipment. I’ve spent a lot of time in that library, and I’ve never stumbled across these archives. [Laughter.] So I wanted to ask you: Clearly a huge amount of research went into this, but how much did you just make up?
AE: [Pause.] I don’t know anymore. [Laughter.] I don’t know anymore, but my editor is amazing, and the most patient human being ever, and she can give testimony of how many notations were in the last edited version of the book. It was by that time a nightmare. I hope she never tells about this, but I will tell it before she can, and be revealed as a clown: There were many times I would defend historical points that were completely imaginary! [Laughter.] I am a novelist; I have that privilege.
But most of the weirdest stuff is real. It is real that Galileo and Caravaggio were roommates—it’s absolutely real. It’s absolutely real that Galileo was writing his theory of the parabola as he saw Caravaggio playing tennis in the plaza. Many of those things are real. And in the novel, when there are conflicting versions, all of the lists come together. That is the wonder of the novel, you know? It is the great lesson of Cervantes: that you can put in whatever you want, and as long as it somehow relates to the story, it works.
TM: The novel has a very peculiar relationship to facts, just as a form. You can put real facts in a novel and they somehow become fictional, and you can make shit up in a novel, and if you put it across with conviction, it starts to seem more true than truth. And so, you know—
AE: There may also be generational deformation at work here, too. I did a Ph.D.—it’s one of those mistakes that writers make.
TM: Because you think, “Ah! I’ll have lots of time to write while studying for my Ph.D.”?
AE: Exactly. And: “It will not deform my incredibly innocent way of reading!” I did my Ph.D. in the ’90s. We would read historical books, as fictions. If you were going to become a professor, it was fantastic, because—this sounds like fiction but is real—fiction was forbidden in the Spanish colonies [of the 17th century]. You could publish and read fiction in the metropolis, but if you were outside of that, you couldn’t do it, it was illegal to write fiction. Of course, fiction was always written; the way the writers found to express themselves was writing historical fictions. So once this was established—
TM: Like the travel journals?
AE: Yeah, the travel journals, and these incredible histories of Latin American countries, this history of Paraguay that speaks about the Greek gods … they were obviously fiction books, but they were presented as history books, and the author could be giving fake stories, as I do, and readers saying, “No, no, no, this is real, this happened.” So I think that I have this period as formation; I don’t think that what comes from books is much more trustworthy than what comes from your head as a novelist. I just think that the historical data … statistically, you can prove it. That is the only difference. But the privilege of a novelist is that you can put things together in a way that the historian can’t. You don’t have to prove it statistically that people smoked cigars in Cuba in the 18th century; you can just put them there. But if you had everything in front of you, it’s quite probable that they would, you know? And I think that that’s the importance …
See, I feel really guilty about writing novels, because they’re useless.
TM: You should feel virtuous. The world needs more useless things.
AE: Yeah, and we would never accept that they are part of the industry of entertainment. It’s so elegant to be a novelist. Anyway, that would give a sense, a reason, to create novels: In them, you can still propose things to understand the world, without having to offer statistical information.
TM: So was the germ of this novel, Sudden Death, a particular factual discovery that you made, or was it a particular imaginative impulse? I had a fantasy as I was reading … there were a couple of times when I was reading that I came across something I wasn’t sure if you made up or not, but I thought: If that’s true, and he found that in a book, he must have thought, “A-ha! There’s a novel!”
AE: This is it: It was seeing one of the mitres, one of these feather-art mitres. I had been circling the idea for the rest of the novel for a long time, but it would be such a European novel, you know? And I don’t know, but I think Americans have as pretentious a relationship with Europe as Latin Americans do. I now find kind of antipathetic this Eurocentrism of Julio Cortázar, for example. The je ne sais quoi of the characters of Julio Cortázar—I find it annoying. It’s like, lily white.
TM: Not only the ennui, but also the je ne sais quoi!
AE: So the novel [I had in mind] was a very European novel. And the idea of how you introduce Mexico into that mess, that had a lot to do with everything at that moment. But the way you put your question, it was the mitres. And the idea of Caravaggio being a tennis player. For years, I had been researching to write a novel about Caravaggio, because as you say, this character, you could write novels all your life about him. He was such an extreme person.
TM: He’s almost an allegory for the novel as a form in some way, you know? He’s polysexual, he’s in many ways a brute and very unrefined, and in other ways he’s a genius.
AE: He’s sophisticated in his brutality.
TM: His attraction for the novelist as a figure to tell stories about just seems very intuitive to me.
AE: And he drinks from the water of the poetic theory of the Renaissance that demands a certain amount of reality in artwork. Since, like, immediately after Petrarch, there were these moral writings in Italy demanding that art stop being so affected—that art should be real, should represent life as it is, and no one had found the key to do it. I think that it’s not casual, not just coincidental, that at the moment when Caravaggio is inventing modern art, Cervantes, a few miles away in Madrid, is inventing the novel. I think that they are ways of portraying the world that are very similar in their craziness, in their sophistication, in this, like, moral fury, you know? Cervantes is a furious character. He’s as angry at everything as you are! As is Caravaggio. This resentment—of the poor man who will become important as an artist during his life but who, anyway, will never stop being angry—all of that is there in both of them.
TM: And the trick, and sort of the crux, is that somehow the anger doesn’t swallow up the style. Like, they’re both geniuses enough to preserve the stylistic impulse in the middle of this moral fury. You know? And they’re great stylists. And I think that’s in your book in a way, too. It’s a very political book, and I can see in it the skeleton of the very European book it almost was, but you’re such a great stylist—or else you’re a mediocre stylist but you have a great translator—that it turns into something that’s very warm and very human and very real.
AE: I am a great stylist. [Laughter.]
There is this thing that I think is essential, and that doesn’t always go well, and that is that modern art shows its structure. The Quixote is still the most postmodern book, even when it is the first modern book. Remember the beginning of the second part? Quixote gets a copy of Quixote, the first part, reads it, and says, “This was not like that!” [Laughter.] Right? “I don’t know who wrote this, but it was not like that! I defeated those guys. Everything’s wrong here, and everybody’s reading this? Let’s go out again to fix this problem.” So in the Quixote, the threads are completely visible, as they are in Caravaggio. And I think this is inherent to art.
Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).
Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.
As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.
Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).
Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.
Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”
Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.
If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”
When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”
Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.
Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.
Poets, editors, songwriters, teachers, journalists, novelists—some great writers and some under-sung ones left us this year. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2017.
Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, educated in England, Switzerland, and India; she earned advanced writing degrees in the United States, and lived more than a decade in Canada—a peripatetic life she mined to write fiction about the aspirations and dislocations of immigrant life. Mukherjee, who died Jan. 28 at 76, grew up in a rich Hindu family, “bubble-wrapped in innocence,” as she would say later. Shortly after arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Philip Roth, Mukherjee informed her parents that she was not going through with the marriage they had arranged for her and that, in fact, she had recently married a white American writer, Clark Blaise. Her first-hand knowledge of the immigrant’s yearnings was captured in the title character of her breakthrough novel, Jasmine, a poor girl from Punjab who arrives in America “greedy with wants and reckless with hope.” Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, explored the immigrant experience through the stories of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Middle East. As she was writing those stories, she was developing a credo: “Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.” Given that we now live in a world with 60 million refugees, driven from their homes for reasons ranging from terror to desire, it’s hard to argue with Mukherjee’s claim that “the narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.”
Some writers are lucky to have a singular place that forever nourishes their art. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. Patrick Modiano has Paris. And Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, had his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It provided Walcott with ample raw materials for his vivid, musical poems—the sea, the pulsing sun, the land and its fecund vegetation, and the people who live there in the wake of slavery, colonialism, and forced exile, snagged in the mesh of commingled cultures.
Walcott, who died March 17 at 87, published his first poem when he was 14 while operating under the influence of Christopher Marlowe and John Milton. Over the next seven decades he became an accomplished poet, playwright, and watercolorist, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, producing a body of poems that ranged from compact to epic, always spun from the weather, the history, and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott was also a wanderer, and, like all exiles, he knew the twinned aches of leaving home and returning. These lines are from In a Green Night, the 1962 book that announced him as a major writer:
The hospital is quiet in the rain.
A naked boy drives pigs into the bush.
The coast shudders with every surge. The beach
Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam.
There is a belt of emerald light, a sail
Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef,
The hills are smoking in the vaporous light,
The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief.
It could not change its sorrows and be home.
Though he’ll be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist of the New York City persuasion, Jimmy Breslin, who died on March 19 at 88, was also a gifted novelist, memoirist, biographer, and writer of nonfiction books about subjects both light and dark, from the ineptitude of the early New York Mets baseball teams to the sins of sexual predators in the Catholic priesthood. His biography of Damon Runyon reads like Damon Runyon on acid. Breslin produced more than 20,000 newspaper columns in his long and fluorescent career—a staggering number, I can attest, having produced about 600 of the things myself. Many of Breslin’s were written on behalf of the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten. When someone asked him why he kept going back to the well, he replied: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
Breslin’s was an only-in-New-York life. Born in Queens, he knew the streets and the saloons, the mobsters and the cops like nobody else, and he was among the vanguard of writers who birthed what has come to be known as the New Journalism, though he scoffed at the term. Too high-minded for this burly son of the outer boroughs. He ran (unsuccessfully) for New York city council the same year Norman Mailer ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. His fame reached its peak in 1977, when the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, began sending letters to Breslin, which he published in the New York Daily News. For all the warmth he felt for the little people, Breslin could be as cold and hard as iron. His father abandoned the family when Jimmy was young, and when his father died, the son paid for the cremation. “Good,” he said afterward. “That’s over.”
Jean Stein died on April 30 at 83, an apparent suicide. She grew up amid Hollywood luxury—her father founded Music Corporation of America—and she returned to that milieu in her later work. But it was her 1982 book, Edie: An American Biography, that upended my understanding of what a book can be. It tells the story of Edie Sedgwick, who also grew up wealthy, became a Andy Warhol superstar, then spiraled into drug addiction and death by overdose at 28. Her story is told by dozens of people whose lives crossed hers (and her patrician family’s). Stein does not elicit conventional answers to conventional questions, as in Studs Terkel or Oriana Fallaci; instead she acts like a camera, unflinching, mutely watching and listening as people talk. There is no authorial intervention, seemingly no point of view. In time, the lack of affect becomes the affect. The book is a flat yet sneakily rich portrait of squandered American privilege and the cult of celebrity. It’s an act of dissection. An X-ray. A masterpiece.
Stein was not a one-hit wonder. She worked at The Paris Review (where she interviewed William Faulkner), Esquire, and the literary quarterly Grand Street. She produced another oral history, American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, and West of Eden, a study of the influences of Hollywood, oil exploration, and real estate on the city of Los Angeles. Stein was shy by nature but she threw glittering parties, including one at which Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a fistfight. She was an unobtrusive but brilliant interviewer. Of the technique behind Edie, she once said, “Each person is speaking directly to you…Nobody is ever telling you, the reader, what to think.”
The news that Denis Johnson had died on May 24 at 67 sent me back to two pieces of writing. The first was Johnson’s masterly short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” from his 1992 collection about drug-addled drifters and losers, Jesus’ Son. Like all great fiction, “Car Crash” conjures a world that’s unlike any other and yet instantly, even shockingly, familiar. Words pop out of nowhere and ambush the reader. It’s the story of a lone hitchhiker stuck in a downpour who gets a lift from a young couple. As the hitchhiker dozes in the back seat with the couple’s baby, the car is involved in a ghastly crash on a rain-slicked bridge. Clutching the baby, the hitchhiker staggers from the wreckage and is taken to a hospital, where this unforgettable scene unfolds:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
The second piece of writing was Geoff Dyer’s review of Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. Dyer makes the point that nothing in Johnson’s earlier output, not even Jesus’ Son, had prepared readers for this teeming, meandering mind-fuck of a novel about America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Dyer compares Johnson to Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Graham Greene. Far more astutely, he calls Johnson “a junkyard angel,” a writer who, “at some level, did not know how to write at all—and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” I can’t imagine more apt, or higher, praise.
Three days after Johnson’s death, Gregg Allman died at 69. If Bob Dylan is worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature, then Allman, the keyboardist and lead songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, surely merits inclusion in a list of noteworthy literary obituaries. He wrote many of the band’s signature songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Melissa.” Some of his song lyrics rise to the level of art, including these from “Ain’t Wastin’ No More Time,” written shortly after his beloved big brother, Duane, the band’s lead guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia:
Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain.
Week before, they all seemed the same.
With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize
I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly.
And oh, I ain’t wastin’ time no more
‘Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things.
The news of Gregg Allman’s death, like the news of Johnson’s, sent me back to a piece of writing—in this case, “Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band,” Grover Lewis’s Rolling Stone chronicle of being embedded on tour with the band in 1971, shortly before Duane’s death. It was a deep-pore examination of life on the road with a big-name rock band, a string of identical days and nights full of “pure listless boredom” and plane flights and concerts and groupies and TV and piles of comic books and cocaine.
Despite the grind of the road, Gregg Allman’s life did not lack for color. He avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting drunk and shooting himself in the foot. He had a long solo career. He married, recorded with, and divorced Cher. (She was the third of his six wives.) He contracted hepatitis and arthritis. He got a liver transplant. Late in life he wrote a memoir, My Cross to Bear, with Alan Light. As a writer, Allman may not be in a league with Patti Smith, but the book has its moments, including a line that would have made an unbeatable epitaph: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life.”
If you favor writers who live long colorful implausible lives, Clancy Sigal, who died on July 16 at 90, is your man. Sigal’s resume reads like overcooked fiction: he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; he was Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood agent; he was noteworthy enough to make the anti-Communist blacklist; he had to dodge FBI agents; he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he was Doris Lessing’s lover (and the model for Saul Green in her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook); he underwent therapy and dropped acid with the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing; he organized Detroit autoworkers; he was a popular commentator on the BBC. Somehow, Sigal also found time to write, producing essays, novels, memoirs, and the screenplay for the 1992 Salma Hayek movie, Frida. His best known book was 1961’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir, an autobiographical account of a blacklisted Hollywood agent’s picaresque cross-country trip aboard a DeSoto convertible, during which the hero discovers a fractured nation and his own fractured self. It was seen as a rebuttal to Jack Kerouac’s effervescence, and it became a finalist for the National Book Award. The critic John Leonard offered this praise: “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” Sigal never stopped working. He was busy blogging a couple of days before he died.
Dick Gregory didn’t hector or lecture about America’s racial divide but went at it sideways, with a dagger instead of a sledgehammer. Classic early Dick Gregory has him going into a restaurant in the segregated South, where the waitress informs him: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.” To which he replies: “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people nowhere. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Gregory, who died on Aug. 19 at 84, wrote a dozen books, and his 1964 autobiography, nigger, was built on this strategy for neutering an epithet through frank exposure and overuse: “I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?”
Gregory was soon on the front lines of the civil rights movement, which led to beatings and a dozen arrests, a gunshot wound. Other issues that inspired his activism included the Vietnam War, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment, South African apartheid, and the rights of Native Americans. Sometimes he flirted with the bizarre, speculating that “whoever the people are who control the system” were behind the killings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then again, there are more than a few people don’t find anything bizarre about such suspicions. Gregory famously embraced various diet fads, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. At the end, he was still able to laugh. “Here’s how you can tell when you’re getting old,” he said late in life. “When someone compliment you on those beautiful alligator shoes you’re wearing—and you’re barefoot.”
Kate Millett’s polemical bombshell, Sexual Politics, burst on the scene in 1970. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel soon graced the cover of Time magazine, which was then the gold standard of a writer’s anointment as Truly Important. Sexual Politics began as a doctoral thesis, and it used literary criticism and historical analysis to dismantle such supposed avatars of sexual liberation as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, and Norman Mailer. Millett, who died on Sept. 6 at 82, portrayed such men as cogs in a masculine machine designed to establish and perpetuate the inferior status of women. Patriarchy, Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy, the nuclear family—all, in Millett’s view, led to the “interior colonization” of women.
The book, out of print for many years, was reissued in a new edition last year—just in time for the avalanche of revelations of sexual misconduct that have borne out Millett’s original premise. The machine, as we seem to learn anew every day, was indeed set up to ensure the inferior status of women. It ran—until now—on women’s enforced silence. Nearly half a century after the original publication of Sexual Politics, the silence is finally being broken.
Lillian Ross, who died on Sept. 20 at 99, was the fly who came off the wall—with disastrous consequences. In a celebrated six-decade career as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Ross followed this reporter’s dictum: “Do not call attention to yourself.” Her unobtrusive interviewing techniques resulted in a tall stack of superb journalism, on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway to a group of rural Indiana high schoolers’ first trip to New York City. Some believe that the best book ever written about Hollywood was Ross’s Picture, from her New Yorker articles about John Huston’s tortured effort to bring Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, to the screen.
But in 1998, the fly on the wall did something out of character: she called attention to herself by publishing a memoir, Here but Not Here, which revealed her 50-year love affair with the late William Shawn, the married editor of The New Yorker, whose widow and children were still alive. Many in the New York literary tribe were incensed. Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, dissed the book as “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions.” Jeremy Bernstein, a 31-year veteran of The New Yorker, called it “a deeply hurtful, self-indulgent, tasteless book that never should have been written at all.” Ross claimed to be mystified by the uproar. As she told the gossip columnist Liz Smith: “The controversy doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Jim Clark may not be a household name, but for more than four decades, as a student, teacher, editor, then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clark was an outsize influence on generations of writers. He carried a torch passed down by the school’s earlier writing teachers—Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Bob Watson and, now, Michael Parker and Terry Kennedy, among many others. The word “generous” keeps popping up when people remember Clark, who died on Oct. 30 at 72. I experienced that generosity firsthand when Clark, who was also an ordained minister, helped me put together an essay about Greensboro’s peculiar allure for writers. Clark pointed me to a quote by Jarrell, who called the town “Sleeping Beauty,” adding that “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I join hundreds of writers in saying, “Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.”
William H. Gass
William H. Gass, who died on Dec. 6 at 93, is regarded by many as a father of postmodern writing (unless you think the title belongs to Miguel de Cervantes for that house of mirrors called Don Quixote). Gass, after all, coined the word “metafiction” for his favored ploy of inserting a character known as William H. Gass into fiction written by William H. Gass. But I think Gass should be remembered for four very different reasons. First, he believed sentences were sacred objects and every one should be as perfect as the writer can possibly make it. Second, while he will be remembered for his novels, especially The Tunnel, and his short stories, I’m partial to his essays, on everything from suicide to Malcolm Lowry’s epic (and suicidal) drinking, which are the work of a brilliant mind that wears its erudition lightly. Third, Gass was a metaphor machine; he said the things came at him in “squadrons.” Of the insane he wrote that “their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns.” Metal threads, he wrote, were “glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier.” And fourth, in our careerist, prize-drunk age, Gass had a refreshing disdain for literary awards, even as many were bestowed on him. “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” he wrote, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.”
My father was working as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1952 when the paper hired its first black reporter, a Baltimore native named Simeon Booker. But Booker lasted just two years at The Post, becoming frustrated by the limited assignments from his white editors in the nation’s rigidly segregated capital. He yearned to write about the black experience in America, and so he started contributing to the weekly Jet and the monthly Ebony, both aimed at black readers. Booker’s timing was superb. Over the next six decades, he covered many of the defining stories of the 20th century, including the brutal murder of the black teenager Emmett Till and the acquittal of his white killers, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the Bloody Sunday melee on the Pettus Bridge. He also wrote about politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people.
Booker, who died on Dec. 10 at 99, found time to produce books in his long and decorated life, including Black Man’s America (1964) and Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were many courageous and talented reporters, black and white, covering the civil rights movement (see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s fine book, The Race Beat, or the memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter who also died on Dec. 10, at 87), Booker seemed to get there first, and he had access, guts, and drive that few rivals could match. And his words carried major weight. One long-time reader said she and others eagerly awaited Booker’s dispatches in Jet and Ebony, which they regarded as nothing less than “the gospel according to Simeon.”
Other notables who left us this year, in alphabetical order:
John Ashbery, 90, was a giant of American letters, an inimitable poet who was often imitated but never equaled. He was also an insightful art critic, and in 1976 he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award in the same year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
William Peter Blatty, 89, author of the 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, which sold 13 million copies. Blatty won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay two years later for the movie version of the book, which shattered box office records thanks to its ingenious use of projectile pea-soup vomiting and a girl with a spinning head.
J.P. Donleavy, 91, whose bawdy 1955 novel The Ginger Man was banned and burned before it became a contemporary classic, with 45 million copies in print. Donleavy, who lived for many years in Ireland and was an accomplished painter, had this to say about old age: “It’s not nice, but take comfort that you won’t stay that way forever.”
Paula Fox, 93, was dubbed one of America’s “least appreciated” novelists by The Nation, but she received some overdue recognition in 1999, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction to a popular reissue Fox’s signature novel, Desperate Characters.
Nancy Friday, 84, author of the bestsellers My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, built her writing career on the earth-shattering premise that women have sexual fantasies. To the dismay of many feminists, Friday argued that it was by ridding themselves of shame that women can achieve professional, political, and economic equality with men. Some of Friday’s ideas have held up better than others. In 1996, appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she dismissed the importance of on-the-job sexual harassment. “The workplace,” she said, “is the meeting and mating place.” Try telling that to Salma Hayek.
Sue Grafton, 77, didn’t quite make it to Z. Her so-called alphabet novels, featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, began with 1982’s A Is for Alibi and reached Y Is for Yesterday last summer. Grafton, whose influences ranged from Nancy Drew to Mickey Spillane, was at work on Z Is for Zero at the time of her death.
Clifford Irving, 87, who became a millionaire, briefly, but then went to prison when his early 1970s book, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, was blocked from publication after it was proven to be one of the most sublime literary hoaxes of the 20thcentury.
Robert M. Pirsig, 88, who captured the schizoid zeitgeist of the 1970s with his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies and remained on bestseller lists for a decade.
Sam Shepard was that rarest thing: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—and an accomplished memoirist, musician, screenwriter, and songwriter—who became an Oscar-nominated, heart-throb movie star. His posthumous final work, Spy of the First Person, is narrated by a man suffering from a degenerative disorder much like the Lou Gehrig’s disease that killed Shepard at age 73.
Robert Silvers, 87, was a founding editor of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life shaping it into one of America’s most influential literary publications. The self-effacing Silver had this to say about the editor’s role: “The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”
Richard Wilbur, 96, was a poet, translator, and opera lyricist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his meticulous, unshowy poetry. In 1988 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the nation’s poet laureate.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 83, was the un-Richard Wilbur, a Russian whose showy, defiant poems and theatrical delivery turned him into poetry’s version of an international rock star. Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism were early targets, though some grumbled that the Soviet government tolerated him while sending other dissidents to Siberia. Some went so far as to call Yevtushenko a sellout. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said of him, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Millions of fans worldwide disagreed.
I am a chaotic reader. Is there a hidden logic in my scattered interests? Whenever somebody asks me about my recent reading, the first temptation is to discard the question with a pedantic answer: “I reread Ulysses.” Truth is, I only read Ulysses once, some 30-odd years ago.
This year, however, I returned to a major classic to teach a seminar. The Spanish-born Mexican poet Tomás Segovia achieved a new and astonishing rendition of Hamlet. One of the great side effects of translators is that they can renew a masterpiece. You Americans can have a “new” Don Quixote, and we Mexicans can have a “new” Hamlet. Segovia, who died in 2011, was a great poet. He translated some hundred books. His shadow boxing for Hamlet was the Spanish version of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. After such a titanic feat, he approached Shakespeare’s play with special attention to the music of words. On the rule, translators try to deliver the same content in a different language. But this not always includes finding an equivalent to the sound of words. Each language has its own rhythm, its own metric. Segovia translated Shakespeare “as if” he was using the rhythmic stanzas of, lets say, Gonzalo de Berceo. The outcome is awesome, both refreshing and loyal to the original poetic intention: the musical flow of English assumes the flow of Spanish.
Translation forces you to achieve a paradox. Obeying the primal message means to adapt it to your own culture. Literal translations are terrible. In order to achieve a genuine literary effect, you have to change some things. A very modest example: in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare speaks of the nine lives of a cat. For a mysterious reason in Spanish, cats have just seven lives. Two lives have to be lost in translation in order to sound natural in my language. Nine-life cats aren’t convincing in this poor part of the world.
Aside from Hamlet, I read other books. I don’t want to boast with a list nobody can fact-check. Suffice it to say that I embarked on a psychedelic trip. I am writing a play on Timothy Leary’s sojourn in Mexico. When he was expelled from Harvard, he came to Mexico and founded a kind of Club Med of the mind at the Catalina Hotel in Zihuatanejo. In the company of some 30 followers he organized sessions to enhance human perception. This attracted attention from the Mexican and American authorities (allegedly, an FBI agent took part in the sessions). Leary was approached by Mexican politicians and this lead to a very interesting exchange. According to Leary, Mexico had a great chance to become “the psychedelic Switzerland,” the haven of chemical recreational drugs. Mexico had the opportunity to legalize drugs and control them, following the example of the vernacular Indian communities. Otherwise the whole business would be run by the drug lords, as it eventually happened.
My play takes place at the Catalina Hotel in Zihuatanejo in those experimental days. I read the catalog of the De Young Museum about the Summer of Love exhibition, the novel The Girls by Emma Cline, the collection of essays Leary on Drugs, Leary’s biography Flashbacks, The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin, Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield, and reread Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Island and The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, among other stuff.
I read other books with no cannibalizing intentions. One of them: the formidable Cowboys’ Grave, by my late friend Roberto Bolaño. It was published in 2017, 13 years after his departure. I remember the sad farewell I attended at Les Corts crematory in Barcelona, in 2003. Who could have said that so many years later Roberto would still be the most productive writer of my generation?
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Artists are often mythologized for their neuroses—picture James Joyce scrambling to the printer with corrected pages of Ulysses or Orson Welles toiling over his unfinished feature length of Don Quixote. Following the release of his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West continued tweaking the supposedly finished product for several weeks. Track titles and lyrics changed. New guests appeared throughout the album and some songs were divided into new tracks entirely. West tweeted that Pablo was a work of “living breathing changing creative expression,” giving critics ample room to ponder the plastic nature of art and the definition of completion. Pablo became more than a well-received addition to West’s eclectic discography—it also became an experiment on the revision process itself.
Modern technology has made it possible to hone published work on an ongoing basis. Whereas one cannot edit typos or misinformation from print in real-time, Internet content is rife with constant revision and deletion, both by artists (writers, videographers, graphic designers, etc.) and publishers. The public stream of information and opinion is in perpetual update, so that the final product is often never, in fact, final. While many editors are hesitant, if not flat out resistant, to altering published work, certain exceptions are granted as new information becomes available; the wiggle room for limitless amendment lends itself to the indefatigable 24-hour news cycle, because accuracy is subject to change.
When Iris Murdoch published her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954, she seemed to recognize the inherent permanence of her creation. The book is padded with graceful examinations of the imperfections of the written word. Indeed, the book’s title, a direct reference to the restrictions of language, also hints at the author’s own feelings of being trapped, caught beneath the confines of the finished manuscript.
She not only gives credence to the idea that a finished product gains value simply in its own completeness, but also warns that—while flawed—language is the best tool we have for shaping universal understanding. No matter its complexity, language never serves as a perfect representation of sentience, but it does make the world navigable.
While Under the Net is considered a picaresque novel, following the exploits of down-and-out writer Jake Donohue as he tries to find housing and make a living in London, Murdoch deftly weaves complicated ideas about nominalism and the philosophy of universals throughout the text, making the value of language central to Jake’s dilemma. Jake’s adventures send him rubbing shoulders with mimes, translators, and fellow novelists, all of whom reveal different perspectives on art, communication, and mediums of representation.
Murdoch lays this groundwork on several levels, both through direct plot work and more abstract considerations. Most prominently is Jake’s self-prescribed falling out with a close friend, Hugo Belfounder, because Jake is afraid Hugo will hate how he is depicted in Jake’s fictional novel, The Silencer. Clever title aside, The Silencer is Jake’s attempt to recreate lengthy intellectual conversations he had with Hugo while they were both subjects in a medical experiment. Hugo believes language is intrinsically corrupt, and, after The Silencer’s publication, Jake avoids him due to resounding feelings of guilt.
As a fireworks manufacturer, Hugo’s occupation is also of symbolic importance. Jake opines, “There was something about fireworks which absolutely fascinated Hugo. I think what pleased him most about them was their impermanence. I remember his holding forth to me once about what an honest thing a firework was.” Like a casual conversation, a firework’s ephemeral nature results in its details fading into the darkness. It’s Murdoch’s sly demonstration that she is not only interested in language as an imperfect attempt to recreate thought, but also in the inherent lying and generalizing that comes along with being a writer.
It’s unsurprising then that Murdoch’s most direct theorizing takes place at the meta level within dialogue found in The Silencer. This layering grants Murdoch a certain level of distance from the prose itself, deflecting any fault in language to her fictional protagonist. In the passage given, Annandine, a thinly veiled version of Hugo, explains to Jake’s stand-in, Tamarus:
‘What I speak of is the real decision as we experience it; and here the movement towards truth. All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself, and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try, as it were, to crawl under the net.’
Tamarus, on the other hand, believes language is a necessary social currency for civilization. In this debate—dialogue in work of fiction found within a work of fiction—Murdoch is perhaps providing clues to her own insecurities and artistic compromises as a debut novelist. Time and time again, she appears to forewarn readers of the flaws she sees in her own work. Ironically, Under the Net would end up being one of her best-received novels.
Of course, one of the tragic realities Murdoch also appears to recognize is that this burden weighs heaviest on the author herself. When Jake finally confronts Hugo near the work’s end, expecting to be harangued for his betrayal, Hugo instead says, “I forgot, really, what we talked about then, but it was a terrible muddle, wasn’t it? Your thing was so clear. I learned an awful lot from it.”
Jake thus learns that Hugo’s memory of their conversations is as fleeting as his own. In this regard, it is primarily the author who knows what ultimately didn’t make the page, the musician who knows what tracks were cut from the album, or the director who knows which scenes didn’t make the final cut. The same could be said for visual artists, chefs, and anyone tasked with bringing a creative vision to fruition. That is to say the divergence of artistic vision and conception is often a deeply personal matter.
Murdoch’s fascination with language is particularly important in the ever-evolving landscape of communication today, for the themes in Under the Net dig at the core of contemporary attempts to defy archaic limitations on language. Paramount to this inquiry is the philosophical exploration of universals and generalizations. One could argue Murdoch attempted to assuage any potential negative criticism of Under the Net by denigrating the system necessary to the novel’s existence. Words simply don’t do justice to any memory, argument, or work of fiction concocted in the mind. Language is an inadequate but necessary solution for addressing our disparate versions of reality. Yet, if there is an unlimited set of resources available for this creation, along with malleable means of publication, then hypothetically artists could continue revising work for a lifetime in hopes of coming closer to perfection. But the long-term risks of consistent tinkering are aesthetic dilution, overwrought vision, and disparate focus. In other words, the project might become too extensive and ponderous to remain cohesive.
On some level, perpetual revision and authoritarian artistic control limit these stakes and extinguish the value and integrity of criticism. Consistent workshopping of a published project becomes a tiresome attempt to achieve universal subjective approval. Murdoch suggests that criticism is an inevitable part of any form of creation, and that accepting the limits of language is a reciprocal contract between the artist and audience.
Books are sacred objects. Books are garbage. Between, the books with badly bent covers on the parsons tables of Midas Muffler and orthopedists’ waiting rooms. Books bought by the yard to complement the colors in the redecorated den. The tumbled remainders of remainders on the dollar store shelf, Geoff Dyer next to Christian fiction. The gorgeously designed new releases presented on the tabletops of independent bookstores as if they were hand-painted confections in a vitrine at Teuscher. Then there is the final stop, where some books are no longer figurative garbage. They are actual trash.
I no longer go to church, since here in the Catskills we have the dump. Ours is the purest iteration of the cathedral: on a windswept rise under a ceiling of sky, the enclosing mountains the choir waiting silently to begin. Beneath the metal eaves of a soaring peaked roof, mortal leavings gather.
The dump’s offering plate is a discarded sideboard on which parishioners jettison belongings someone else might yet find useful. Old plates. Used mugs. Videotapes (Sylvester Stallone in his salad days, Jane Fonda in very small workout wear, cartoon features once prized by children). Stuffed animals. Inscrutable decorations for such holidays as the Festooning of the Kitchen with Inspirational Adages on Little Faux Chalkboards. Books. Boxes and boxes of books, soaking up the ambient humidity and anything that might have spilled on its way to interment in the great roll-off sepulchers that swallow couches, wheels that will never roll again, and black plastic bags in their hundreds. Books that are no longer wanted, because—Long-ago read? Owners moved, downsizing, died? Gifts from now-despised givers?
Here is where a book reaches the bottom of the narrative ladder that, as in Black Beauty, describes life’s trajectory ever downward, unless, at the end sudden redemption plucks the unfortunate from final doom. I root through piles of superannuated World Book Encyclopedias and Ultimate Grill cookbooks and find what I am looking for but did not know I was. More than occasionally slightly mildewed, but that’s not always a disqualifier.
These are the definition of a gift. They stir the rescuer’s impulse; they recall past happy lives spent in narrow aisles of the Strand, sitting on the floor at the old used-textbook annex of the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, book barns and yard sales and stoop sales. Not that I’ve never offloaded books myself. A library fair finally received the collection of philosophy and Middle English works I realized, after boxing and unboxing them through the course of several moves, would never be cracked again. I don’t like to get rid of books, though I do—they tell a personal history, I imagine with obvious false hope, my grandchildren will one day be fascinated to trace. Never at the dump, though. I use the dump for retrieval only.
Today the gems do not hide. They are in their open box. Today’s trash is the complete Emily Dickinson in hardcover, with dust jacket. Today’s detritus is an unread Penguin Classics Don Quixote. Today’s undesirable is Of Human Bondage in a Modern Library edition. The sight of a virgin Penguin is alluring enough. But it’s the running torchbearer on the cover of a Modern Library that rouses an atavistic urge sharp as hunger. The Modern Library editions my parents collected when they were in college were the backdrop against which the cinema of life unreeled. Of course I would collect them myself as soon as I was on my own. I was the reader envisioned by Boni & Liveright in 1917 when they conceived the Modern Library imprint: eager to attain culture in the form of immortal literature, but short-pocketed.
I begin reading that night. Philip, the misplaced orphan, who is like a book and also like Maugham himself, finds lost volumes on a shelf. Philip’s severe guardian bought books reflexively but did not read much: “he forgot the odd lots he had bought at one time and another because they were cheap.” And so, among the dry dust of pedagogy, Philip finds some real “old-fashioned novels.” As he read, he forgot “the life about him” and “formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.” How had I missed Maugham before?
What you had forgotten, the dump remembers. It addresses all manner of grave omissions and gaps. That is what I want to believe, and at my place of worship I believe anything I wish.
Whatever led these books to have been discarded sometime close to my Friday 11 a.m. visit? I don’t know. Happenstance is a meaningless miracle with no origin. The dump and what you find there, or don’t, is just one of those things.
I open the cover and see this was a book meant for the long haul, for possession and the permanent shelf. The original owner had affixed a bookplate. These delightful claims on the posterity of one’s books have fallen into disuse. Because the idea of building a library—a lasting monument to character—has itself fallen into disuse in days when it is a moral superiority to get rid of the “unuseful.” The plate is an atmospheric woodcut depicting two figures (or perhaps the same one in a time-lapse portrayal of hope), one defeated and one who has risen to gesture aspiringly at the night sky. Ad Astra reads its legend—To the Stars.
In another two weeks my own garbage has piled up warningly, predictable as few things are anymore. The lids on the recycling bins are askew, plastic and tin looking to make their escape. So I load the truck again. I don’t permit myself to look at the old sideboard until I’ve finished my final task: a walk down the hill to the scrap metal mountain, there to toss with a clang the Christmas tree holder that’s outlived its usefulness. Then I head back up and into the nave, eye searching for the telltale heap of cardboard boxes that signals ripe pickings. No such luck. There is only one small box on the ground; I fear an old Thermos or, worse, pot holders. Instead—and this I swear, for only a sociopath lies in church—there are only two books. I am suddenly struck, or struck back to the moment where you get born again.
I have been an atheist for decades, but I have also long bent to collect pennies from the dirt, believing them portents of luck. The dump embraces both aspects of an inexplicable persistence. It is a place of generosity. It is an oracle. Today I think I was right about the church part. Maybe only god can help us now. But first, I look well at what is found by chance at the same time it is put right in my hands.
Image Credit: Pexels/Wendelin Jacober.
The most unexpected literary metropolis in the United States is Pittsburgh. Known less for literature than for producing more steel than any other place on Earth, Pittsburgh was literally the Ally’s arsenal during WWII and was central in America’s 20th-century ascent. But when industry collapsed during the Reagan administration, it — like her sisters Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Detroit — became a region adrift. For years the city was a Rust Belt punch line to those too ill-informed to experience the tough beauty of the place. And yet economics can be destiny, which is why it’s heartening, surprising, and in some sense worrying to see Pittsburgh discovered now by national magazines and newspapers which are always looking for the next location, a new Portland or Austin where arty people with expendable cash can drink craft beer and go to pop-up art galleries. In a few years we’ve gone from being the “Paris of Appalachia” (as if there should be any shame in that!) to Williamsburg on the Three Rivers. Yet the place itself remains more complicated, confusing, contradictory, beautiful, and glorious than the national media ever realized.
These dichotomies are too simple, though; they skirt the reality of a place, especially one that was so central in the “consequence of America” (as Pittsburgh poet Jack Gilbert put it). Pittsburgh is a synecdoche for the nation, a microcosm of the things that made America magnificent, but also of the things that damaged the country. There is great drama in its story, from being the first metropolis on that ever westward expanding frontier, to becoming the industrial “hell with the lid taken off” of Victorian essayist James Parton, to the reinventions of today. This is inevitably the stuff of great literature.
No less than Herman Melville once declared that “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.” Gilbert echoed Melville, when he remarked to The Paris Review, “You can’t think small in a steel mill.” Part of this is because the area certainly has a lot that can be written about: dramatic topography and sometimes-tragic history, cosmopolitan expansiveness as well as damaging provincialism, the still almost inexplicable physical beauty and the grime of industry. No declaration of it as the “Most Livable City in America” can fully contain these paradoxes. But in the writing of Willa Cather, John Edgar Wideman, Michael Chabon, Stewart O’Nan, and Ellen Litman we see a fuller expression of the raw energy of Pittsburgh than one does in the simple platitudes of official civic boosters.
As a native Pittsburgher, even when I was young, I intuited how heavy and determined the history of the city was, the very surroundings a sort of palimpsest. As with that type of manuscript, even though there may be an accumulation of layers of new letters on top, the previous generations’ words can still be visible underneath, if not always legible. What follows is a recommended reading list that tries to elucidate the nature of this palimpsest. We shouldn’t be surprised by that variety of voices. Pittsburgh continues to have a thriving literary scene outside of all proportion for its size, not just in the celebrated creative writing departments at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and other colleges and universities in the area, but in initiatives like City of Asylum, which houses writers in exile from their home nations; the writers’ network Litsburgh; or the small bookstore scene (with the welcome recent return of the excellent City Books). The region lends itself to such sublime inspirations as to create poets and writers of a surprising caliber, as Annie Dillard herself imagines Pittsburgh “poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag” where she can “see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills’ curves, rows of bonfires winding. At sunset a red light like house fires shines from the narrow hillside windows; the houses’ bricks burn like glowing coals.” Gilbert was right; it’s hard to think small here.
1. Modern Chivalry: Containing the Adventures of Captain John Farrago and Teague O’Regan, His Servant by Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1792)
One candidate for the first actual American novel is the first work on this list. Although rarely read by anyone other than specialists today, Brackenridge conceived of Modern Chivalry as an American Don Quixote, a maximalist attempt to convey the full complexity, vigor, and reality of life on the western frontier. The errant knight in Breckenridge’s massive novel is John Farrago, who decides to “ride about the world a little…to see how things were going on here and there, and to observe human nature.” In his endeavors through the western Pennsylvanian landscape, Farrago’s Sancho Panza is a drunken Irish layabout named Teague O’Regan. Along the way, Brackenridge presents his readers with a Pynchonesque satire of an America on the verge of both the second great awakening and ultimately Jacksonian democracy, making the first American novel also the first road novel. Brackenridge was in some ways as quixotic as the character he created. Scottish by birth and Philadelphian by upbringing, Breckenridge’s literary ambitions began at Princeton, where he wrote the poem “The Rising Glory of America” (about what you’d expect) with his friend Philip Freneau and delivered it on the steps of Nassau Hall in 1771 in a pique of revolutionary fervor. After the War of Independence, he set out to the west to make his fortunes in Pittsburgh, which though already the metropolis of Trans-Appalachia was still a frontier settlement of no more than 400 people. While there Brackenridge would make himself the “great man” that he felt he had the potential to be, a potential that due to its large size would not be realized in that Quaker city to the east. Brackenridge afforded himself of every opportunity the growing western settlement offered, not just writing Modern Chivalry but both founding what would be The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the University of Pittsburgh. In Modern Chivalry he proves Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that “Europe extends to the Alleghenies; America lies beyond,” depicting a growing city that was part of France longer than it was in Britain, and thus becomes more originally American than Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia, Dutch New York, or Cavalier Baltimore. Modern Chivalry presents to us with a strange twilight era, the age of the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, and the Whiskey Rebellion. The novel shows Pittsburgh on the edge of civilization, when the frontier began to burn its way west to the Pacific, a liminal Pittsburgh neither totally east nor west (as indeed it remains so today).
2. The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie (1892)
Pittsburghers have a strange relationship to the generation of men who made the city one of the wealthiest metropolises in the country (and indeed whose accumulated inherited wealth in part helped the city survive the collapse of industry). Names like Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, Westinghouse, and Heinz adorn museums, universities, schools, parks, and churches. Yet an appreciation is tempered by a certain working class suspicion; the hike is short from Henry Clay Frick’s opulent Clayton estate at the edge of the park named for him to the spot on the Monongahela across from where Pinkertons killed nine striking steelworkers in 1891. Carnegie occupies a complicated place in the psyche of the city, a poor Scottish immigrant whose life story is uncomfortably close to the bootstrap mythos of his adopted nation. Carnegie wasn’t simply the richest man in the world, but also one of the most generous philanthropists the country ever produced. A socialist in his youth, Carnegie eventually argued that redistributive justice through either labor unions or state intervention was unnecessary, and rather it was the paternal responsibility of the great man of industry to support his working brother. And so a thousand libraries bloomed, whether workers wanted them or not (raises in pay and better working conditions were another matter). In The Gospel of Wealth he puts forward his philosophy of philanthropy, one that was perhaps generous, but also very firmly on his terms (and sometimes not so transparently to his benefit as well). His bearded, kindly face peers out of a bronzed statue in the lobby of the music hall that bears his name, his shockingly small stature giving him an elfin appearance. There is an ambivalence surrounding him — gratitude for the sheer amount of good he contributed with his wealth, but also the feeling that it was a fire escape used to ameliorate guilt he felt over things like his deputy Frick’s handling of the Homestead steel strike (not to mention the role both played in the tragic Johnstown Flood). Despite it all, there is something avuncular about his still-ghostly presence as Pittsburgh’s tiny Scottish uncle, who must feel some gratitude that we’re the only people west of Edinburgh able to pronounce his name correctly (emphasis on that first syllable).
3. “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather in The Troll Garden (1905)
While most associated with the weather-beaten plains of her adopted Nebraska explored in novels like O Pioneers! (1913) and then the scorched deserts of New Mexico in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Cather made Pittsburgh her home for 10 years. She explored the city in several short stories, most famously in her poignantly heartbreaking “Paul’s Case.” A landmark in American queer writing, “Paul’s Case” follows the attempted escape of its titular character, a sensitive adolescent aesthete who is oppressed by the Protestant work ethic of his father that permeates everything as completely as the industrial exhaust clinging blackly to every building’s exterior. Yet an opera performance at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall indicates to the young man that a different manner of being is possible. He absconds with stolen money from his father and spends a week living the life of a refined sophisticate in New York City. When his father comes to retrieve him, rather than return home, Paul commits suicide by jumping in front of a train bound for Pennsylvania. A work of nuanced sophistication, “Paul’s Case” captures Pittsburgh at its dreary, industrial height, and connects the regimented, clock-work like rationalism of its factories to the oppressive strictures of the Calvinism that justified the dour capitalism of the era. In this context Paul’s rebellion, though tragic, is not a failure, for in the music halls of this gray city he was able to see a different world, even if he couldn’t make that world his home.
4. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
Her name conjures images of Left Bank bohemianism, of late-night absinthe and hash-fueled salons in her parlor, of the Seine slinking through Paris. Yet despite being the veritable mayor of the expat Lost Generation, the first river Stein would have known was not the Seine but the Allegheny. Born to a family of wealthy German Jews in Allegheny, Penn., (which is now Pittsburgh’s Northside), she was of the same community that fostered families like the Kaufmanns, once famous for their now-defunct department store chain and primarily associated with their glorious Frank Lloyd Wright house at Fallingwater. Allegheny was to Pittsburgh as Brooklyn was to New York, and as both were in some sense forcibly annexed by their larger neighbors, a certain independence still lingers in both places today. Stein reflected little on her short Pittsburgh childhood (the family moved to Oakland), and yet in the ghostwritten voice of her lover Alice B. Toklas, she wrote, “As I am an ardent Californian and as she spent her youth there I have often begged her to be born in California but she has always remained firmly born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. She left it when she was six months old and has never seen it again and now it no longer exists being all of it Pittsburgh.”
5. Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell (1941)
Although today the adjacent city of Braddock is primarily known for a maudlin (and yet still moving) Levi’s ad and its imposing shaven-head mayor John Fetterman, it was once the site of the Edgar Thompson Steelworks, the first Bessemer process steel mill in the world. (It should be said that portions of the mill are still in operation, despite the city losing 90 percent of its population from its historic height). That industrial site is the setting for Thomas Bell’s (ne’ Adalbert Thomas Belejcak) working class epic about Slovakian, Lemko, and Hungarian mill workers from the late 19th century through the mid-20th. Alongside other marginalized modernist authors like Tillie Olsen and Pietro di Donato, Bell offered an unsparing and unsentimental portrait of the brutality of work, alongside the often-insurmountable bigotry directed towards immigrants. Bell eschews any sort of romanticism, and Out of This Furnace is not social realist agitprop, but it is a clear-eyed depiction of the sort of violence that unregulated capitalism can enact on individuals and their communities. Throughout what emerges is a sober defense of labor rights and unionization in ensuring that the American dream is equitably available to all.
6. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City by Stefan Lorant (1964)
Pittsburgh has the appearance of a love-child produced after a drunken one-night stand between San Francisco and Detroit. This is a compliment. Carved by three rivers cutting through the Allegheny Mountains, the city has a dramatic vista that is endlessly commented on in Pittsburgh and perennially surprises newcomers. The combination of a modern metropolis nestled among the river-kissed valleys and mountains gives the entire place a profoundly different feel from other similarly sized cities. With the iconic inclines on Mt. Washington, or the sudden conjuring of the cityscape like a mirage onto one’s field of vision as it emerges from behind the rural hills dotting I-79 North, the skyline is consistently ranked one of the most beautiful in America. Hungarian journalist Stefan Lorant worked with Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith to produce this massive album of Pittsburgh at mid-century, during the middle of what has been called “Renaissance I.” This civic improvement project, initiated by progressive mayor David L. Lawrence and banker Richard K. Mellon was in large responsible for beautifying the city, pushing for environmental initiatives to clean up the famously Gotham-like grime of the region, and to inaugurate massive building projects. Lorant and Smith’s massive project resulted in a text, that while suspiciously looking like a coffee table book, was perhaps one of the most comprehensive recordings of a mid-sized American city ever accomplished. Perennially popular (and going through several more editions), Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City chronicled in exacting and gorgeous detail everything from the Fifth Avenue mansions on Millionaire’s Row to the brick row houses of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. It remains endlessly fascinating.
7. About Three Bricks Shy: And the Load Filled Up by Roy Blount Jr. (1974)
Western Pennsylvania was the forge that created Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Mike Ditka, Dan Marino, and Joe Namath. Football, from its glories to its toxicity, is religion in Pittsburgh. To fully explain that world requires someone familiar with the doctrine and sacraments of said religion, which the Steelers found in Southern writer Roy Blount Jr., an inhabitant of the only region in American perhaps more football obsessed than Pittsburgh. His About Three Bricks Shy: And the Load Filled Up disproves George Plimpton’s assertion that the smaller the ball, the better the sports writing. A classic of the genre, Blount’s account follows the exploits of the team before the Steel Curtain juggernaut of the late-’70s. The glory days of four Super Bowls in six years was still in the future. But the ingredients were all there: Terry Bradshaw as quarterback; the brilliant coach Chuck Noll; running backs Rocky Bleier and John “Frenchy” Fuqua; defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood; defensive back Mel Blount; and the running back Franco Harris (along with his famed “Italian Army”), who one year before accomplished the greatest play in football history with his “Immaculate Reception” (so named in the honking yinzer accent of sportscaster Myron Cope). Blount depicts a team on the verge of greatness, where all the pieces should work together, but just don’t quite do so yet. Presided over by the stodgy yet beloved Irish-Catholic owner Art Rooney Sr., Blount’s book is fascinating for depicting a team right before they would become the high priests of this strange Pittsburgh religion of football.
8. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) by Andy Warhol (1975)
The city could be cold to an eccentric boy like Warhol, but in college at Carnegie Tech he was able to find a community of like-minded artistic compatriots and even mythically contributed a hidden mural to Holiday, now-closed but once the city’s oldest gay bar. With his degree in design, he escaped like Willa Cather’s Paul to New York and supposedly never looked back (though he was buried in the South Hills, his grave littered with Campbell Soup cans from admirers). Yet Andrew Warhola was a good Slovakian Catholic, attending Mass everyday with his mother, even as an adult. She took her son to the Church of St. John Chrysostom when he was an awkward, shy, St. Vitus’s dance afflicted boy. In the Byzantine Catholic splendor of the cathedral in Four Mile Run (the veritable basement of the city, bisected by the Parkway East), he would have marveled at icons of the church’s namesake and the Patristic fathers. In adulthood what did he do but invent a new form of icon based not around Christianity but America’s new religion of capitalism and celebrity, the Virgin Mary replaced with Marilyn Monroe, St. Monica with Jackie O? The city is now home to a large museum devoted to the artist, even though he had a reputation for obscuring his Pittsburgh roots. Indeed The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) strangely incorrectly claims the distinctly less glamorous McKeesport as his hometown. In another interview, he claimed, “I come from nowhere.” And yet an affection for the city in some sense always remained. When David Bowie played him in the film Basquiat (1996), he speaks of the Architecture Hall at the Carnegie Museum of Art where he once took classes: “Hey, we could go to Pittsburgh! I kinda grew up there. They have this room with all the world’s famous statues in it, so you don’t even have to go to Europe any more…just go to Pittsburgh.” Indeed the Northside is still home to Paul Warhola Scrap Metal Inc., run by Andy’s nephew who inherited it from his father, and only a few blocks away from the fashionable art museum baring his uncle’s name. Warhol may have made his career in New York, but he was always a Pittsburgher to the core, another Catholic son of mill hunkies working in a Factory.
9. Hiding Place by John Edgar Wideman (1981)
Although also associated with that other Pennsylvania city to the east where several of his books are set, Pittsburgh is still very much John Edgar Wideman’s town. A writer’s writer who has never claimed the mass readership he deserves (though he certainly has received the prizes, including a PEN/Faulkner award — twice) Wideman chronicled the defeats and triumphs of Pittsburgh’s black neighborhood of Homewood. His novel Hiding Place was rereleased by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1992 sandwiched between his short story collection Damballah (1981) and the novel Sent for you Yesterday (1983) under the title The Homewood Books. Wideman writes in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson, or Jean Toomer, with an understanding of the deep roots (or tentacles) that tie us to our place of origin. Damballah, named about the Haitian Loa of both creation and death, is a magical realist inflected story about Homewood’s semi-mythic creation. Wideman’s works set in Pittsburgh connect the antebellum South, legacies of slavery and intuitional racism, the Great Migration of African Americans to the industrial North, and modern urban blight. In his telling, the runaway slave Sybil Owens founds the neighborhood in the 1840s, her very name conjuring the Sibylline Oracles, a conflation of hoodoo myth and Western classicism. Wideman understands that in life and in fiction the network of interconnection between disparate elements is the very substance of life. One character reflecting on stories told to him by his aunt says, “I heard her laughter, her amens, and can I get a witness, her digressions, the web she spins and brushes away with her hands. Her stories exist because of their parts and each part is a story worth telling, worth examining to find the stories it contains.” For Wideman, storytelling is an act of personal etymology, a way of excavating the repressed history (both individual and national), of cleaning off that which has accrued to your soul.
10. Fences by August Wilson (1983)
Unsurpassed in scope, Wilson wrote 10 plays for each decade of the 20th century, nine of which are focused on the historically black Pittsburgh neighborhood of the Hill District. He has been celebrated with two Pulitzer Prizes, his name in marquees lights on a Broadway theater, a museum in Pittsburgh, and soon a Denzel Washington–produced series based on the entire cycle to appear on HBO. Born to a black mother who moved north in the Great Migration from North Carolina and a German immigrant father, Wilson was a master of code switching with an ear for American vernacular that surpasses David Mamet. In depicting the denizens of Wylie and Centre Avenues some characters reoccur, such as the supernatural Aunt Esther, a “washer of souls” who is already 285 years old at the time of Gem of the Ocean (2003), the first play in the cycle set in the 1900s. Across plays like Jitney (1982), The Piano Lesson (1987), and King Hedley II (1999), he explores painful issues of race and class in a way no playwright has before or since. Composed out of chronological order, The Pittsburgh Cycle in its entirely allows audiences to explore the relationships between space and time in the production of a particular place. Although grounded in the concrete streets of the Hill, he’s able to focus that vision out in a universal manner. Wilson takes the encyclopedic vastness of the great explorers of location, like James Joyce and William Faulkner, and weds it to performed drama. In the mouths of his characters, the Hill is animated on stage in a way few other places have ever been in the theater. Fences, set in the ’50s, is arguably the most celebrated play of the cycle, winning both a Pulitzer and a Tony, and starring James Earl Jones in its Broadway premiere. Focusing on Troy, a once promising baseball player who didn’t break into the Negro League and who now works as a garbage man, the play’s themes of middle-aged despair and infidelity lend it a universal quality despite being set in a particular time and place (one that is perhaps distant from those in the audience, especially people lucky enough to be in the expensive seats). As Wilson said about the play, audiences see in Troy “love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty,” and can begin to understand that “these things are as much part of his life as theirs.”
11. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (1985)
Although she grew up only a 20-minute bus ride from the neighborhood depicted in The Pittsburgh Cycle, Dillard’s upbringing was one of privilege, which she explores in this memoir. She calls her childhood neighborhood of Point Breeze the “Valley of the Kings,” after the Egyptian necropolis of the pharaohs. Though by the time of her youth in the ‘50s, the area was solidly upper middle class (her father was an oil executive, and she attended the exclusive Ellis School), the remnants of its much more opulent Gilded Age past marked Point Breeze. Evidence of the tremendous wealth that shaped the city was everywhere, in robber baron mansions subdivided into apartments and the wrought-iron gate that used to be H.J. Heinz’s fence running alongside blocks of Penn Avenue. The city was built on top of itself, its history waiting to be excavated like an archeologist scouring that actual Valley of the Kings. This helped to develop Dillard’s gift for sensory detail, which she has honed into an almost theological precision. In An American Childhood she recounts how upon officially leaving the Presbyterian church as an adolescent, the minister told her that she would be back, and in many ways he was correct (if not as how he intended). Her prose (which has more than a bit of the poetic about it) adopted the sacramental poetics of a Gerard Manley Hopkins, awareness that the world is simultaneously fallen and enchanted with a charged energy. As she writes,
Skin was earth; it was soil. I could see, even on my own skin, the joined trapezoids of dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit the morning he made Adam from dirt. Now, all these generations later, we people could still see on our skin the inherited prints of the dust specks of Eden.
One of the most important themes of Pittsburgh literature, if we can generalize a theory of the genre, is for the possibility of transcendence in the mundane and for the sacred in the profane. Dillard may be most celebrated for bringing this awareness to her observations of the natural world in rural Virginia, but it was a spiritual skill inculcated by the contradictions of Pittsburgh, where rusting mills abut massive parks, that she first learned the personal vocabulary of matter and spirit.
12. Paradise Poems by Gerald Stern (1985)
One of the great Pittsburgh poets, Gerald Stern has diction and a personality that many would read as “New York,” which is to say as “Jewish.” Indeed (and not to conflate the regions) Stern would find himself in the unlikely position of Poet Laureate of New Jersey from 2000 to 2002. But despite his ultimate destination, Stern was very much a product of the steep, cobble-stoned streets of South Squirrel Hill, and his yiddishkeit personality of wry ironic humor and steadfast commitment to justice were very much incubated there. Many are surprised to learn that Pittsburgh is home to one of the largest urban Jewish communities in the United States, where every variety of the Jewish experience from Hasidism to socialist Zionism historically has had adherents. Often compared to his friend the former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine (who similarly explored his own native city of Detroit), Stern’s verse expresses a similar industrial and Midwestern Jewish American experience. Like his other friend Gilbert, Stern would spend his life traveling and living in more exotic locations than the east end of Pittsburgh (pursuing graduate school in Paris for example). But also like Gilbert he can’t shake Pittsburgh, the language of that city permeating his speech and more importantly his consciousness. Stern’s poetry is not just introspective or confessional, but indeed sly and funny; it’s not just intellectual, but unpretentious. He is not simply wise; he is also humane. His commitments come from both a secular understanding of the Torah and the Talmud, and the working class experience of a Pittsburgh youth, what Gilbert called the “tough heaven” of the city. This is a distinctly non-utopian place where Stern argues that we must stake out our claims to utopia even within the heartbreak and discord of a broken and fallen world. This sense of not just the possibility for a restored world, but also the ethical imperative of it, is seen in his poem “The Dancing” from the collection Paradise Poems. A profound Holocaust poem, he depicts a “tiny living room / on Beechwood Boulevard” where his family celebrates the conclusion of the Second World War. Here they joyously dance to Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro,” “my hair all streaming, / my mother red with laughter, my father…doing the dance / of old Ukraine.” He calls upon the “God of mercy, oh wild God” here “In Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh,” which exists in a world that can produce both the horrors of the Holocaust and the joys of dancing. Stern’s prophetic injunction is that we must live as if the world could be perfected precisely because it can’t be.
13. Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (1989)
Chabon would later claim that he conceived of Mysteries of Pittsburgh as an unlikely cross between The Great Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Like both of those novels, Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a bildungsroman of sorts, a young man’s novel all the more exceptional precisely because of how young a man its author was. The book was started at the almost absurdly tender age of 21, all the more remarkable for how he deftly communicated the coming-of-age of its protagonist, Art Bechstein, and that character’s sexually confused summer after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. A native of Columbia, Md., Chabon moved to the city as a teenager, graduating from Taylor Allderdice high school (like Stern) and studying at both CMU and Pitt. He combines both an outsider and transplant’s eye for the region, chronicling the previously underexplored reality of characters associated with the universities of the area that have increasingly come to dominate the cultural and economic life of the city as Pittsburgh transforms itself into America’s largest college town. Although acutely aware of the industrial past, Chabon’s men and women travel the leafy, Tudor-homed, middle-class streets of Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, and work in Oakland under the shadow of Pitt’s massive gothic skyscraper of a building called the Cathedral of Learning. Mysteries of Pittsburgh eschews the typical lunch-pail, shot-and-a-beer, smokestack stereotypes that linger about the city, rather portraying the tweedy, quasi-bohemian lives of writers and students (though those characters are just as likely to enjoy a boilermaker or several at that dive, the Squirrel Cage). He fuses Jewish, queer, and popular culture themes while generating characters that display a deep interiority. Both his honesty and nostalgia avoid the pitfalls of cynicism; his Pittsburgh is what it is, exhibiting a clear affection while also being aware of where it lags. This is perhaps even clearer in 1995’s Wonder Boys, arguably one of the greatest campus novels ever written, and certainly the greatest one about the Pittsburgh literary scene. It follows the weekend exploits of Professor Grady Tripp (obviously based on Pitt’s Chuck Kinder) and his brilliant student James Leer. In the narrative concerning Tripp’s demons and his sort-of-redemption, Chabon’s honesty allows us to avoid sentimentality while still offering a defense of why we read fiction at all. That doesn’t mean he can’t engage in some earthy Pittsburgh anti-pretentious shit-talking, as Tripp remarks, “There were so many Pittsburgh poets in my hallway that if, at that instant, a meteorite had come smashing through my roof, there would never have been another stanza written about rusting fathers and impotent steelworkers and the Bessemer convertor of love.”
14. The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 by Jack Gilbert (1994)
After winning the coveted Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962, East Liberty’s Jack Gilbert briefly found himself celebrated as a literary wonder boy, yet he would ultimately choose what he called a “self-imposed isolation.” Though he spent a life “In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont” and “On Greek islands with their fields of stone,” he psychically remained grounded in “what remains of Pittsburgh in me.” His hometown was such an abiding subject of Gilbert’s that his poetry concerning it was collected in the anthology Tough Heaven (2006), including “Searching for Pittsburgh” originally included in The Great Fires. He describes, “The rusting mills sprawled gigantically / along three rivers” and the “gritty alleys where we played every evening” that were “stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky.” For Gilbert, Pittsburgh is “Sumptuous-shouldered, / sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable” — as perfect a description as I have ever read. This is a place of “deep-rooted grace. / A city of brick and tired wood,” with “The beauty forcing us as much as the harshness.” This catholic (lowercase c) sense of the numinous embedded even in the injustices of the world was one Gilbert witnessed first hand among the hardships but also the sublimity of working-class life in East Liberty; it allowed him to understand that “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude” (as he wrote in his poem “A Brief for the Defense”). Central to Gilbert — and maybe Pittsburgh writers from Stern to Dillard — is this powerful, nostalgic, sense of loss, of an ache associated with the disappearance of things once so significant. In one of his most moving Pittsburgh poems, “Trying to Have Something Left Over,” also collected in The Great Fires, Gilbert describes entertaining the baby of his Danish mistress while the mother is occupied with chores. He writes of making the child laugh saying, “Pittsburgh softly each time before throwing him up…Pittsburgh and happiness high up. / The only way to leave even the smallest trace. / So that all his life her son would feel gladness/unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined / city of steel in America. Each time almost / remembering something maybe important that got lost.”
15. Muscular Music by Terrance Hayes (1999)
One of the last poems in Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry was about a gay bar in Downtown Pittsburgh and was by a then–29-year-old, straight, black poet from Columbia, S.C., named Terrence Hayes. Dove included Hayes alongside poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg as an exemplar of American verse. In what was consciously (and controversially) a cannon-defying collection, Dove choose to include Hayes as the almost-culmination of the last century of American poetry, a vote of confidence for his future significance. Across four collections, and first as a creative writing professor at Carnegie Mellon and now at Pitt, Hayes has explored race and sexuality, popular culture and personal epiphany. He is a poet for our moment, a bard for Barack Obama’s America examining issues of gender and race as lived in this moment. In “At Pegasus,” he writes of awkwardly informing one man who asks him to dance “I’m just here for the music. Even with the masculine defensiveness, he is able to tenderly reflect that he has “held / a boy on my back before. / Curtis & I used to leap / barefoot into the creek,” transporting himself from Pegasus back to a southern childhood. Considering the liberatory potential of the place, he describes the bar in distinctly Yeatsian terms with “the edge of these lovers’ gyre, /glitter & steam, fire, / bodies blurred sexless / by the music’s spinning light,” a veritable egalitarian democracy of men. He is able to empathetically link his childhood play with these men, “each breathless as a boy / carrying a friend on his back.” He explains, “These men know something / I used to know. / How could I not find them / beautiful, they way they dive & spill / into each other.” For Hayes, Pittsburgh isn’t some conservative old industrial town, but indeed a place that, however unlikely some may think, can hold a bit of emancipatory potential for those willing to look (even for outsiders).
16. One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles “Teenie” Harris by Deborah Willis (2002)
Pittsburgh’s African-American neighborhoods have had an outside influence on wider black culture. The Hill District would ultimately become Pittsburgh’s version of Harlem, home to jazz clubs and bars, and a center in that cultural renaissance. As the halfway point between New York and Chicago, the Pittsburgh jazz scene hosted every major musician to perform. The city also produced an unlikely array of talent, including Art Blakey; George Benson; Erroll Garner; Ahmad Jamal; Stanley Turrentine; Billy Eckstine; Lena Horne; and most notably Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s composer whose signature “Take the A Train” was based off of directions that Strayhorne received. The Hill was also home to The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s oldest and most venerable black newspapers, which employed the photographer Charlie “Teenie” Harris (so nicknamed for his diminutive height). Teenie had another nickname, “One Shot,” for his borderline mythic ability to capture an almost perfect image on one try. This collection of his mid-century work curated by artist Deborah Willis gives the viewer a sense of the photographer’s scope. As the presiding archivist of the Hill, Harris took over 80,000 images, of everyone from the celebrities who traveled through (including JFK, Joe Louis, Richard Nixon, Dizzy Gillespie, Martin Luther King Jr., and dozens of others) to life in Pittsburgh’s speakeasies and black churches, from the Crawford Grill to that jazz club’s Negro League baseball team the Pittsburgh Crawfords. His massive inventory of images is perhaps the most full and complete recording of any black community in the United States, perhaps of any community at all. Archivists at the Carnegie Museum of Art are combing through the collection, identifying figures and locations. Through the entire body of work what is most conveyed is singular warmth of the people depicted even in sometimes desperate circumstances, a characteristic of the Pittsburgh aesthetic.
17. The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories by Ellen Litman (2008)
Western Pennsylvania, like many parts of the industrial Midwest, has long been home to eastern European communities. Onion-domed churches punctuate the skylines of industrial towns as surely as factory smokestacks. The latest wave of immigrants arrived starting in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, when the campaign to save Soviet Jewry resulted in the relocation of thousands of persecuted Russian Jews to the United States. In Pittsburgh many of them settled in the neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill and Greenfield, including Ellen Litman, who emigrated from Moscow in 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Last Chicken in America follows her roman a clef Masha’s hybridized identity split between the Old World and New. Litman could be classifiable as part of the movement of young Russian American authors like Gary Shteyngart writing about America through the prism of their Russian backgrounds. Masha comments on the “unpleasantly wholesome smile” of a Russian friend who has assimilated a bit too readily into American culture, where that mouth now emanates “charm and fluoride, good fortune and good breeding, and you either know it’s fake and don’t trust it, or you trust it too much.” Litman’s account of first generation anxiety translates the Russian genius for ironic pessimism into a middle American vernacular. Her stories capture the storefronts of upstreet Squirrel Hill, where memories of Moscow, Leningrad, and Odessa were first discussed in Russian, then heavily accented English, then English, only to maybe eventually be forgotten. Her character Victor says, “For a true Russian person, immigration is death. A Russian poet can’t survive in immigration.” The novel’s position is agnostic on Victor’s claims, and yet it affirms that the truth of being a hyphenated American can be as contradictory and difficult in 1992 as it was in 1892 (or 2016).
18. The Bend of the World by Jacob Bacharach (2014)
That people are finally paying attention to Pittsburgh is obviously good. It’s heartening for residents to see the city of which so many are fiercely proud receiving some positive press after decades of being overlooked or portrayed as another Rust Belt casualty. But there is a fear that something could be lost if this enthusiasm is too manufactured, for as the writer of Ecclesiastes might have reminded us (in his own way), “What The New York Times Sunday Style section giveth, The New York Times Sunday Style section can taketh away.” One must remember that to be the “New Portland” requires that there is an “Old Portland,” and all it takes is for Cincinnati or Buffalo or Peoria or wherever to unseat you. Hipsters (and their fellow travelers) were of course first attracted to the city by how cheap it was, but part of the charm of the place is something I call “gentle surrealism.” This is a phenomenon that resists the conscious weirdness of those trying too hard; its unpretentious and seemingly unaware of what uncoolness even is. An area that used to view pretzels encased in lime-green Jell-O as a type of desert has more than a whiff of the gently surreal about it. In first-time novelist Jacob Bacharach’s The Bend of the World, the protagonist believes that Pittsburgh is a “nexus of intense magical occurrence.” The satirical novel features UFO’s, Sasquatches, and inter-dimensional conspiracies, a gentle slice of surrealism served, Pittsburgh-style, with fries on top. Bacharach proves true what Jack Gilbert wrote all those years ago, that whether Steel City or travel section destination, “Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Look, it’s hard being the bloodthirsty kingpin of a multinational drug smuggling cartel. Apparently Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has been feeling a bit sorry for himself post-capture, so what did Eduardo Guerrero, head of Mexico’s prison systems, think would cheer him up? He brought him a copy of Don Quixote.
Ilan Stavans’s introduction to the quadricentennial edition of Don Quixote is available on the Literary Hub website. As he explains it, the narrative is both baffling and perfect: “What I like most about Don Quixote is its imperfection. I wasn’t wrong in my teens about the sloppiness of the writing; it is just that my attitude was too pedantic. It is, unquestionably, a defective narrative. Cervantes is often criticized as a numb and careless stylist.”
1. Two Sides of the Same Street
If you’ve read a review of any novel by Tom McCarthy anytime in the last 10 years, you know that you don’t have to look very far to find the term avant-garde, and equally as often, the consensus that McCarthy is the new standard bearer of the avant-garde in contemporary fiction. While the claim is no less true despite the ease with which it is repeatedly made, the framing of what this mantle means is less frequently explored, and has somewhat problematic origins. The stone in the pond here belongs to Zadie Smith, who in 2009 contrived a binary between Joseph O’Neill’s bestselling novel Netherland and McCarthy’s debut work, Remainder, announcing the latter as an “assassination” of an exalted brand of realism, and an “alternate road down which the novel, might, with difficulty, travel forward.” The philosophical templates behind this antagonism were well sketched, if muddled somewhat is Smith’s distillation; on the one hand — epiphany, redemption, coherency of language and memory, and the ontological superiority of subjective experience over the world; on the other — method, process, simulacra, hard materialism, and false transcendence.
Simple enough, yes? If there was a charm to the proposal it was in its sincere, if not somewhat mannered frustration about a long-standing though largely non-threatening conflict with traditional literary realism (in Smith’s words: “lyrical realism,” an equally slippery designation.) And though the blemishes of Smith’s argument lie precisely in wind-up prescriptions like the kind mentioned above, it is also a part of her success and influence as a critic –– and lo, in the years since the publication of “Two Paths For the Novel” in The New York Review of Books, the contention that McCarthy is the inheritor of a much needed literary iconoclasm has been almost universally adopted and disputed only by a few. The underlying assumption that both its affirmers and detractors leave largely unexplored however, is the question of what exactly the avant-garde means to contemporary literature, where it is to be found, what defines it, and whether or not it is even possible.
Smith herself can hardly be blamed; her essay –– another addition to an ever-expanding catalogue of literary manifestos –– is merely one person’s testimony in a waiting room full of patients claiming the same malady. The real, albeit incidental insight that emerged in the aftermath of the essay, was that its proposed solutions betrayed a genuine need born out of something endemic, something we are all actually desperate for –– a coherent framing of contemporary literary conflict and an authentic mode of resistance to a increasingly corporate literary monoculture.
Today, manifestos are a cheap commodity, as easy to pen as they are to rally behind, and must, it seems, in order to maintain their integrity, announce this fact; (Lars Iyer’s “Nude In Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss (A Literary Manifesto After The End of Literature and Manifestos”) comes to mind.) But while its authors aren’t able to escape this debilitating self-awareness, it is precisely in this irony that the manifesto reveals its necessary value. As co-founder and chairman of the International Necronautical Society –– an organization with an foundational manifesto of inauthenticity and a self-proclaimed penchant for death, failure, and false-redemption –– McCarthy seems playfully complicit in the genre’s comic real estate, as well as in the idea that the avant-garde does not inherently represent an obliteration of artistic or intellectual tradition, but is rather a renewable resource. Consequently, McCarthy has found himself enlisted in an argument that he not only didn’t start, but seems to have been working actively to deflate for two decades now.
It would be myopic to view Remainder as an assassination of a lyrical trend the likes of which Joseph O’Neill’s novel represented, since both novels are mutually loyal progeny to their literary ancestors, with Remainder owing as much to Alain Robbe-Grillet and J.G. Ballard as Netherland does to Gustave Flaubert and Vladimir Nabokov. Even though this posture feels affected and outmoded only six years later –– with several critics pointing out how the argument dissolves when taken to its logical terminus –– the attitude of the “Two Paths” model still has currency, though less in its clarion calls than in the subtle and insidious brand of market logic it represents; its inheritors seeking to establish their camps based on the successes and failures of recent novels instead of challenging what the avant-garde means in an increasingly monolithic industry where favored aesthetics are bred based on what brings in the highest profits. McCarthy’s new novel tackles this question head on and in a way that frees itself from the kind of pigeonholing his first novel was susceptible to. If Remainder represented the abandonment of the pure and sacred self against the apparatus of a long held tradition of realism, then Satin Island seeks to reveal how such distinctions are ultimately meaningless.
2. Explain Everything!
Satin Island takes on a lot within the space of its covers. Indeed, for a novel that is fewer than 200 pages, it is remarkably dense and polysemous –– at times it seems to accomplish more in this space than many much larger novels achieve in triple the length. This time McCarthy concerns himself directly with manifestos, and the manifesto here is on perhaps the greatest subject of all: The Contemporary –– which is to say, the Postmodern (whatever that means.) Indeed, this is precisely the joke that surrounds our protagonist –– a “Corporate Anthropologist” (a sort of liberal arts student-cum-corporate cog) –– throughout the novel. Like Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon before him, McCarthy maintains an interest in hidden networks and bottomless bureaucracies that baffle common sense and intuition. As usual, McCarthy remains comically oblique about the presumed details of plot and character, though our protagonist, known only as U. (there’s Kafka again) is certainly not without psychology or ambition. Of “The Company” that employs him in Present Tense Anthropology™ he says only:
“…[it] advised other companies how to contextualize and nuance their services and products. It advised cities how to brand and re-brand themselves; regions how to elaborate and frame regenerative strategies; governments how to narrate their policy agendas –– to the press, the public and, not least, themselves. We dealt, as Peyman liked to say, in narratives.”
This can be read as the mission statement of modern brand marketing: the total dissemination of an idea, not a product –– less concerned with things than with the narrative between things. The “Great Report” for the “Koob-Sassen Project,” for which our protagonist inherits the role of “architect,” is never clearly explained, though it is suggested that it’s a kind of master narrative that explains everything and is everywhere all the time: “It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed…” U. discusses the Project in circumambulatory fashion, (assuming some non-disclosure clause) and only ever describes it in relation to his visions of a titanic, desert-bound work site:
I saw towers rising in the desert — splendid, ornate constructions, part modern skyscraper, part sultan’s palace lifted from Arabian Nights: steel and glass columns segueing into vaulted cupolas and stilted arches, tiled muqarnas, dwindling minarets that seemed, at their cloud-laced peaks, to shed their own materiality, turn into vapor. Below them, hordes of people — thousands, tens of thousands — labored, moving around like ants, their circuits forming patterns on the sand; patterns that, in their amalgam, coalesced into one larger, more coherent pattern, just as the meandering, bowing, divagating stretches of a river delta do when seen from high enough above.
In addition to many others, this vision belongs to U.’s private bank of revisited images –– including footage of oil spills, hydraulic machines stretching taffy, and a possible murder mystery surrounding the death of a sky diver.
When collected, they reveal how the corporate superstructure (or supra-structure) can become a lattice through which one can view all human activity, and diagram that activity into a single coherent narrative. After all, anthropology, in its most ambitious form, is essentially totalitarian, seeking to explain all human behavior –– not simply to diagnose what prompts that behavior, but to find a grid through which it can be connected and codified. In short, everything that appears distinct and separate is actually a different version of the same thing. In The Gift, Marcel Mauss was convinced that however foreign and irrational the trade practices of primitive societies appeared to westerners, the most sophisticated and advanced industrial economies rested on the same integral logic of exchange. That everything can be explained with a narrative that allows all features to co-exist in apparent disharmony is the dream of the structural anthropologist, the father of which, Claude Lévi-Strauss, U. tells us, is his hero. This is also the dream of the modern corporation, is it not?: to assimilate all culture into a single, interchangeable narrative, which continues to succeed despite internal variance and transition. If this is the dream, than the Koob-Sassen Project is its manifesto.
Historically the novel and the manifesto have been the two delivery systems for the avant-garde. While the latter hopes to goad the former into existence by commanding a switch in consciousness, the novel creates consciousness on its own terms and for its own sake. Manifestos are inherently arrogant and utopian by nature, seeking to explain the whole of their time and replace the miserable, vulgar past with an exalted vision of the future. Often bound to hard ideologies, like fascism and communism, it is no surprise that the early 20th century was the heyday of the form (F.T. Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism and the 1918 Manifesto I of the De Stijl group are perhaps the best examples of this.)
To regard the manifesto as something that serves an art form is to slightly misunderstand its usefulness. As a genre it is essentially self-satisfying, always benefitting its loyal disciples more than the form as a whole. McCarthy, of course, is all too aware of this, having described the manifesto in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist as “macho” and “inherently ridiculous,” and indeed he seems to have laid this attitude into the marrow of Satin Island’s satirical bones. So, if the ambition of the avant-garde is essentially constructive, seeking to establish a kind of new world order, than McCarthy’s novelistic treatment of this idea seems to be one of negation and dismantlement.
A high ideal of the avant-garde would be a Heideggerian one –– to erupt a new form of consciousness out of a kind of nothingness, and to hurl ourselves through that consciousness which we are scarcely prepared for and desperate to understand, ahead of which only oblivion lies. This certainly appears in the pious avant-gardism of the modernists, vis-à-vis Marinetti’s sleek futuristic visions and Ezra Pound’s refrain “make it new.” In this sense, the challenge that faces new novelists is always epistemic –– an attempt at “new knowledge,” which is ultimately what lies at the heart of U.’s work with the Great Report.
McCarthy himself has spoken about the reusable, or recreational avant-garde –– the kind of experimentalism that beats ahead by reaching back into tradition and appropriating old forms to the standard of our time, sometimes subverting that tradition, sometimes disrupting it violently, sometimes remaining faithful to its origins. This is the avant-garde of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, whom U. seems to hint at when he imagines, “…cells of clandestine new-ethnographic operators doing strange things in deliberate, strategic ways, like those conceptual artists from the sixties who made careers out of following strangers.” In a sense, all appropriations of existing narratives are a form of the avant-garde, from Don Quixote’s demented and bathetic recreations of chivalric romance to the plays of William Shakespeare. This seems to be the avant-garde that McCarthy is most interested in both disrupting and verifying, and providing a fictional framework in which both its braggadocio and its necessity can co-exist.
In Satin Island, the battleground of this vision of the avant-garde is the modern bureaucracy, that node of systemic knowledge, that endless vista of departments, branches, and research. Through this, the novel immerses itself in the vertiginous and ever-expanding matrix of networked human experience. In other words, McCarthy doesn’t seem to subscribe to the redemptive power of the avant-garde novel within a monolithic industry, but sees the form rather as an endless discursive palliative to a circuitous conflict that only ends with failure and stunted-epiphany. Some authors chose to abandon the novel’s most immediate and natural resources in order to achieve a similar dismantling effect, mainly character and coherency of language as a means of apprehending the World. Jorge Luis Borges sought it through metaphysical abstraction and speculation; writers like Thomas Bernhard and Lázló Krasznahorkai through exhaustive language; theorists like Maurice Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet –– who seemed to regard the novel’s natural resources as ultimately inadequate –– were more willing to saddle their fiction with a philosophical treatment at the expense of things like character and plot.
Blanchot and Robbe-Grillet are obvious influences on McCarthy, but McCarthy himself seems to work more out of the left brain, or perhaps more appropriately, the gut. More often than not, Satin Island operates in the open and imaginative spaces that one would sooner associate with Kafka. Indeed, for all his continental headiness, McCarthy thinks like a novelist better than pretty much anyone, with an acute sense of irony and negative capability thoroughly worked into his characters and not just his theoretical schemas. But where his post-war ancestors believed that form, language, and other aesthetic techniques could be used as tools to overthrow existing orders, McCarthy has seen (if only by virtue of hindsight) that the mainstream coopted this hope of the avant-garde long ago.
3. The Long Last Stop
Nostalgic for eras that have yet to begin, the other side of the avant-garde is equally concerned with the end of institutions. Postmodernism, as Frederick Jameson reminds us, is concerned with the end of things: “the end of art,” “the end of philosophy,” etc. –– an old Hegelian an idea that regained traction in the 1960s when the prospect of a cultural-wide revolution seemed imminent, and continued on through Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the “end of history,” after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the end of Weekend (1967) Jean-Luc Godard announced that the film was “the end of cinema,” intuiting some kind of upheaval that would destroy the cultural patrimony and make art as it had previously been thought of no longer possible. As both McCarthy and Iyer seem to understand, this is the reality in which the manifesto, and its literary counterpart, the avant-garde novel, has to exist, if it is to exist at all.
Jameson most notably described the Postmodern “not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features.” (This is the best definition of Postmodernism I know of, and the only one that has ever made any sense to me.) It could also be the thesis statement for the Koob-Sassen Project. For today, this “cultural dominant” is the modern corporation. Think about it. It explains how The Beatles’ “Revolution” (actually a counterrevolutionary song) can be the soundtrack for a Nike commercial, or how Walt Whitman’s “O Pioneers!” can be used as a narrative to hawk Levi’s jeans. The corporation is at the forefront of the avant-garde, the central engine of appropriation, which is to say, that if the modern avant-garde exists in any form, it is in appropriation, only in what can be hijacked and redeployed. This is precisely what I believe is at the heart of McCarthy’s novel. At one point U., in describing his intellectual style within the company, relates how he stole Gilles Deleuze’s idea of “folds” (or le pli) as a way of explaining various levels of meaning found in the stitching patterns and creases of Levi’s jeans. Here, the engine appropriation appears in disquietingly familiar terms:
“This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I’d deploy in my work for the Company: feeding in vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that reweaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero [Lévi-Strauss] would have called a master-pattern — or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.”
(“…always from the left side of the spectrum.” This is one of many iconoclastic sentiments woven into the protagonist’s noble vision of his profession. On another occasion, in one of U.’s scripted fantasies, he describes the cleanup processes of a massive oil spill as “a putsch, a coup d’état.”)
But, if the Postmodern can only be defined by negation, as a kind of everything and nothing, then its very definition as an aesthetic under which artists might choose to band together or writhe in discontent is essentially meaningless. If we are living in an age beyond epochs, beyond movements or era –– one of perpetual transition and integration in which disparate and often mutually contradictory ideas are swallowed into a larger pattern that ironizes them into co-existence –– can one make a rallying call like Zadie Smith’s with any kind of honesty, without seeming like a mere reactionary? Consider the grim concession of Iyer’s essay –– we can only entertain the illusion that true resistance is possible anymore. Can one eschew popular trends in favor of niche cultures, like the American hipster, without also being a slave to that niche? Isn’t all resistance to the market via consumption itself ultimately an illusion of pluralism and independence?
The overriding fear here, is what Theodor W. Adorno warned us about long ago: that to challenge something is to inherently confer power upon it. Adorno believed that the machine of institutionalized culture made any alteration to that institution, however disruptive, a mere continuation of that system, and that which appeared different was only a stylistic variance; in this system, the avant-garde becomes a set of “additional rules” to the standard vocabulary, in which it “merely increases the power of the tradition which the individual effect seeks to escape.”
McCarthy, respectfully aware of this, offers “the individual effect” as a potential escape hatch for his protagonist, who later in the novel begins to fantasize about destroying The Great Report and the entire Koob-Sassen Project by way of technocratic guerilla-type sabotage: “And then my cohorts, that semi-occluded network of covert anthropologists I’d dreamed into being already…Together, we could turn Present Tense Anthropology™ into an armed resistance movement.” This is the necessary deviation from the system, as Adorno foresaw, which the system itself breeds into existence, reintegrates, and then stabilizes. And fearing the prospect genuine redemption, U. informs us later, rather laconically, rather dispassionately, that the Project, despite his efforts to destroy it, succeeded all the same.
It was perhaps Lévi-Strauss’s greatest and most prophetic premonition that humanity was doomed to monoculture in the absence of space –– in other words, a disposable culture, a non-culture, one that could be created one day and discarded the next, in which the avant-garde is less a genuine adversary of the mainstream than a ventriloquist for dissent. This is the monocultural dead end, the existential equivalent of Coke or Pepsi? Apple or Samsung? And think again about Smith’s essay: Realist or Anti-Realist? It’s no different than a T-Mobile ad that boasts switching providers as a form of liberation and self-definition. And still further into the literary conversation: the hip, enervated insouciance of Tao Lin or the new sentimentalism of David Foster Wallace? To think of the avant-garde this way is to treat it as a mere genre in the cafeteria of literary identity; both are the same kind of unfreedom, different forms of the same essential meaninglessness. The irony inherent in this misplaced sense of independence is exactly what lies underneath U.’s ultimate refusal to visit Staten (Satin) Island at the close of the novel –– that materialist wasteland, the dumping ground for all culture past and present, success or failure:
To visit Staten Island –– actually go there –– would have been profoundly meaningless. What would it, in reality have solved or resolved? Nothing. What space would I have discovered there, and for what concrete purpose? None…And so I found myself, as I waded back through the relentless stream of people, struggling just to stay in the same place, suspended between two types of meaninglessness.
So what are we to take away from this? While the ending of the novel is depressingly bleak, suggesting a perennial void, there is a muted resilience that underscores its very effort, something beyond what the manifesto with all its dogmatic prescriptions could ever hope to achieve. At the risk of sounding formulaic, taking on the idea of what the avant-garde means seems to be the truest path forward for the avant-garde. Satin Island is a successful work of the contemporary avant-garde, I submit, because it does exactly this.
However you wish to group the terms, McCarthy remains one of the few novelists we have who consistently challenges our conceptions of what the novel is for and what it can achieve, even if it never quite succeeds, as the end of Satin Island would suggest. But maybe it does succeed. It succeeds, like the Koob-Sassen Project, even when it attempts to fail, and is always failing even when it appears to have succeeded, with one always elegantly contained in the other. Maybe this ambiguity is the not-so-sexy virtue to abide by. Freedom (however we choose to define it in art) will always go, as Rosa Luxemberg once said, to the one who thinks differently. (But wait, there’s one more caveat: can we uphold this as a single-entendre ideal when one of the most successful marketing campaigns of arguably the most successful company in the history of western capitalism is “Think Different?”)
The avant-garde, in whatever form it takes, ought to be heralded as the last territory of free intellectual and creative identity in spite of this, even within the obvious indefinability of “The Contemporary.” One thing’s for sure, the literary climate we should avoid at all costs is the one in which the avant-garde continues to be a commodity, a standard that is handed off from one writer to the next. Literature has always been a project of the self, a project out of which new forms of consciousness can be forged, and the self is not a supermarket, even when the rest of the world feels like one. As the corporation has coopted the tenets of the avant-garde, so too should the avant-garde (wherever it is to be found) take back the language of corporations and use its own grammar against it. I still like to believe (if only because I have to) what Walter Benjamin said; that a writer can either dissolve an order or found a new one. Today however, the dictum seems slightly different: in an era beyond eras, writers can either choose to found an order or steal one back, even if, like U., we continue to find ourselves forever in between.
Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.
Miguel de Cervantes died and was buried 399 years ago, and apparently no one thought to mark his grave. But the Guardian has reported that after two years of searching a team of archaeologists have found and positively identified the Don Quixote author’s body, and there are plans to open his crypt to the public next year in honor of the 400th anniversary of his death.
In Germany, in the late 1790s and early 1800s, university curators and other supervisors struggled with the balance of power between faculties and centralized administrators. As William Clark details in his book, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, private correspondence between administrators and specialists carried the most weight in promotions and hiring.
“A 1795 article in Berlinische Monatsschrift recommended that sovereigns should not consult universities corporately in formal correspondence,” writes Clark. Instead, “a sovereign should consult with a few scholars via confidential correspondence.”
Clark quotes a contemporary history professor who pointed out an eternal truth: “Although the faculties of learned academies recognize the men who most merit a vacant position, they are still seldom or never inclined to suggest the most capable fellow they know.”
The University of Göttingen would be the first to shift away from the correspondence model and inaugurate the era of “publish-or-perish.” But the letter of recommendation, that grim genre of guarded praise and veiled contempt, is still as ubiquitous as ever.
The protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s seventh book, Dear Committee Members, a professor of creative writing named Jay Fitger, is deluged by these requests. In his hands, the letter of recommendation becomes a means of expressing his wider dissatisfaction with his career and his life, only perfunctorily addressing the question of his students’ and colleagues’ “reliability,” “relevant experience,” and “preparedness.” Fitger eschews form in both senses of the word. His letters are incisive instead of workmanlike, garrulous instead of discreet.
Some of the targets of Schumacher’s piquant satire will be familiar: exploitative graduate program schemes that saddle students with debt and unrealistic expectations; automated human-resource systems; and the strained relationship between the university’s idealists (read: humanities professors) and pragmatists (read: bottom-line administrators), the latter of which will willingly trade a nationally-renowned Department of Slavic Studies for a more attractive salad bar.
But Fitger’s letters are also laced with subtle observations about the writing life. The friends he met in the “the Seminar” (which seem to be modeled on Gordon Lish’s courses at Columbia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), writers who were once poised for glory, have experienced setbacks. One novelist’s life story is Job-like, including the sudden death of a wife, but with the manuscript of his magnum opus in place of the seven children.
Schumacher hints that Fitger, a middle-aged man (who happens to be a professional writer), has come to the recognition that the choices he made as a egotistical young aspirant have poisoned his relationships with friends, mentors, and former lovers. Schumacher doesn’t allow any “all-for-the-art” grandstanding for Fitger either, whose career has nosedived since his early success. Instead, with refreshingly honesty, the letters are shot through with palpable regret. He’s still patiently, vainly, attempting to undo the damage 20 years later. A writer who long ago exhausted his own talent, he is especially invested in a shy young writer who is working on a “Bartleby-in-a-Bordello” updating of Herman Melville. The story, which unfolds tragicomically, is redemptive gesture for Fitger.
At one point, Fitger rails against an MFA program (in what is ostensibly a letter of recommendation for a prospective student) by claiming, fairly, that the program exploits the naïveté of students. He writes, “The point of this digression…is not to discourage the practice of writing: What, after all, is a writer’s life without a dose of despair,” before listing off all the “formidable” obstacles of the contemporary writers. But he finishes by saying, the writing life “despite its horrors, is possibly one of the few sorts of life worth living at all.”
Earlier this year, Eric Bennett claimed in The Chronicle of Higher Eduction that the Cold War axis of humanist academics and Pentagon spooks shaped the ideological clay feet upon which MFA programs stand: “Creative writing has successfully embedded itself in the university by imitating other disciplines without treading on their ground.”
Of course, Cold War politics also shaped a much worse example of the writing life: the exceedingly horrific and efficient system of patronage and intimidation administered by the Soviet Union. The persecution of Boris Pasternak, Isaak Babel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Osip Mandelstam, and many other writers, journalists, and intellectuals underlines the fact that Soviet government was deeply insinuated in the art world, as sponsor as well as censor.
Finally published in 1967, 28 years after its author died, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita cleverly dovetails the persecution of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) by Pontius Pilate in ancient Palestine and the literary-bureaucratic order of 1930s Soviet Russia. In the latter plot, “Professor Woland,” a satanic figure, terrorizes a group of obsequious, craven hacks belonging to the writer’s organization, MASSOLIT, who mostly pander to the secular, brutal Stalinist regime. (For Bulgakov, those two adjectives do tandem duty.)
During their assault on literary Moscow, two demons visit the headquarters of the Soviet writer’s union, Griboyedov’s House, a stand-in for the Gorky House. During the Communist era, the House brought together writers from throughout the Soviet world to meet, teach, and write great literature.
“You know, Behemoth, I’ve heard many good and flattering things said about this house. Take a look at it, my friend! How nice to think that a veritable multitude of talent is sheltered and ripening under this roof!”
“Like pineapples in a hothouse,” said Behemoth…
“And a sweet terror clutches your heart when you think that at this very minute the author of a future Don Quixote, or Faust, or, the devil take me, Dead Souls may be ripening inside that house!”
If Bulgakov’s fictionalized account and Ismail Kadare’s fictionalized memoir Twilight of the Eastern Gods are accurate, though, the Soviet Goethes and Soviet Gogols weren’t doing much creative “ripening” in the house. Instead, they were carousing, drinking heavily, and engaging in mercenary character assassination against rivals, students, allies, supervisors, cronies, family, and friends.
Ismail Kadare’s Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a brilliant non-fiction treatment of Soviet literary culture during the later Leonid Brezhnev years, a non-fiction response to Bulgakov’s novel. As a promising Albanian writer, Kadare was invited to Moscow, where he met the odd mix of Party sycophants and belles-lettrists that was the Soviet intelligentsia.
Of course, the explicit goal of the House was to build a Soviet literature that would undermine nationalist culture, but the reverse-refugee program is comical. Siberian and Ukrainian writers, one Russian notes, have the real problem of enforcing literary convention on a surrealistically unconventional existence:
Can you imagine living your whole life in six-month-long days and nights, and then being required to divide your time into artificial chunks when you sit down to write? For instance, [a Ukrainian writer] couldn’t write ‘Next morning he left’ because ‘next morning’ for him meant in six months’ time.
Kadare also writes about how the literary history of the city was being distorted by the intense political scrutiny:
Not a single Soviet novel contained anything like an exact description of Moscow. Even characters who lived there or were visiting always remained in some imaginary street, as I did in my dreams, and almost never turned into Gorky Street, Tverskoy Boulevard, Okhotny Road, or the environs of the Metropole Hotel…and if they did wander into it they seemed stunned: they heard nothing, and saw nothing — or, rather, they had eyes and ears only for the Kremlin and its bells.
Literary-political events unsettle the young Kadare’s mock-idyll. The first occurs in 1958: Boris Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize, in part for his novel, Dr. Zhivago. Kadare’s own interaction with the book begins auspiciously when he finds the illegal manuscript in one of the rooms at Gorky House. Having accidentally read a few incoherent and scattered pages surreptitiously, Kadare then witnesses the full force of the Soviet media machine as it pummels its dissident and newly-minted Nobel laureate.
Forgoing political outrage, he renders the melancholy disquiet of the anti-Pasternak media blizzard evocatively. He writes:
All the same, newspapers, radio and TV carried on campaigning.
Doctor…Doctor…the wailing of the transcontinental wind made it seem as if the entire, and now almost entirely snow-covered Soviet Union was calling for a man in a white coat. Doctor…Doctor…Sometimes, at dusk or in the half-light of dawn, you could almost hear the deep-throated moaning of an invalid waiting for the arrival from who knew where of a doctor who had so far failed to turn up.
Then, as quickly as it began, the smear campaign stops: no one talks about Pasternak or the Nobel Prize again. A “spontaneous” demonstration is held, under the suspicion that the West secured the prize for Pasternak to undermine to Soviet culture. (Recently declassified CIA documents have shown that, apparently, they were right.) It is eventually decided that Pasternak will have to turn down the prize.
Sometime later, an artist from Moscow becomes infected with smallpox in Delhi, while sketching an Indian princess. Once news of the infection spreads, the Soviet government immediately quarantines the possibly infected. Muscovites rush to vaccination clinics. During the panic, the young Kadare spots a friend who had seemingly given him a cryptic warning, “for me — or rather, for my country.”
The friend demurs, then confesses that there are rumors that Russian-Albanian relations are cooling. Gorky House suddenly turns on the young, anonymous Albanian writer. They fear contagion: because of spurious rumors about faraway political machinations, his one-time mentors and colleagues quickly ostracize and marginalize Ismail Kadare, a great 20th-century novelist. If he had been embraced, his work would have inevitably been co-opted or at least compromised by his sponsor-censors.
Reading Twilight of the Eastern Gods, I thought about another writer who had the similar mixed blessing of being banished from his home country, Witold Gombrowicz. In his Diary, he offered as an archetype the great French humanist François Rabelais, “a writer who had no idea whether he was ‘historical’ or ‘ahistorical.'” (I would add “national” or “internationalist,” “reactionary” or “revolutionary.”.) The author of Gargantua and Pantaguel “had no intention of cultivating ‘absolute writing’ or of paying homage to ‘pure art,’ or, too, the opposite of that, articulating his epoch. He intended nothing at all because he wrote the way a child pees against a tree, in order to relieve himself.”
Gorky House was formative for Kadare. But being rejected by its writers was hardly an obstacle. In fact, the Soviet literary elite might have been doing Kadare a favor by disfavoring him. The concerns of that circle have proven to be parochial, venal, insular. Yet, it produced Kadare, who has managed to craft a nuanced, luminous memoir to commemorate the time when Moscow cried with “the deep-throated moaning of an invalid.”
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr
The ongoing Tour de France is the most novelistic of sporting events: There is ample character development with riders responding to three weeks of brutal tests; plenty of intrigue with opportunistic alliances and rivalries springing up; masterful set pieces like ascents up the denuded landscape of Mt. Ventoux and group sprints through medieval towns; villains, be they deranged fans sprinkling the road with tire-puncturing tacks or a certain disgraced Texan; some upstairs-downstairs class tensions between aristocratic team leaders and their toiling, water bottle-ferrying domestiques; and finally, a romance between man and exquisitely engineered, custom-fitted and gorgeous machine.
Having already belabored the comparison, I’ll simply point out that the joys of watching the Tour and reading, say, a bit of Stendhal every day are not dissimilar, not least because both, however gripping, are inevitably plagued by longueurs. In some ways, the novel is a form about managing downtime, conserving energy to expend it more forcefully later, which strikes me as a good way to describe the riders sheltered in the peloton.
By contrast, Tim Krabbé’s revered The Rider is for those who like their drama condensed rather than parceled out over several weeks. The short novella is the autobiographical story of Krabbé’s experience at the one-day Tour of Mont Aigoual, “the sweetest, toughest race of the season.” Among his more colorfully drawn opponents are a muscular rider who “looks like the giant who was always throwing Chaplin out of restaurants”; a lithe climbing specialist (and bank teller) whose favorite opponent is himself; and Krabbé’s arch-nemesis, the “wheel sucker” Reilhan, a promising talent and perpetual drafter (that is, one who conserves energy by sitting in a rider’s slipstream) who finds “the idea of doing anyone even the slightest favor” intolerable.
Krabbé despises the “golden boy” Reilhan, but looks upon the few spectators on course with equal scorn. Spying a beautiful young woman, he instantly assigns her to the “generation of emblems” who is merely cheering for the “journalistic cliché” of the rider rather than the rider himself; finely attuned to such distinctions, the tetchy Krabbé gives himself over to a delightfully withering assessment: “Now that I’m five centimeters closer, I can see how pretty she really is. I hate her.” (He prefers the grazing cows who don’t bother to hide their indifference.)
“No worse way to follow a road race than to be in it,” notes Krabbé, as if constructing the narrative is as difficult as the race itself. Riders sprint off early and disappear from view, and he cannot be certain how far ahead they are or if he will eventually spy them up ahead with a “feeling of impropriety: like accidentally catching a glimpse of a woman in the nude.” The race takes the leaders approximately four and one half hours, though time in racing is subjective: “Three more minutes. Oh, how easy it will look on paper,” Krabbé wryly notes of the race’s final kilometers, which to him feel like an eternity.
The Tour covers 137 kilometers and traverses the Cévennes mountain range in Southern France, a region where as late as 1950, “some of the Catholic inhabitants thought Huguenots had only one eye, in the middle of their forehead…” These secluded high plateaus prove to be a wonderful setting for Krabbé’s depiction of road racing as a kind of anti-Enlightenment reaction, an imitation of life “without the corruptive influence of civilization.” The ordered procession of kilometers around which the narrative is organized fails to stem the race’s frequent illogical elements, how rival riders engage in “mutual self-destruction” and decisions are just as likely to be made through prudence as rashness: “Suddenly I know that I’m going to attack. The decision catches me off guard.”
In a wonderful chapter in his book-length study of the bike-obsessed Beckett, Hugh Kenner describes what he calls the “Cartesian Centaur,” more prosaically a man on a bike, a being who “rises clear of the muddle in which Descartes leaves the mind-body relationship. The intelligence guides, the mobile wonder obeys, and there is no mysterious interpenetration of function.” Krabbé steps in to re-muddle things, staging a Cartesian battle between body and mind. Describing one of his fellow riders, he writes:
Lebusque is really only a body. In fact, he’s not a good racer. People are made up of two parts: a mind and a body. Of the two, the mind, of course, is the rider.
But the rider is a very peculiar kind of mind, at once supremely rational and supremely irrational.
Any account of endurance sports must capture the descent into a personal, highly motivated, and masochistic madness, one that derives its impetus from defying, or rather ignoring, logic: “I’m only giving it everything I’ve got because no one says I have to. Only when there are arguments for something can there be arguments against it.” (Krabbé’s most famous novel, The Vanishing, delved into motiveless malignity rather than motiveless exertion.)
Krabbé writes that he “started on this sport fifteen years too late,” and one gets the sense that his reputation as the “scourge of the peloton” stems from his desire to make up for lost time. At times he sounds like a Raymond Chandler character: “We straighten up, drift along, fifteen seconds to breathe just for the fun of it.” Indeed, there is something similar about the respective codes of honor among noir private detectives and semi-professional cyclists. Marlowe would doubtless be as disgusted by Reilhan’s free-riding as Krabbé and his fellow races are.
Krabbé is also not without that amour-propre defining most athletes, from the biggest stars to weekend warriors:
I view my wrists, stretched out in front of me to the bars, straight as ramrods. They’ve become so tanned, almost black in the wrinkles. The little hairs lie next to each other in wet rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful.
Vanity of vanities! What does man gain by the toil under which he toils under the sun? Beautiful, tanned wrists apparently.
The Rider is often cited as the best book on cycling, its quotes about pain and suffering and endurance and honor quoted admiringly. Certainly, Krabbé’s notions of honor and courage are exhilarating, but they are also a little ridiculous, which only adds to the book’s charm. Krabbé sets the tone early on by proclaiming to be shocked by the emptiness of non-racers’ lives. After an extended paean to suffering in which he has shown his own literary prowess, he concludes: “Suffering you need; literature is baloney.” Debating whether to shift into a lower gear on a mountain becomes a competitive as well as a moral dilemma: “Shifting is a kind of painkiller, and therefore the same as giving up.” And a final piece of bombast: “Being a good loser is a despicable evasion, an insult to the sporting spirit. All good losers should be barred from practicing as port.” Each statement strikes me as being a bit silly while also demonstrating an incontrovertible truth that “strikes to the soul of the rider.”
Sports writers often appeal to the chivalric tradition to capture the rare character of the most accomplished athletes; the best instinctually grasp that Don Quixote furnishes a more fitting model — noble and absurd — than those bona fide knights of medieval romances. Of the legendary Jacques Anquetil, who would move his water bottle from his bike to the back of his jersey before climbs in the mistaken view that it lightened his bike, Krabbé, in a Quixotic formulation, notes that “What Anquetil needed was faith. And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong.”
What makes The Rider a particularly appealing sports novel is that for all his seriousness, Krabbé knows how to let the air out of his inflated rhetoric. Lebusque, the courageous but poor racer, makes one last, not-so-vicious “attack” 130 kilometers in: “…he bobs past us like an old, rotten surfboard.” And our noble, long suffering hero who pours his life into the trial? “You sprinted like a jackass,” notes one spectator. The harsh critic makes no mention of the rider’s beautiful wrists.
In 1592 in London, a pamphlet called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a Million of Repentance was published, supposedly containing the bitter last words of Robert Greene, a member of the group now known as the “university wits,” writers and playwrights who had been educated at Oxford and Cambridge and who had written, individually and collaboratively, many of the best plays of the previous decade. Greene had died in poverty a few months before, and the Groatsworth contains a letter addressed to his fellow wits, Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele, warning against “those puppets” and “apes” (the actors) who not only didn’t pay their writers enough but who even had the audacity to “newly set forth” the wits’ old plays, adding a few new scenes or retouching some passages and then claiming sole authorship, and sole revenue. Greene holds a grudge against one writer in particular:
Trust them not, for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers that, with his ‘Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide’, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
Shakespeare. In 1592, he was 28 and had probably been in London for three or four years, starting out as an actor of bit parts and perhaps then trying his hand at mending a few speeches here and there during rehearsals. Starting around 1590, he began writing his own plays.
Establishing a composition date for Shakespeare’s early plays is tricky, but by 1592 he had at least written the three plays in the Henry VI cycle (Greene quotes from Part Three above), and possibly also Titus Andronicus. Parts two and three of the cycle, written first, were wholly by Shakespeare, though Part One, first performed in March 1592, could be Shakespeare’s revision of an earlier play by Nashe, and Titus is now thought to be partly by Peele. The notoriety these plays gave Shakespeare is perhaps what earned Greene’s ire.
The popular image of Shakespeare’s career is that he collaborated on a few plays as a young man, as a kind of apprenticeship. Proving his ability, he went on to eschew collaboration for most of his career, until just before his retirement he again collaborated on a series of plays with his own apprentice and successor, John Fletcher. Broadly speaking, this is true. But it doesn’t explain why Shakespeare, after the runaway successes of Henry VI parts two and three would collaborate on the prequel, writing only about 20 percent of it, or why in the middle of his career, he would collaborate with Middleton on Macbeth and Timon of Athens, and George Wilkins on Pericles. And then there’s the issue of the four plays from the 1580s and early 1590s — a tragedy about Hamlet, prince of Denmark, Victories of Henry the Fifth, King Leir, and The Taming of a Shrew — none by Shakespeare, but all curiously related to his own later plays.
Greene called Shakespeare “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers,” an allusion to a passage from Horace warning against poetic plagiarism. Part of Greene’s problem was that Shakespeare was not a university man, and therefore not a gentleman. He was an “ape” who was stealing not only the vocation and the paychecks of gentleman playwrights, but also, according to Greene, plagiarizing them. Shakespeare was stung by Greene’s accusations, somehow getting Henry Chettle, who had prepared the Groatsworth for the press, to print an apology. Greene was bitter and likely unstable, but his accusations and Shakespeare’s reaction do lead to the question: how often did Shakespeare “mend” plays? It was common practice for theater companies to bring back old plays in repertory with a few new ones each year, sometimes updating and revising older plays to fit a current vogue. In his position for most of his career as company dramatist, first for the Chamberlain’s Men and then the King’s Men, wouldn’t Shakespeare have done some of this updating?
A new anthology collecting those plays that may contain evidence of this kind of work, William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen and designed to be a companion to the RSC anthology of Shakespeare’s works, provides just this kind of portrait of Shakespeare the working playwright. It is the first collection of plays on the fringes of the Shakespeare canon — those plays, in other words, that may or may not have been collaborations in which Shakespeare took part — in 100 years, since C.F. Tucker Brooke’s The Shakespeare Apocrypha in 1908.
It includes some usual suspects. The riot scene in Sir Thomas More is now included in the acknowledged Shakespeare canon and is frequently included in anthologies of Shakespeare’s works. More is one of the few plays from that period to survive in manuscript form, and it is doubly unique for containing the handwriting of playwrights Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, court censorer Edmund Tilney, and William Shakespeare. The pages containing “Hand D” (Shakespeare’s) are among the most precious pieces of literary history, and are housed in the British Library in London. Other than six signatures, they contain the only samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting to have survived.
The evidence for Shakespeare being Hand D rests on the comparison of the handwriting to the surviving signatures, which share with it unique letter forms (a spurred a, a strange flourish on the k) unlike the handwriting of any other Elizabethan or Jacobean writer, and also on stylistic evidence. Will Sharpe’s exhaustive “Authorship and Attribution” essay at the end of the anthology explains the authorship studies done on each of the plays included in the collection, as well as giving an overview of the history of authorship studies on each. Computer analysis has made authorship studies easier and more accurate, allowing quick searches through the entire corpus of drama from the period. Stylistic evidence relies on matching an anonymous passage to the stylistic fingerprints of one author. Fingerprints could be the use of contractions (i’th or in the), oaths (‘sblood, zounds), prepositions (amongst or among), pronouns (you over ye), verb forms (hath over has), and metrics (adding extra syllables to poetic lines). Added to the evidence of vocabulary, spelling, dating, and which theater company performed the play (if any), it is sometimes possible to identify the author.
In the case of Hand D in More, the internal evidence of handwriting, spelling, and poetic style is a slam dunk. The trouble is that it doesn’t fit the traditional picture of Shakespeare. More is a play that, given everything we know about Shakespeare, he should never have been involved in.
More was originally written circa 1600 by Anthony Munday, possibly collaborating with Henry Chettle. It was part of a mini-vogue of plays about Henry VIII’s councillors and dramatizes Thomas More’s rise to power after helping to quell the Ill May Day riot of 1517 against foreigners living in London and his fall after refusing to sign the Act of Succession. But the reason for his fall is necessarily fuzzy, since it was the Act of Succession that recognized the legitimacy of the then-reigning monarch, Elizabeth I. In addition, the 1590s had seen a series of riots and hostilities against foreigners in London that seemed to echo the riot the play presented. For these reasons, censor Edmund Tilney refused to let the play be performed, writing on the front leaf of the manuscript, “Leave out the insurrection wholly with the cause thereof…at your own perils.”
Presenting politically sensitive material in a play was grounds under Elizabeth for arrest or imprisonment, and quite a few of Shakespeare’s colleagues at one time or another found themselves in hot water for their writing — Marlowe, Kyd, and even Ben Jonson — but never Shakespeare. So why would Shakespeare involve himself in trying to patch up a play already rejected by Tilney for containing dangerous material, and not only be involved, but agree to write one of the stickiest scenes in the play? It certainly challenges popular conceptions of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare & Others claims Shakespeare’s presence in More and Edward III, another common candidate for Shakespeare’s involvement. It is now generally accepted that Shakespeare contributed the countess scenes in Edward III (I.ii-II.ii and IV.iv) and that the rest of the play is by Kyd, Peele, or Nashe. Both plays are now included in anthologies of Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare & Others also, however, puts forward Arden of Faversham, The Spanish Tragedy, and Double Falsehood (which I have previously written about for The Millions) as “almost certain” to contain passages by Shakespeare.
Arden of Faversham, written around 1590, is the earliest example of a domestic tragedy in English drama, as well as the first example of a detective procedural. Most of the play concerns the attempts by Alice Arden and her lover Mosby to hire someone to kill her husband, including two villains named Black Will and Shakebag (surely there’s a joke there). They finally kill Master Arden themselves, and the end of the play shows Arden’s friend Franklin uncovering the clues to their guilt. Shakespeare & Others suggests Shakespeare’s involvement in scene 8, in which Mosby and Alice quarrel and then reconcile in what is surely the sexiest makeup scene of the 1590s, and which contains stylistic and linguistic similarities to Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, written at about the same time.
The Spanish Tragedy is Thomas Kyd’s masterpiece of a revenge drama, and influenced Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. It is usually anthologized in its late-1580s version, and it is less-known that someone revised it a decade later for the Chamberlain’s Men, adding new scenes that increased the part of Hieronimo, the Marshal of Spain who feigns madness to gain revenge for his son’s murder. Shakespeare & Others attributes the additions to Shakespeare.
Double Falsehood is a different animal entirely, being perhaps the 1728 revision by Lewis Theobald of a Restoration-era revision by Thomas Betterton of a circa 1612 play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, Cardenio, based on an episode from Cervantes’s then newly-published Don Quixote. This anthology agrees with recent scholarship, including that of Brean Hammond, who edited it for the Arden Shakespeare series, that the play does represent, as it were, the grandchild of an authentic Shakespearean play.
Also included are Mucedorus, a play the editors describe as “worth considering” as partly-Shakespearean, as well as four plays they have determined are most likely not Shakespearean collaborations at all: A Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, Locrine, and Thomas Lord Cromwell. The editors’ criteria for the table of contents of this anthology, therefore, seems to be the best of those plays that have, at some point in the past 400 years, been suggested by some scholar as possibly Shakespeare’s, or in other words, the best of those plays that belong to the group known as the “Shakespeare Apocrypha.”
The title of the anthology is therefore somewhat misleading. It does not present plays by “Shakespeare & Others” but by “Shakespeare, & Others.” However, presented this way, those plays that Shakespeare does appear to have a hand in are freed from the heavy trappings and gravitas the “Works” volumes lend, and can be examined not only for their literary qualities, which in the plays here are sometimes great, but also for the evidence they contain about Shakespeare the working writer. These plays can now more usefully be compared to the other canonical and collaborative plays, like Timon of Athens and Pericles and Macbeth. More attention to Shakespeare’s collaborative career, now known to be larger than was thought, may yield a new portrait: a playwright who was also a shrewd businessman and a company man, who likely spent more time in the day-to-day thinking about the bottom line than the immortality of his verse. And that is a more likely and more useful way to think about the man from Stratford.
Put yourself in her shoes. She is a performer. She is slim and poised and recondite insofar as her comportment seems to withdraw her from the rest of us, who are mortal and dim in contrast. I am fixated on a shred of almond skin wedged between my teeth. I am worried about a flap of cuticle come loose from my nailbed. I am in the audience at the New York Public Library for a celebration of the director Robert Wilson’s 70th birthday. The performer is joined by other luminaries — Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed. Each has something hagiographic to say about Wilson. Lou Reed previews his collaboration with Metallica, citing Wilson as its impetus. Wainwright is forced to sing a cappella when the audio system craps out, proving that his voice really is that good. The performer recites a passage from Wilson’s collaborative opera with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach. She has the text in front of her, but she does not need it; she’s had this part memorized for years. Her recital is lovely, and the lilt and cadence of her voice are mesmerizing. But then halfway through, something happens that gets me thinking about artistry and solipsism and the fallout of one marrying up with the other.
What happens is: A giant fly begins to circle the performer’s face. She is wearing a bone microphone, which amplifies the buzz as this fly alights on her forehead. Her nose. Her eye and even on the microphone head, itself. The buzzing is so loud, it feels like this fly is in my own ear canal. So. Put yourself in her shoes and what would you do? Swat the fly. Ten out of ten of you swats the fly. Gets up. Stops reciting. What none of you do is carry on as if unaware of the fly. As if possessed of such composure, you are the most unflappable person on earth. The very essence of the show must go on. Lucinda Childs finished reciting without having acknowledged the fly in any way. The library might have caught on fire — hell, the entire city might have caught on fire — but Childs would carry on. Unperturbed. Impregnable.
I have thought about this moment in the library with pathological intensity since then. I have told the story of the Artist and the Fly many times, but always with the same awe. Awe and anxiety because the degree of professionalism on display in Childs’s refusal to admit the fly into her dispatch of Einstein on the Beach seemed to encroach on a category of behavior that doesn’t, for instance, concede the fly exists at all.
Now, I am not claiming that Childs is, herself, a solipsist (if you watch the video, you can see her flinch ever so slightly) but that she performed a brand of solipsism that is anathema to what art does so well, which is to engage, however obliquely, with the fraught stuff of our lives. Art that does not do this — art that cannot see past itself — is gospel. Propaganda. It is removed and distant and wholly ineffective when it comes to providing us with a chance to take shelter in each other’s humanity.
I left the library feeling uncomfortable. And a little depressed. After all, Childs was just doing her job. Childs was just doing what most of us artists are taught to do, which is to preserve what John Gardner has famously called the “fictional dream” — the sustained and vivid universe of a novel or story that is successful only if it resists puncture. The “fictional dream” does not acknowledge itself; it does not acknowledge us. Ninety percent of fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. My fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. So what, exactly, is the problem?
Well, okay, perhaps I can best answer this by thinking through our romance with bloopers. Turns out I have a friend who watches blooper reels with some frequency. On YouTube, where a search for “bloopers” turns up 11,900,000 results while a search for “cats” — and who doesn’t love a cat video? — turns up a mere 11,400,000 results. Bloopers appeal to people because they are genuine. And more importantly, they are genuine precisely because they break form. They expose artistry as a sham and, in so doing, relieve the anxiety of distance that attends all our experiences of art. My friend watches bloopers when he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He says they orient him. That they remind him people are real and he is real, which is by way of tethering us to each other.
Naturally, then, many artists have decided that one solution to the problem of art and artifice is to recreate the effect of a blooper. Hence the long tradition in the arts of breaking the fourth wall on purpose. Shakespeare did it with aplomb. I’m thinking of Henry V (and of course a Midsummer Night’s Dream) where Henry and Puck, respectively, apologize for the plays’ shortcomings or at least beg for our indulgence. I’m thinking of Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, which are overtly aware of themselves as art. I’m thinking of the Muppets, whose “Pigs in Space” skit always had the astro-swine shocked whenever the skit’s theme music played (which trope was picked up and amplified by the lyrics of the theme song for “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: “This is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry’s show, this is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.”) I’m thinking of the many many novels that toy with themselves as novels, which is all by way of foregrounding how deficient art must be when it comes to representation.
More recently, I am reminded of House of Cards, which I watched obsessively over three days a couple months ago. Do the math, that is four+ shows a night. Kevin Spacey, whom I last saw play Richard III at BAM, plays Francis Underwood, who is Richard’s equal for monomania and malice. And just like Richard, Underwood frequently breaks the action to soliloquize the audience. He tells us what he’s thinking. He tells us who everyone is. He makes us accomplice to his plans just for being privy to them. To start his first address to the audience in episode one, he looks at the camera and says, “Oh!” as if startled to find us there watching him or perhaps startled to have forgotten we were there. The gambit is designed to immerse us more completely in his universe, though it actually has the opposite effect of reminding me that his universe is not real.
You’d think, given my reservations about the fictional dream, that I’d find comfort in these metafictions. That I’d feel closer to these works for being acknowledged by them. But I don’t. On the contrary, I generally find them ridiculous. Whenever Francis soliloquizes the screen, it seems ridiculous! When Shakespeare enacts what the academics call “medium awareness,” it feels too clever by half. And if I read one more novel that pokes fun at its being a novel, I might cry. Look at me, I am art! I am foregrounding problems of representation! Work like this often feels more egocentric and solipsistic than art that just leaves it alone.
My friend who watches bloopers thinks the problem here is about responsibility and distance. The fictional dream allows us to abdicate responsibility: we can turn ourselves over to a knowing authority and check our incredulities at the door. But the dream, for being a dream, can also distance us from the very thing the dream depicts, no matter how seamlessly it is done. Alternately, the bloopers reel and self-reflexive fiction feel intimate though perhaps onerous for burdening us with evidence that our lives are real, and that real life is hard.
And so, a problem that can be recast as a debate about the efficacy of art. One the one hand: art has an asymptotic relationship with “truth,” with the world, so that to be an artist necessarily means to be a failure. Always and only a failure. On the other hand is an idea advanced by Tim O’Brien, who is endlessly quoted in this context — “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth” — and hailed for his notion that “story truth” is a highly manipulated version of the real deal that equals and often exceeds the real deal’s power of effect.<
O’Brien neuters the problem of artifice and remove by recasting them as assets in the project of isolating and dramatizing what is powerful in our experience of life. Who needs to see someone swat madly at a fly when you can better experience its pathos (e.g., an elegant woman accosted by the humdrum) in a play or novel that will do it better? Such, at least, is what Tim O’Brien might say.
And what I say, too, thanks to the following experience I had at the Metropolitan Opera, where I saw Don Carlo a few months ago. In the first act, Don Carlo and his betrothed sing of their love. They are in a forest and Don Carlo, being the gentleman that he is, makes a fire. A real fire, on a flammable stage at the Met. Ten minutes later, a man in jeans and T-shirt marched onstage with a fire extinguisher. He didn’t look at the audience, he even seemed bored, but in front of a full house, while the singers were performing, he blasted the fire and walked off. At first, I thought he was part of the production. Don Carlo finds out his fiancée is actually intended for his father (ah, opera), at which point some guy destroys the emblem of their love. It seemed apt. Quickly, though, I realized this was not part of the plan. The audience started to laugh. I was sitting three rows from the pit, so I could see the conductor (full disclosure, the conductor was Lorin Maazel, who is my father) carry on as if nothing had happened. Meantime, the stagehand, whose intentions were good, did not actually manage to put out the fire. Instead, he left it smoldering, so that the stage began to fill with smoke. How can you sing when your lungs are filled with smoke? But the performers sang on, though the soprano had to turn her back to the audience (possibly to stifle a laugh) while the tenor seemed less than committed to the moment. They did not swat the fly but they did acknowledge the world’s intrusion on their art.
The upshot? I felt badly for the singers. I felt badly for my dad. And I felt somewhat self-conscious about being at the opera, whose pretensions and artifice were made uppermost thanks to the stagehand. But mostly, for that moment, I felt cheated of the magic that is Don Carlo. A three-hour disquisition in song on the big, human feelings: love, grief, rage, despair. Which is when I began to feel good about art that refuses to concede I am alive.
From Einstein on the Beach: “These are the days my friends and these are my days my friends.” So long as art continues to record those days, why should it have to acknowledge my days in particular? I don’t need to be noticed in the moment, just in the main. I am, after all, but a fly. One among many. So, yeah, don’t mind me. Carry on.
Image via Ali Arsh/Flickr
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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What is a sentence? That just was. There are simple and complex sentences. Some hold words remote, some ideas off key. Some lightly kiss your cheek like a European friend and some incense with their grandeur or insouciance.
Recently, two elderly statesmen of letters released books of non-fiction, though some of their best known works are novels and novellas penned decades earlier. William H. Gass, now 87, has written his most personal book, Life Sentences, with essays touching on his father’s minor league baseball career, his early days as a PhD student, the first Fourth of July following 9/11 as compared to the first following Pearl Harbor, and the crown jewel of the book’s opening section, “Retrospection.” No one has written a better introduction to Gass’s fiction than he does here, laying out why he wrote his magnum opus in one stark sentence: “I wrote The Tunnel out of the conviction that no race or nation is better than any other, and no nation or race is worse…”
Gass, a former philosophy professor, but more appropriately a philosopher of the word and an esthete, concludes the book with the short section “Theoretic.” In recent years he has taken to developing spindle diagrams of sentences, diagrams that he first debuted when speaking of the work of Gertrude Stein in the 1970s. In the essay “Narrative Sentences,” Gass examines a dozen sentences from some of the greatest English prose writers, including Henry James, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. As Gass lays out some of these sentences in diagrams, scrolls, and bullet points, one sees their structure, harmonics, and meaning much better. His project is to notate sentences like a composer writing music, but notating in reverse — the music is already evident as Gass leads the reader from the balcony into opening of the oboe in the orchestra pit. In a lifetime of showing how the world is within the word and how a sentence is its own story, the final essay, “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence,” is both valedictory and a commanding compliment to his parsing of language, in which he recalls an English teacher who “regarded [him] with scornful indifference [his] claim the news, “David slew Goliath,” was seriously not the same as, “Goliath was slain by David,” but that each registered joy or woe depending on whose side you are on.”
In “Kafka: Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” Gass’s review of a recent biography of the famous man turned adjective, Gass fictionalizes Kafka’s voice by starting in a familiar enough first-person, a nod to what in Prague the famous recluse once created, “I awoke one morning to find myself transformed.” The reverence imbibes its own subject and Gass creates a book review like few others — a creative non-fiction fictionalization of a real person’s artistic creation. Here Kafka/Gass muses on the over 100 passionate letters written to Felice Bauer in 1912 — letters “requir[ing] that postal distance the letters can then complain of. Their words make love of the kind the mind makes when the mind fears its body may not measure up.” The music of the last sentence, the “kind” against the “minds,” the m-consonance mid-stream to be doubly compounded in its last beats — thrusts its measuring synecdoche of separation forward with the panache of a Renaissance sonneteer.
Like Gass, Alexander Theroux is also a celebrator of fine words and creator of ornate sentences, but with a few more inches of fury to his hat size. Estonia is as much about Theroux and his own country as that “collapsing tiny box-set of a republic that is dark as a cave in winter, shit-cold for most of the year, a strange ignored dorp with no ice-free ports, a queer language, curious laws, rummy food, eccentric people, funny money, and a veritable forest of unreadable signs.”
The subtitle, A Ramble Through the Periphery, especially seems to speak not so much of boundary lines, but the bumptious, vertiginous, and at times vengeful mind of its littérateur. His periscope is many-focaled and what one gets in Estonia, along with a wonderful working knowledge of the country, is his many years of erudite commentaries and factoids (Cervantes began writing Don Quixote in a debtor’s prison; Estonians created Skype) on civilizations, culture, and arts, but especially literature and the shortcomings, politics, and pock marks of the superpower currently occupying the world. Such an approach is apropos — don’t we see foreign lands through the lens of our own experiences and our own homeland?
Sometimes his literary and pop immersions are expertly placed, as when Theroux, lonely and left cold by a foreign land and people, finds solace in Judy Garland’s “Lose that Long Face” — reportedly singing it to himself and providing the reader with the lyrics. Yet the divagations into marginalia and widespread panic (the amount of annual U.S. aid to Israel) both crystallize and corrode this “travel” book. The episodes with less than kind people he met in his time there — many being Fulbright scholars (as was his painter wife) enjoying or enduring their research year — are still hot on the surface of his skin, continually stinging like some Inferno-like torment, and at times they override the richly wrought compendia of such a learned soul. The relentless use of “smug” to describe people Theroux viewed less than sympathetically stains the enterprise. How could so many appear smug? I’m not calling Theroux’s veracity into question but I am calling foul. As much as I admire his writing, it is hard to stay in his stream of sentences that might soon spit another spiteful judgment at someone who has crossed him — sometimes the water is magical and sometimes the pen goes awry, squid-mad, and suddenly one is afloat in toxins.