After two years of college I dropped out because it was a waste of time and money. Since boyhood I had known I wanted to be a writer — a real writer, a novelist — and after 14 years inside classrooms I’d come to the conclusion that I needed to get out into the world and start harvesting the stuff novels are made of, a substance so vital and valuable that it became the title of a memoir by the great Martin Amis. I’m talking about experience.
By the time I left college I had worked any number of jobs, which are a form of experience in that they send us into the world and force us to figure out how to survive there. Beginning at an early age, I had delivered newspapers, caddied, worked as a bar boy, a dishwasher, a busboy, a bartender. But now I believed I needed something more daring, something more artistically remunerative. The way to have something worth writing about, I reasoned, was to have adventures. This meant two things: plunging into unfamiliar worlds and traveling.
I wasn’t the first aspiring writer to come to this conclusion. Surely Ernest Hemingway couldn’t have written his stories and novels if he hadn’t fished the rivers of northern Michigan, seen combat in the First World War, lived and loved in Paris, hunted big game in Africa, watched the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and battled marlins off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway’s fiction lives on the page because it’s grounded in physical worlds he knew intimately and was able to describe with spare beauty. Other writers I admired had pursued lives of action, from Herman Melville to Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and even Henry Miller, though his adventures were decidedly more seedy than swashbuckling.
Given all this, I was delighted to land a job as a farmhand in Vermont a week after dropping out of college. The place was a sort of nursery for broken-down thoroughbred racehorses from nearby Green Mountain Park, the last stop for many of these nags before they were turned into dog chow or glue. The huge, jittery horses terrified me, but I found I loved the manual labor — baling hay, digging post holes, cleaning stalls, putting a roof on a barn — and above all I was thrilled to be accepted into a raffish blue-collar crew that consisted of a ham-faced Vermont farmer, a hard-drinking cowboy with a broken leg, a petty-criminal greaser who had his eye on the foreman’s hottie teenage daughter, and a gifted old black trainer who nowadays would be called a horse whisperer. I knew I wouldn’t have met any of these people if I had stayed in school.
When the racing season ended I pocketed my $500 life savings and drove my wheezing ’54 Chevy pickup cross-country, then proceeded to work a string of odd jobs up and down the West Coast, in kitchens and vineyards, dairy farms and orchards. At night I worked on my apprentice novel — a murder story set on a Vermont racehorse farm. I threw the manuscript out, of course, but the experience wasn’t a waste. It taught me how far I had to go before I would be able to consider myself a beginner, and it led me to ask myself if I wanted to spend the rest of my life working minimum-wage jobs to support my writing. The answer was no.
It was at about this time that I discovered a remarkable non-fiction book by the short story master Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, which stunned me with this insight: “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not be merged in it.”
This turned my world upside down. If I wanted to become a novelist, according to no less an authority than Flannery O’Connor, I didn’t need to wander the world harvesting experiences. I needed to figure out a way to get paid to contemplate experience and then write about it. The best way to do that, I guessed, would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter and serve my apprenticeship in the typhoon of a daily paper’s city room. My father had done this. So had Mark Twain, Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Tom Wolfe, and countless others. But this was the aftermath of Watergate, and I knew it would be impossible to land a coveted reporter’s job without a college degree. So I sold my ’54 pickup, took a bus back across the country, and returned to college to finish my final two years.
It ended up working out — eventually. After graduation I spent five months knocking on doors at newspapers until I got my first break, a cub reporter’s job on a Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania tank town, starting pay $140 a week. I was, just barely, a professional writer. More newspaper jobs followed, as a reporter and columnist at bigger papers. I kept writing fiction on the side, sometimes giving up the steady newspaper paycheck to travel and work as a magazine freelancer, a New York City bicycle messenger, a construction worker, a Nashville disc jockey. Once, when particularly hard up, I even worked as an “actor” in a porn movie. As justification for this dubious career move, I turned to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:
Then one day I fell in with a photographer; he was making a collection of the slimy joints of Paris for some degenerate in Munich.He wanted to know if I would pose for him with my pants down, and in other ways. I thought of those skinny little runts, who look like bellhops and messenger boys, that one sees on pornographic post cards in little bookshop windows occasionally, the mysterious phantoms who inhabit the Rue de la Lune and other malodorous quarters of the city. I didn’t like very much the idea of advertising my physiog in the company of these élite. But, since I was assured that the photographs were for a strictly private collection, and since it was destined for Munich, I gave my consent. When you’re not in your home town you can permit yourself little liberties, particularly for such a worthy motive as earning your daily bread.
My apprenticeship wound up lasting a lot longer than I’d expected: after my college graduation, 16 years passed before I finally published my first novel. When a second followed, I quit my last full-time newspaper job and supported my fiction writing with freelance assignments from anyone willing to pay me — daily newspapers, glossy magazines, college alumni magazines, this and other websites, the rich friends of a rich dead man in need of an upbeat obituary. It has been almost 20 years since I saw my last steady paycheck, and in that time I learned that no writer can afford to be choosy when it comes to earning his daily bread.
In those years I also published a third novel and finished several that haven’t found a buyer. Writing hasn’t made me rich or famous, but I’m still alive, I’m still paying the rent every month, and I’m still writing every day, which is the thing I most love to do.
My big mistakes, I now realize, were to equate adventure with experience and to believe that the writer’s job is to be merged in experience. There’s nothing wrong with adventure, for writers or anyone else, but as Flannery O’Connor taught me, it’s unnecessary for a writer. She rarely left her home in Milledgeville, Ga., and Marcel Proust rarely left his bedroom. They understood that the writer’s business is to contemplate experience, and, just as important, to realize that all experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be put to use. The experience of spending a day alone in a jail cell would hardly qualify as an adventure, for instance, but it’s an experience that could make for a rich short story or novel, in the hands of the right writer. The point is that action and adventure — harpooning a whale, say, or getting cut down by shrapnel — are not impediments to writing, but they aren’t prerequisites either.
And then there is what Martin Amis called “main-event experience” in his memoir Experience, the ones that put us through the emotional meat grinder. I have experienced my share of these, including the death of both parents, a sibling locked in a fight with addiction, lost friendships and loves. These are not uncommon experiences but they’re powerful, and they’re definitely worth contemplating, for writers and everybody else. The reverberations of main-event experience are the gold mine.
There’s also nothing wrong with including the experience of work in fiction. The wheat-threshing scene in Anna Karenina comes immediately to mind, as do the gorgeous horrors the poet Philip Levine found inside the Detroit auto factories where he worked as a young man. But as I look back at my checkered résumé, I see that the only job that directly fed my published fiction was my time as a bar boy in a suburban Detroit country club during the summer of 1968, a year after the city was ravaged by a vicious race riot. My experience of working amid rich, white auto executives and black waiters from the inner city made its way into my third novel, Motor City Burning. That’s not much of a return on an investment of so many years. All writing is in a sense autobiographical, but the point is that unless you’re writing baldly autobiographical fiction à la Henry Miller or Proust or Karl Ove Knausgaard — which I am not — you will probably not profit much from your work experience. Your job is to contemplate all of your experience, then set loose the dogs of your imagination.
Come to think of it, I wish my résumé wasn’t nearly as long as it is. Given how little I’ve been able to use my work experience in my fiction, I’ve come to see all those thousands of hours of working to pay the rent as time that could have been more profitably spent writing, or reading, or contemplating my experience. But few writers are born rich, and few people who are born rich become writers, so I realize I don’t have any right to lament my middle-class fate. It’s hardly unusual, and it could be so much worse.
All I can do, all any writer can do, is figure out a way to get someone to pay me to write. And keep contemplating my experience. And keep writing about it, every day.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden.
I’m sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling — perhaps my normal condition — after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place.
I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now — am possibly a bummer myself — to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers.
The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image.
It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute.
There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly.
A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family.
Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke — he had seen videos — about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata.
I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem:
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?
I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.
Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life:
Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly — he never knew when it might happen next — but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again.
There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense — “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” — and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.”
Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.
There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude:
You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
(There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel’s extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life’s virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily.
If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara’s novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive — Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.”
I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle “modes long coded as queer,” the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor — fundamental to Almodóvar’s work — and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust — his miniaturist’s perfection — out of this altogether.
A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience.
When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: “Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree.” It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking…Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too.
There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic:
She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van.
I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands,” who writes “the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.”
It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: “What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat…A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes…Everything had been blasted free of its identity…” But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish’s characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner:
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn.
I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion — a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish?
In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside — it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish’s novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war — the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet.
I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n’ play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture — the “pulsating…baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”
And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara’s novel, though, Beloved’s awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality — right from its very dedication, “Sixty Million and more.” And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person’s exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude’s suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family.
Obviously, a novel that documents the individual’s response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual’s response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends — a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers — would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic.
But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara’s novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow.
But let’s return for a moment to my recent quavering heart — my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring? Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note — a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe’s hand and says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract — a purring cat, a blooming flower.
I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor — something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”
First published by New Directions as The Lazy Ones in 1949, the newly christened and reissued Laziness in the Fertile Valley by the Egyptian-born writer, Albert Cossery, will appear in bookstores this November in time for his centenary. New Directions has included a foreword by Henry Miller and this new afterword by the writer Anna Della Subin who uses Cossery’s oeuvre as a guide to the Egyptian Revolution.
The lazybones attracts all the waves of the sea. “Let me sleep,” he begs, “so nice and warm under my white sheets and blue blankets.” And would you believe it? The sun’s on his side.
— Edmond Jabès, 1945
Fasten a mast to the bed, let the sheets catch the wind. It is possible that, if you drift long enough on the waves of sleep, you will awaken into a world that has changed — though who can say for the better? The Greeks told of the boy Epimenides, who was searching for his father’s stray sheep when he stopped for a noonday nap in a cave. When he awoke, fifty-seven years later, everything that he once knew had vanished. Across Crete, news spread that Epimenides must be particularly loved by the gods to have slept so long. For Aristotle, he was proof of the impossibility of the passage of time without the occurrence of change.
Christian martyrs have dozed longer still. The eighteenth chapter of the Quran — and an earlier Syriac legend — tells of a group of young Christian men who, fleeing the persecution of a Roman Emperor, escaped into a cave, where they slumbered for three hundred and nine years. Rising from their long sleep, they found their beards had grown long, Christ’s name was openly spoken, and all of their loved ones were dead. In 1933, the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim dramatized their swim through the oceanic night in The People of the Cave. Awakening into a world where they are hailed as saints, the stiff-limbed sleepers find they cannot live in this strange, undreamt future. “We are like fish, whose water has changed from sweet to salty,” the saints protest, as they retreat into their cave.
Languishing in a French prison in 1883, Paul Lafargue observed that a strange mania had lately gripped mankind. It seemed everyone had begun to worship what their God had damned. In their canonization of work — that vampire sucking the blood of modern society — they had forgotten His sublime example. Did He not toil for six days, then rest forever after? In his treatise The Right to Be Lazy, Lafargue intoned a prayer: “O, Laziness, have thou mercy upon this eternal misery! O, Laziness, mother of the arts and the noble virtues, be thou balsam for the pains of mankind!”
Enter the catatonic heroes of Albert Cossery’s Laziness in the Fertile Valley, exercising their right to do nothing. In a dilapidated villa in the Nile Delta, a family sleeps all day, rising only for meals. The cadaverous Galal, oldest of three brothers and friar of somnolence, staggers into the dining room in a dirty nightgown. Some say he is an artist. “Why are you awake?” he cries in abject horror. His uncle and brothers are gathered around a pot of lentils at the table. The youngest, Serag, secretly dreams with eyes half-closed of freeing himself from the familial inertia and doing the unthinkable — finding a job — perhaps in the factory being constructed nearby. But on his exploratory walks (he cannot help but fall asleep on the way), he finds the rusted heap forever unfinished. Their father, Old Hafez, never descends from his bedroom, yet hatches a controversial scheme to take a wife in his old age. Rafik, the middle son, must keep vigil during the siesta to kill the matchmaker conspiring to bring such an enemy of sleep into their den. Forced to stay awake, Rafik is fighting against the current in a dangerous river. “From time to time, in a supreme effort, he managed to free himself, he raised his head and breathed deeply,” Cossery writes. “Then, again, he found himself plunged into the depths of an annihilating sweetness. The waves of an immense, seductive sleep covered him.”
“I should tell you that this setting, this household, they were my family.” On November 3, 1913, Albert Cossery was born in the Fagalla neighborhood of Cairo to a moderately wealthy Greek Orthodox family of Syro-Lebanese descent. “Certainly it’s romanticized,” Cossery said in an interview, “but my father didn’t work, and so he slept until noon. My brothers didn’t work either, nobody worked…. In truth, we were all sleeping. If someone heard a noise in the house, no one would move to go see what it was, even if there had been a thief.” Laziness, Cossery claimed, was the only thing his father Salim had taught him. Born at the end of the nineteenth century in a village near Homs in Syria, Salim immigrated to Egypt, where he acquired farmland and properties in the fertile lands of the Delta. While the fields grew cotton, dates, and watermelons, Salim read the newspaper and took naps. Albert sprouted under the wing of his grandfather, who lived with them in Fagalla. One day the grandfather decreed he would no longer leave his bedroom — not because he wasn’t able, but because he no longer felt like it. When Albert brought meals up to him, he would find him with a black cloth tied across his eyes, in order to obtain the perfect darkness. Sometimes, his grandfather forgot the blindfold was on his face.
Albert, the youngest, would awake alone at seven in the morning for school, first at the Jesuit Collège des Frères de la Salle, and later at the French Lycée. He began writing his first novel in French at age ten. At seventeen, he published a book of poems titled Les Morsures (“Bites”), which lifted heavily from his god, Baudelaire. “I am alone like a beautiful corpse,” he wrote, in an ode to Nuit. “The first night of the tomb.”
Cossery was sent to university in Paris in the 1930s, but claimed he studied nothing at all. Yet he had discovered that being a writer gave a respectable alibi to his inherited laziness. On his return to Cairo in 1938, he fell in with the Egyptian Surrealists — George Henein, Edmond Jabès, Anwar Kamil, and the painter Ramsès Younane, among others. Cossery joined their group Art et Liberté, and contributed short stories to their journal al-Tatawwur (“Evolution”). In 1938, observing the growing hostility of Europe’s totalitarian regimes to the artistic spirit, the Egyptian Surrealists penned a manifesto: “Long Live Degenerate Art!” André Breton in a letter to Henein from Paris wrote, “The imp of the perverse, as he deigns to appear to me, seems to have one wing here, the other in Egypt.”
At twenty-seven, Cossery published a collection of short stories, Les hommes oubliés de Dieu (“Men God Forgot”), which sketched the themes to which he would continuously return over the next sixty years: the misery of the poor, the absurdity of the all-powerful, the will to laugh — and to sleep through it all. In “The Postman Gets His Own Back,” a neighborhood wages war against those who would disturb its slumber. To safeguard his countrymen’s morning sleep, Radwan Aly, the poorest man in the world, fatally hurls his one and only piece of furniture, an earthenware chamberpot, out the window of his hovel at the noisy greengrocer hawking his wares. Even the police are dumbfounded at his sacrifice. Down the street, a washerman sleeps in his rusted laundromat, nary a soap bubble in sight. His head sinks into a basin of slumber, heavy as a stone slipping to the bottom of a pool. Then, “like a diver leaving a wave, the laundryman reappeared once more on the surface of life.” He brings dreams up to the surface, like sea-creatures.
During the war, Cossery joined the merchant marines and worked as chief steward on a liner called El Nil, ferrying passengers — many of whom fleeing the Nazis — on the route from Port Said to New York. It was uncharacteristic of him, this job, yet he would say it opened his world a bit wider. Cutting an elegant figure in his uniform, he seduced the prettiest of his passengers, and ignored the rest. According to an apocryphal tale, it was on a crossing of the Atlantic that Cossery met Lawrence Durrell. When they arrived in New York, the two were arrested on charges of espionage; Durrell protested that it was impossible, as Cossery spent all his time in bed. Though Durrell, in fact, would not visit the United States for the first time until 1968, it was through him that the first translation of Cossery’s stories reached an American readership. Dispatched by Durrell in Alexandria, Men God Forgot was published in Berkeley in 1946 by George Leite for Circle Editions. It was also through Durrell that Cossery met Henry Miller, who would become a lifelong champion. Miller so admired Cossery’s collection of stories, that “terrible breviary,” that when the translation failed to sell Miller bought up much of the stock — hundreds of copies — and peddled the book himself for decades. In Cairo in 1944, Cossery published his first novel, La maison de la mort certaine (“The House of Certain Death”) about the inhabitants of a derelict tenement building on the verge of collapse. “He is heralding the coming of a new dawn,” Henry Miller prophesied, “a mighty dawn from the Near, the Middle, and the Far East.” Cossery characteristically responded, “Perhaps that is exaggerated.”
As soon as the war ended, Albert Cossery left Cairo for Paris, where he would stay for thirty years without returning to Egypt. With a debonair look and an anarchist bent, he floated above the fray in a crowd of illustrious friends and admirers, such as Alberto Giacometti, Jean Genet, Tristan Tzara, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Raymond Queneau. At night, he went out dancing with Albert Camus, who introduced him to his French publisher, Edmund Charlot. Cossery lived in a flat in Montparnasse, but soon tired of the constant back-and-forth between his lodgings and the hotel in Saint-Germain-de-Prés where he brought girls. (Though he always maintained that women exhausted him, by the time he reached his eighties, Cossery was claiming more than 3,000 conquests.) In 1951, he moved permanently into the Hotel La Louisiane, that “grim old hostelry known to the bad boys of the Rue de Buci,” as Miller described it in Tropic of Cancer.
One night in 1952, he met the actress Monique Chaumette over a bowl of peanuts; Cossery asked her to feed him some, she refused. Cossery gave her a copy of his latest novel, Les fainéants dans la vallée fertile, and she telephoned to say how beautiful she found it. Flattered, Cossery agreed to meet at his usual haunt, the Café de Flore. They shocked everyone by marrying in April of 1953. Yet married life did not agree with Cossery. She awoke too early. Her constant questioning as to what he would write next enervated him. And he refused to move from his austere hotel room. In a story from Men God Forgot, Cossery had described a hashish-addicted slacker named Mahmoud, who cannot shake the affections of the amorous Faiza. “He had wanted to teach her to sleep, to respect slumber, that brother to death which he himself loved so,” Cossery wrote, “but alas! she understood nothing of it.” Faiza asks Mahmoud how he can live this way. “‘How do I live? And what does that matter to you?” Mahmoud tersely replies. “Yes, I dream all the time.” Seven years later, Cossery and Chaumette divorced.
Impeccably dressed in a sport coat with a colored handkerchief in its pocket, Cossery would rise late each day, leaving the hotel only in the afternoons, perhaps to take in the sun and watch the girls of the Luxembourg gardens. He would sit for hours at the Flore doing nothing. To waiters who asked him if he was not bored, he replied: “I am never bored when I’m with Albert Cossery.” He wrote only when he had absolutely nothing better to do, producing a new novel roughly every decade. And yet, to exercise the right to laziness had its own miseries. Forever broke, he relied on his royalties and income from translations of his novels to survive. In the late forties, New Directions published the English translation of The House of Certain Death, and commissioned the novelist William Goyen to translate Les fainéants. Cossery’s letters to his American publisher James Laughlin reveal the underside of his elegant life of idleness: “My financial situation is totally desperate.” “The rate of the franc is 270 to the dollar.” “I am absolutely fucked.” “I am appealing to you to help me.” “Have you forgotten me?” “Send me a check as soon as possible.” “I am always, and I continue to be, in extreme misery.” Laughlin replied with detailed instructions on how to change money on the Parisian black market for a better rate. At a meeting at a Paris café in the late fifties, Cossery complained so bitterly about how badly his books had sold in the U.S. that Laughlin handed him money out of his wallet.
If he had little American readership, Cossery had even less of an Egyptian one. On a rare visit to Cairo in the nineties, his dogged Arabic translator Mahmud Qassim — who translated and published four of Cossery’s novels — insisted on “a meeting of two monuments.” He dragged Cossery to meet Naguib Mahfouz. The Nobel Laureate had no idea who he was. Although Cossery claimed to have always carried Egypt inside him, to Egyptians — those who knew of him — he had deserted it. As Qassim said in an interview, “They don’t forgive him for having abandoned Arabic and emigrated to another language.” Worse, the other language was French, the purview of a marginalized elite. Like a dreamer in a cave, Cossery had missed the revolution of 1952, which had branded French, once the language of bourgeois aspirations, as aristocratic and elitist. Moreover, Cossery admitted that after years in Paris, he had forgotten much of his Arabic. Beyond the language barrier, his celebration of laziness and his romanticization of Egypt’s lowlife held little resonance for a readership actively trying to live in, and improve, the country, while often locked in battle against the state. While fellow writers such as Ahmed Fouad Negm and Abd al-Hakim Qasim were thrown in prison, or forced into exile like Jabès and Henein, Cossery sat idly at the Flore.
At the beginning of Cossery’s 1975 novel A Splendid Conspiracy, Teymour, recently returned to Egypt with a fake engineering diploma bought after years of “studying” in Europe, sits dejectedly at a café newly renamed “The Awakening.” He contemplates a statue in the center of the nearby square. Known as The Awakening of the Nation, it depicts a peasant woman with arms outstretched, “as if to denounce the torpor of the residents.” In the scene, Cossery conjures the Nahdat Misr, the granite sculpture of “The Awakening of Egypt” that still stands near Cairo’s Giza Zoo. Completed in 1928 by the renowned sculptor Mahmud Mukhtar, it portrays a peasant throwing back her veil and rousing a sleeping sphinx. The two symbols, of a storied past and a vital present, face east to a new dawn. The sculpture commemorated the events of 1919, in which hundreds of thousands of Egyptians across the country — students, peasants, civil servants, and the elite — had joined together in civil disobedience to reject the British occupation. Cossery was nine when the nation gained nominal independence in 1922. Everywhere it was said that, having fallen behind the times, Egypt, and the greater Arab world, was at last awakening — or must awake — from its long slumber into modernity. It was this obsession with the awakening that Tawfiq al-Hakim, a writer Cossery much admired, chose to play upon by reanimating the three-hundred-year-old sleepers from the Quran.
The awakening had at times seemed alloyed with the residue of a strange dream. To transform it into a profit-generating subsidiary of the Empire, the British had introduced new technologies to Egypt such as the railway, the telegraph, and electrical networks. In the early years of the development of the railway, until a steady supply of coal was secured, Egyptian trains, as well as Nile steamers, were occasionally fueled by the mummies frequently unearthed in the valleys. The embalming potions, it turned out, made for first-rate burning materials. A medical journal in 1859 reported: “It is a curious fact that the bodies of the most enlightened nation in its time, many years ago, are now made to aid in getting up steam in the present fast age.” Mark Twain, on his trip to Egypt, joked, “Sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D–n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent— pass out a King!’” The past, no longer able to rest in peace, collided with the effort to modernize.
The stereotype of Oriental indolence, which Cossery pushes to the absurd in Laziness in the Fertile Valley, was built into the very infrastructure of modernity itself. According to Egypt’s retired colonial governor Lord Cromer in 1908, the typical Egyptian was “devoid of energy and initiative, stagnant in mind, wanting in curiosity about matters which are new to him, careless of waste of time, and patient under suffering.” Egyptian laziness, in turn, determined railway timetables and management structures, and became a durable component of the system. It was thought that the Orient did not require the same standards of efficiency or reliability as the Occident, and so a different approximation of punctuality was enforced for British and Egyptian trains. As “Arab time” became institutionalized, the stereotype of idleness became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Egyptians would languish for hours in stations waiting for the capricious train.
If the trains reified laziness, it was the arrival of electricity that gave a jolt to the spirit. For some, electricity took the possibility of an “awakening” out of the realm of metaphor and into that of hard science, as it was understood at the time. In 1905, as discoveries were being made in the field of electromagnetism by Einstein and others, the journal Al-Sahafa ran an article on the phenomenon of tanwim magnatisi (“magnetic sleep inducement”), and the ways in which the electromagnetic current accounts for different flows of energy between the earth and the celestial bodies, and inside the human body and mind. It was followed by an article, “Are We Alive or Dead?” which argued that Egypt was still under a global electro-magnetically induced sleep, from which the West had been the first to awaken. Alert, the West had come to oppress the East. The writer then wondered when Egypt would rise from its own trance. During the rebellious months of 1919, riots targeted the electric streetlights, that technology which tames the night and ruins sleep. The British had constantly pointed to the technological advances they had introduced to Egypt as benefits of colonial rule. As streets fell into darkness, artificial illumination became a political symbol. Streetlamps were guarded by the police.
With the rousing of the nation had come the introduction, not unanimously welcomed, of the clock. (Perversely, though God Himself has idled ever since His six days’ work, the first mechanical clocks were used by 14th century Benedictine monks hoping to keep their prayers on a rigorous schedule.) In 1830, Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt, gave France the majestic obelisk that now stands in the Place de la Concorde in exchange for a clock, which some say never even worked. During the occupation, British Time was introduced into Egypt, with Egyptian “slave clocks” taking their orders from the Greenwich observatory. For Egypt to be profitable, it was essential that it function on a synchronized schedule. In the 1870s, the British began to impose the shift from the age-old lunar Hijri calendar to the solar Gregorian calendar. (It’s April 45th, declared an advertisement, selling a wall calendar, in one Cairo newspaper.) Yet even after the confusion subsided, Egyptians could never fully accept the imposition of European timekeeping. Clock time was not neutral, or apolitical, or natural, as it might have seemed to a Parisian glancing at his watch. The memory of the lunar calendar, something traditional, authentic, and now lost, inflamed the nationalist spirit.
Although it had been introduced in order to further imperialist aims, the fixation on clock-time soon led to a popular obsession with “the value of time.” Articles began appearing in the press that gently admonished the lazy Egyptian to “remember that time is money.” Hassan al-Banna, the son of a watchmaker and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, took issue with this equation, writing in a letter from the 1920s that time is even more precious than gold. Religious clerics made efforts to embed punctuality into the system of Islamic ethics. Though the railroads literally ran on laziness, managers introduced harsh penalties for its workers’ indolence: half a day’s wages would be withheld for five minutes’ lateness to work. In Fagalla, catty neighbors gossiped about the Cossery family’s idleness.
Against this monetization of time Albert Cossery stood firm. As monuments cheering Egypt’s progress went up, Cossery chose in his novels to reveal the deep bedrock of sloth underlying it all. Sleep nibbles everything, he wrote, “like the teeth of invisible rats.” In Laziness, retired civil servants grow moldy on the outskirts of the city, while in the center, workers in dusty corporate offices are asleep. There is the idleness that stands against work, and an idleness within work. There is the private and the public laziness. Abou Zeid, the peanut seller, naps in his empty shop; the factory that would threaten the countryside, eternally under construction, is a stage-set for Serag’s torpor. In Cossery’s novels, the only one who works hard is the prostitute. And yet, laziness goes beyond doing nothing. “The more you are idle, the more you have time to reflect,” Cossery said in an interview in his eighties. Laziness is a critical position by which to judge the world — a perspective the salaried clock-puncher lacks. “The Orient is more philosophical than the Occident,” Cossery declared. “Everyone’s a philosopher because they wait, they think. Everyone in the West is after money. I have lived my life minute by minute,” though it had meant dire financial straits. With idleness comes godliness. Away from the hourglass of the city, Cossery said, “the further one goes toward the South, toward the desert, there are more prophets, more magi — more people who have reflected on the world.” After his death, the long-sleeping Epimenides was honored as a god in Crete.
In a cartoon published in 1921 in the journal al-Kashkul, the sculptor Mukhtar rides on top of a sphinx, with an alarm clock in each hand. “Did the alarm clock awake you to behold the Awakening statue?” asks a voice in the picture. “It gave me a headache,” another voice replies, “all I see in the Awakening is noise, commotion, and discord.” In A Splendid Conspiracy, as Teymour contemplates the statue of the Awakening, he observes, “she seemed to be lamenting the fact that she had been woken up to see this abomination.” In Laziness, through the character of Serag, Cossery poses the question whether Egypt should slip back into its slumber, given the dissonance brought about by the attempt to catch up with modernity. Serag’s name means “lamp,” a beacon (or a nuisance) in the darkness of the family home. When he threatens to leave for the city to find work, Rafik attempts to rid him of his illusions. “Do you know, my dear Serag, that there are countries where men get up at four o’clock in the morning to work in the mines?” “Mines!” says Serag, “It isn’t true; you want to frighten me.” “I know men better than you do,” Rafik replies. “They won’t wait long, I tell you, to spoil this fertile valley and turn it into a hell. That’s what they call progress. You’ve never heard that word? Well, when a man talks to you about progress, you can be sure that he wants to subjugate you.”
As Teymour sits in the Café Awakening, a noisy caravan passes before him. It’s Wataniya, the monstrous madame of the local brothel, showing off her coterie of hookers. Cossery’s choice of name is striking, for the word “wataniya” means “nationalism.” If the peasant woman of Mukhtar’s Awakening statue had a name, she too would be Wataniya. The name plays on the tradition of metonymy in earlier Egyptian nationalist novels — such as Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab, widely considered to be the first Egyptian novel, and al-Hakim’s The Return of the Spirit, about the days leading up to the 1919 revolution — in which the main female character is used to represent the nation. And yet, in Cossery’s version, the notables of the city keep disappearing into Wataniya’s fatal brothel. As landowners and bureaucrats are mysteriously killed, the whore “Nationalism” emerges as a deadly trap. Better to sleep than risk her caresses.
Though the people might slave for the flourishing of this new imagined “Egypt,” and sacrifice themselves to her, the entrenched powers did not want the nationalist spirit to get too far ahead. When Cossery left for Paris in 1945, the year he wrote Laziness, Cairo was in the midst of what would be nostalgically remembered as its gilded age. Money had flowed in from Europe during the two wars, enriching the aristocratic elite. Cinemas, opera houses and villas shot up along the boulevards, in styles that mixed Art Deco with Arabesque and Neo-Pharaonic, a craze that had struck Egypt since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in the twenties. Armenian studio photographers captured pasha’s wives in the latest fashions from Paris. A cast of glamorous exiles sipped whiskey at the Gezira Sporting Club, while Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek convened at the foot of the Pyramids. In 1936, King Farouk took the reins of power from his father Fuad, who, along with Farouk’s mother, Queen Nazli, had kept Breton’s imp of the perverse well-fed. While Nazli performed nighttime séances, Fuad slept with a Circassian servant girl curled up on a rare Chinese carpet at the foot of his bed. Unbounded by means or appetite, the fattened Farouk rolled between his four palaces and yachts with his chief confidante, an Italian plumber, by his side.
Farouk was at best a puppet of the British: much of Egypt was foreign-owned, including its entire tramway and electrical networks. Under his reign, the veneer of “progress” belied the worsening misery of the poor. While the rich literary culture that first published Cossery and Jabès flourished, only one in seven Egyptians could read. Child labor, sixteen-hour workdays, and corruption were common. City sharks swindled the rural poor. As public health improved, the population exploded — Cairo began to grow so fast that it lost control of its own slums. In a short story from the thirties, Cossery described the march of the city lights across the Egyptian countryside: “Strange harlot’s body: it spread in all directions, always venal, always interested. And the countryside fled before it, rapid and monotonous. The city chased it without respite. Accursed countryside, which went off to vomit its distress at the edges of the poorer quarters.”
In their villa on the outskirts, Serag’s father scares him from looking for a job in the city by telling him that the government has arrested rebels. “But was he a rebel? Was his desire to look for work and to mingle with working men a revolutionary act?” Cossery writes. “Serag didn’t understand why his love of an active life should be considered by the government as an attempt at revolt against the established laws.” In 1945 alone, thousands of workers were arrested during trade union strikes and government crackdowns. It was too dangerous to hope for better labor conditions, or to challenge the monarchy held up by strings. Instead, as Cossery wrote in Laziness, “the country slept in its snare.”
On July 2, 1952, a few months before its publication date, a case of the New Directions edition of Goyen’s translation of Les fainéants, then titled The Lazy Ones, was lost or “hijacked” off a truck somewhere in New England. On the 23rd of that month, a coalition of young Egyptian army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the regime in a coup d’état. With Farouk exiled, Nasser introduced socialist reforms, seized foreign businesses, and redistributed Egyptian wealth. “Arab nationalism is fully awakened to its new destiny,” Nasser declared in 1956, as he pushed for the nationalization of the Suez Canal. And yet, as workers were killed by the police and intellectuals imprisoned, it became clear to many that the awakening had only replaced one bad dream with another. In Cossery’s 1964 satire The Jokers, a mad old lady has a dream about her son’s friend Heykal (perhaps named after the author of Zaynab, an opposition leader). A practical joker and an anti-authoritarian agitator, Heykal and his comrades set out to topple the regime by postering the city with embarrassingly effusive pro-government propaganda. In the dream, Heykal is riding on a white horse and slaying a dragon. Yet after each blow, the dragon is reborn and refuses to die. “And you, prince, you laughed and laughed,” recounts the woman. “And I knew why you laughed. Deep down, you didn’t want to kill the dragon; the dragon entertained you too much for you to want it dead.”
Revolution is futile, yet Cossery’s heroes do not mind. Were it to succeed, it would leave them with no one to laugh at. Though he had highly politicized friends, such as the Egyptian communist Henri Curiel, Cossery himself never joined any political parties. “I hate politics,” he said in an interview, “but I cannot write a sentence which is not a rebellion.” He understood that a mode of living, expressed in his novels and in his daily life, could be revolutionary. In conversation with Michel Mitrani, his interviewer, exasperated, remarked, “This dormancy, it’s totally engulfing!” “But it’s a symbol,” Cossery replied, “of refusing a certain world.” Whenever he was asked why he writes, he would reply, “So someone who just read me decides not to go to work.” In Laziness, as Rafik attempts to dissuade Serag from undertaking such a thing, the slumberous Galal enters the scene. “Why are you awake!” he groans. His brother explains their predicament. “God help him,” murmurs Galal. “God is with the lazy,” Rafik declares. “He has nothing to do with the vampires who work.” “You’re right,” echoes Galal. “Where can I sit down?”
Goyen’s translation of Laziness in the Fertile Valley has been in a deep sleep for sixty years. At various intervals, the idea of rousing it was debated, but editors feared it had gone musty. In Cairo in early 2011, I had brought a few of Albert Cossery’s books with me. Egypt was in a state of euphoria: by overthrowing Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year dictatorship, it had done what had seemed impossible. Reading his novels amid the exhilaration of the uprising, Cossery seemed irrelevant or, happily, wrong. Yet not long after, following the elections that installed the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the new rulers began to instate their vision for Egypt’s future. They granted themselves sweeping powers, restricted civil liberties, and imprisoned dissenters, in the midst of economic crisis and electrical blackouts. They called their plan — unsurprisingly — the Nahda, or Awakening Project. But after the Egyptian army
stepped in to depose the new president, it was against Mukhtar’s statue of the Awakening that his supporters turned their anger. They spray painted slogans and papered the failed leader’s portrait over the faces of the peasant and the sphinx. In the military’s attempt to disperse the demonstrators at the foot of the Awakening and elsewhere, over a thousand people were killed.
In an early short story, Cossery had imagined a battle between the city’s streetlights and the moon. “The street was deserted,” he wrote. “He saw only the poor street lamp, which was trying to show some signs of life in spite of the intense light of the moon. It looked like a human being, a humble person crushed down by the luxury and power of a tyrannical force against which it could do nothing. In this drama of the street, the moon personified the privileged minority in this world, and under its brilliance the poor street lamps died in their thousands.” Rather than imagining the moon as a benevolent orb, friend of lovers and poets, shining above the streetlamp—that artificial, politicized star—the moon is the despotic elite. And yet what remains if we, the lazy ones, have an enemy even in the moon?
We could shut our eyes against the lights. Sleep is refusal, a protest, a weapon. “I am always indignant,” said Cossery to an interviewer. “About what?” “Everything that I see.” In his first novel, The House of Certain Death, the young Cossery had ended on a note of high prophecy: “The future is full of outcries; the future is full of revolt. How to confine this swelling river that will submerge entire cities?” And yet, by his last novel, The Colors of Infamy, published in 1999, he writes of the hero, a charming pickpocket, “Ossama’s objective was not to have a bank account (the most dishonorable thing of all), but merely to survive in a society ruled by crooks, without waiting for the revolution, which was hypothetical and continually being put off until tomorrow.” The future is full of revolution; the revolution is forever in the future. The two possibilities cancel each other out, and what are we left with? Cossery’s philosophy of idleness emerges as a via negativa, a political mysticism of its own. All that’s left is to dive into the annihilating sweetness.
By the time he wrote The Colors of Infamy, Albert Cossery had lost his voice. Forced to undergo a laryngectomy after years of smoking, he could only hiss. Yet he preserved his routine as ever. He escaped the hospital to go to a café, wearing the ward pajamas. Pushed in a wheelchair by a beautiful blonde, he was as striking a sight as ever. In place of speaking, Cossery would write on notecards in a shaky yet elegant hand, a mischievous look in his eyes. “The loss of my voice gives me relief because I don’t have to respond to imbeciles.” “To look at pretty girls, there is no need to speak.” “I have nothing in common with the world.” “I am nothing except what is contained in my books.” “Read them, and you will know who I am. All I have to say is in my books.” In 2008, Cossery was made a Chevalier in the Légion d’honneur by President Sarkozy. He refused to accept.
Tawfiq al-Hakim’s three-hundred-year-old saints, having found they cannot live in this new world, retreat back into their cave. As they lay dying, delirious, they wonder whether it was all a dream. And whose dream was it — time’s dream, or their own? “Time is dreaming us,” one says to the other. “We dream Time,” the other replies. “Didn’t we live three hundred years in one night? I’m tired from the dream.” Time it stopped. On June 22, 2008, at ninety-four, Albert Cossery died in the room at the Hotel Louisiane where he had resided for sixty years.
“Men are asleep,” he wrote. “Time takes on a new dignity, relieved of men and their eternal wrangles.” The moon continues to do as it pleases: ostentation one night, austerity a few weeks later. But the sun, sinking its heavy head into the horizon every evening, is on our side.
Author Note: This piece is indebted to On Barak for his work on the history of timekeeping in Egypt. To learn more, see his new book On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt.
Henry Miller’s boyhood home at 662 Driggs Ave. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“The foam was on the lager.”
Now that Brooklyn is, by acclamation, the coolest place in the universe, it’s fitting that one of the borough’s literary lions is enjoying a week in the spotlight. The Big Sur Brooklyn Bridge Festival, which runs until Sunday, May 19, is a week-long celebration of the life and writing of native son Henry Miller, who spent the first years of his life in Williamsburg, in a three-story apartment building that’s still standing at 662 Driggs Ave. The Miller family occupied the top floor from 1892, the year after Henry’s birth, until 1900, when the respectable German-American Millers moved further inland to Bushwick to get away from the new arrivals pouring across the river from Manhattan, mostly Italians and Jews.
Today the 600 block of Driggs Avenue carries only faint echoes of Miller’s boyhood. No plaque commemorates his time there. Haberman’s noisy tin factory behind the apartment building is long gone. So are the tailor shop and veterinarian’s office across the street, and Pat McCarren’s saloon at the corner, where young Henry was sent to fetch pitchers of beer whenever relatives visited. “The foam was on the lager,” as Miller later wrote about the Williamsburg of his youth, “and people stopped to chat with one another.”
That world is gone, but no matter. Miller’s spirit still hovers over the streets of Williamsburg, which is why it was chosen as the site for this week’s festival by the Henry Miller Memorial Library of Big Sur, Calif., where Miller lived from the 1940’s until the mid-1960s, after his long-banned masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer, was finally published in the U.S. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the novel was not obscene and could no longer be banned. Nearly a half-century after that historic ruling, the Big Sur Brooklyn Bridge Festival has a pop-up bookstore in Williamsburg featuring Miller manuscripts, letters, watercolors, and first editions; there are also panel discussions, readings, and comedy and musical performances.
All of it made me stop and wonder: Does Henry Miller deserve such fuss?
“A life without hope, but no despair.”
Like many avid, life-long readers – particularly those of the American male persuasion – I went through a Henry Miller phase. Mine started late, after the peak of Miller’s fame and notoriety in the 1960s and ’70s. But my Miller phase proved to be more protracted and intense than most.
It started, appropriately enough, in Paris, where I had gone to live in 1979 because I’d fallen in love with a woman who was in school there and I thought it would be a fine place to finish writing an apprentice novel I’d been working on for several years. I was a walking cliche! – an American in Paris, suffering gorgeously, trying to write the great American novel in a seedy top-floor apartment that could fairly be called a garret. The whole thing was a fiasco. The writing wasn’t going well and I was constantly worried about money. One raw winter day, feeling utterly defeated, I knocked off work early, drew a hot bath, and slipped into the tub with a book chosen at random from the stack on the coffee table. It was Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, a book I had somehow managed to miss during the high season of the sexual revolution. Reading the opening lines was like sticking my finger into a wall socket:
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
Boris has just given me a summary of his views. He is a weather prophet. The weather will continue bad, he says. There will be more calamities, more death, more despair. Not the slightest indication of a change anywhere. The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time, but Timelessness. We must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change.
It is now fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom.
I have no money, no resources, no hope. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am.
What the fuck was this? I couldn’t say for sure. All I knew was that I had stumbled onto writing that was unlike anything I had ever read before, writing that spoke directly, almost weirdly, to my predicament, writing that had no use for plot, drama, foreshadowing, character development – all the writerly tricks that marked the “serious” fiction I’d been reading all my life. Instead of a conventional hero, there was just this American nobody shambling around the shabby back streets of Paris in the 1930s, dead broke, cadging money and drinks and meals and sex. The book’s second page hinted at what I was in for:
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in an ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty….
I couldn’t stop reading. The language was bewitching, a wised-up slang Miller picked up on the streets of Brooklyn and then burnished to a ribald, hallucinatory glow. Wherever he goes, Miller’s protagonist, known only as Joe, encounters a gallery of colorful misfits. They have false teeth and halitosis, their hands sweat, they fret about syphilis and lice and the clap. They visit “joints” and “dives” and pour out rivers of “flapdoodle” and “flummery.” They’re a bunch of “butter-tongued bastards” who “fulminate” and “bombinate” and “cluck like a pygmy.” Every now and then they “throw a fuck” into a “cunt.” The sex – the thing that would make Miller famous, to his undying chagrin – is graphic, ubiquitous, usually casual (or paid for up front), and frequently hilarious. One day Joe agrees to take a distinguished Hindu visitor to a whorehouse, where the guest, unfamiliar with French plumbing, proceeds to drop a pair of “enormous turds” in the bidet. The girls and the madam are horrified. Pandemonium ensues.
But those two turds lead Joe to a liberating epiphany about the utter hopelessness of human life:
Somehow the realization that nothing was to be hoped for had a salutary effect upon me. For weeks and months, for years, in fact, all my life I had been looking forward to something happening, some extrinsic event that would alter my life, and now suddenly, inspired by the absolute hopelessness of everything, I felt relieved, felt as though a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders… I made up my mind that I would hold on to nothing, that I would expect nothing, that henceforth I would live as an animal, a beast of prey, a rover, a plunderer.
A bit later he adds this refinement to the epiphany about the new world he has entered: “A world without hope, but no despair.”
In the end Miller, through his stand-in Joe, fulfills the promise of the book’s opening lines. He delivers that gob of spit in the eye of modern civilization and its empty promises to improve the human race. “The world is pooped out: there isn’t a dry fart left,” he declares. “Who that has a desperate, hungry eye can have the slightest regard for these existent governments, laws, codes, principles, ideals, ideas, totems, and taboos?” Delivering that gob of spit is an act of stupendous bravery because it requires a willingness to forego creature comforts and illusions and become a nobody. Better to be broke in Paris, Joe says, than to go back to America “to be put in double harness again, to work the treadmill.” It was this stance, as much as the writing itself, that turned me into a Henry Miller fan. Few possess his courage, his willingness to walk away from the American dream and embrace a life without hope. Fewer still manage to be what Miller claimed to be in the face of hopelessness – always merry and bright.
In the course of the next decade I would read every Miller title and interview I could get my hands on. But first I did something that would have appalled Miller: I pulled the plug on my failed Paris experiment and went back to America to work the treadmill, taking a job as a newspaper reporter in Norfolk, Va.
“Thomas Aquinas spoke here!”
Six months into the job, on the morning of Monday, June 9, 1980, I walked into the newsroom and learned that Henry Miller had died over the weekend in Pacific Palisades, Calif., at the age of 88. I felt a powerful need to write something about Miller for the next day’s paper, but I knew the skeptical city editor would demand a “local angle.” I paced and fretted. From what I knew, Miller had never set foot in that Virginia backwater. Then I remembered meeting Huntington Cairns, a writer and art critic who had worked at the Library of Congress for many years and was a long-time friend and supporter of Miller’s. Cairns was then living in retirement on the nearby Outer Banks. To my surprise, the city editor told me to go ahead and give Cairns a call. My story appeared in the next day’s paper under the stirring headline “Miller Is Extolled as Serious Artist.” It began:
Huntington Cairns, a citizen of the world who lives in Kitty Hawk, N.C., remembers walking to work in Washington years ago when an old friend approached.
It was Henry Miller, the writer.
“He said he wanted to go to a whorehouse,” Cairns recalled Monday. “I asked him what kind. He said he didn’t want to go to any ordinary one. He wanted to go where the senators went.”
Later in the article Cairns offers an assessment that I have come to agree with: Miller was a serious writer. He may not have been a great writer – in a league with Tolstoy – but he was an interesting writer and he was not writing pornography. He wanted the freedom to write his own view of the world as he saw it. And he was a hard-working man. He worked all day. He knew Paris like I know the palm of my own hand. We would pass a corner and he’d say, “Thomas Aquinas spoke here!”
A few years later I was working as a morning-drive disc jockey in Nashville and spending my free afternoons struggling to write a novel about a frustrated writer who’s working as a Nashville disc jockey and struggling to write a novel about his literary hero, Henry Miller. My phase was at its zenith. One day Miller, dead a half dozen years by then, walks into my fictional disc jockey’s apartment and strikes up a conversation, just like that. The two become fast friends. Pandemonium ensues.
My working title for the novel was The Colossus of Music City, a nod to The Colossus of Maroussi, still one of my favorite Miller books. One editor who turned down the manuscript wrote that my ghostly version of Miller “is certainly a lovable character – like a favorite uncle who drinks too much and whores around.” He may have been lovable, but not lovable enough. The novel failed to sell.
My own private Henry Miller Library.
“The most boring businessman you can imagine.”
My Henry Miller phase began to fade after that. I’d read more than a dozen of his books – fiction and non-fiction, famous and obscure, wise and pedantic – before coming to the last straw, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
It was begun in 1941, after Miller had enjoyed a richly prolific decade. Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring came steaming straight from the gutters of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Paris after Tropic of Cancer. Then it was on to Greece, where Miller wrote a sun-splashed ode to the sensuous life and a bon vivant named Katsimbalis. It is, along with Cancer, my favorite of Miller’s books. In Paris and Greece he was living off the cuff, far from his despised hometown and homeland, and as a result the writing was unfettered and full of joy.
But Europe was sliding into the abyss and Miller narrowly slipped from under the gathering war clouds and returned, reluctantly, to the U.S. The gloom descended as soon as he boarded the American boat in Piraeus. “I was among the go-getters again,” he wrote, “among the restless souls who, not knowing how to live their own life, wish to change the world for everybody.”
After arriving in New York, he decides to take a cross-country road trip and record his impressions of a country he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. Face-to-face again with his countrymen, his guts get all wadded up and the writing becomes pinched and cranky. Worse, Miller makes the fatal mistake of buying into the claptrap that the artist is some sort of exalted figure, entitled to special treatment, immune to the rules and responsibilities that govern the rest of society:
Like every other big city in America New Orleans is full of starving or half-starved artists. The quarter which they inhabit is being steadily demolished and pulverized by the big guns of the vandals and barbarians from the industrial world… When the beautiful French Quarter is no more, when every link with the past is destroyed, there will be the clean, sterile office buildings, the hideous monuments and public buildings, the oil wells, the smokestacks, the air ports, the jails, the lunatic asylums, the charity hospitals, the bread lines, the gray shacks of the colored people, the bright tin lizzies, the stream-lined trains, the tinned food products, the drug stores, the Neon-lit shop windows to inspire the artist to paint. Or, what is more likely, persuade him to commit suicide.
The only thing missing from this unimaginative litany is cellophane.
Years after I read the book I learned that Miller had neglected to mention a telling encounter he had on his trip across the country. His editor in New York had arranged for him to visit Eudora Welty at her home in Jackson, Miss., and Miller took it upon himself to write her a letter in advance, letting her know that he could put her in touch with “an unfailing pornographic market” that paid a dollar a page. What would possess a man to make such an offer to a very proper Southern lady? I can only assume it was the bad boy’s eagerness to shock, to uphold the naughty reputation cemented by the still-banned but widely circulated Tropics books.
Whatever his reasoning, the visit to Jackson was a disaster and there is no mention of it in the book. As Welty later said, “We drove around in the family car. I took him all around. He was infinitely bored with everything.” After Miller left town, Welty called him “the most boring businessman you can imagine.” Businessman. Ouch.
“Must We Burn Henry Miller?”
A lot of women readers besides Eudora Welty have had trouble with Miller’s sexual candor, seeing it not as a badge of liberation but as the demeaning handiwork of a sexist at best, a misogynist at worst. By the time my Henry Miller phase came and went, he and his work had already been fed through the meat grinder by second-wave feminists, most notably Kate Millett in her 1970 book Sexual Politics, in which she castigates Miller along with D.H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer. “Miller is a compendium of American sexual neuroses,” Millett wrote, “and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions, but in having had the honesty to express and dramatize them.”
I agree. I suspect Miller agreed too. Erica Jong, author of the very Miller-esque novel Fear of Flying, definitely agrees. In an essay called “Must We Burn Henry Miller?” in her 1993 book The Devil at Large, Jong argues that Miller was not an enemy of women in general and feminists in particular. “Ultimately,” Jong writes, “Miller can be a stronger force for feminists than for male chauvinists. His writing consistently shows a ruthless honesty about the self, an honesty that even women writers would do well to emulate, because honesty is the beginning of all transformation.” Then Jong poses a rhetorical question to her fellow feminists: “Shall we burn Henry Miller? Better to emulate him. Better to follow his path from sexual madness to spiritual serenity, from bleeding maleness to an androgyny that fills the heart with light.”
While Millett and Jong seem to have touched on the essence of Miller’s achievement and his worth, his place in the pantheon of American writers has never been fixed, which might be a good thing, something Miller himself would have approved of.
Steve Von, a psychoanalyst who will be part of a panel discussion at this week’s festival in Brooklyn, put it this way in an e-mail: “Henry Miller is a strange character in modern literature: both more and less popular than he seems. At first ignored, then outlawed, then celebrated, then forgotten, then remembered. He seems universally known, almost old hat, and yet he still has not been accepted by the academy.”
Now we’re getting close. Once so scandalous that he was outlawed, Miller is now old hat. How much the world has changed – and what a big part he played in changing it, for better and for worse.
Henry Miller did me several huge favors. He taught me that a novel can be whatever a novelist has the courage and the talent to conjure. He taught me that there’s something noble about stepping off the American treadmill, a lesson that’s more valuable today than ever before. He taught me that my native distaste for governments, authority, religions, taboos, cops, saviors, and salesmen puts me in good company.
Was Miller a great writer? I don’t know and I don’t care. He wrote one great book, a few very fine ones, a fair number of mediocrities and some outright junk. Not at all a bad life’s work for any writer. In the end, strange to say, the work matters less to me than the man who wrote it – or, more precisely, what that man had to go through to get it written. There, to me, lies greatness.
Images courtesy the author.
The documentary about Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller, Asleep and Awake (NSFW), was filmed almost entirely in Mr. Miller’s bathroom. The filmmakers, according to the folks at Open Culture, “use[d] these bathroom walls as a gateway into his mind.”
Is it my imagination, or do an inordinate number of writers die in motor vehicle accidents? Maybe I tend to notice these grisly deaths because I’m a writer, an avid reader of obituaries, and also a car lover with a deep fear of dying in a crash. But I’m convinced by years of accumulated empirical evidence that writers outnumber the percentage of, say, nurses or teachers or accountants who die in car and motorcycle accidents. (Similarly, an inordinate number of musicians seem to die in plane crashes, including the Big Bopper, John Denver, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens and Ronnie Van Zant, to name a few.)
Why do so many writers die in motor vehicle mishaps? Are they reckless drivers? Prone to bad luck? Likely to indulge in risky behavior? I don’t pretend to know the answer(s), but I have noticed, sadly, that writers who die in crashes are frequently on the cusp of greatness or in the midst of some promising project; sometimes they’re at the peak of their careers. I offer this list in chronological order, aware it isn’t exhaustive. Feel free to add to it in the comments. Think of this as a living tribute to writers who left us too soon:
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) – Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 movie, opens with the death of its subject. T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole), the archaeologist/warrior who helped unite rival Arab tribes and defeat the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, was whizzing along a road in rural Dorset, England, astride his Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle on the afternoon of May 13, 1935. A dip in the road obscured Lawrence’s view of two boys on bicycles, and when he swerved to avoid them he lost control and pitched over the handlebars. Six days later he died from his injuries. He was 46.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s account of his experiences during the Great War, made him an international celebrity, though he called the book “a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people.” An inveterate letter writer, Lawrence also published his correspondence with Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, E.M. Forster and many others. He dreamed that victory on the desert battlefield would result in an autonomous Arab state, but negotiators at the Paris peace conference had very different ideas, prompting Lawrence to write bitterly, “Youth could win but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven on earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”
Seven Pillars of Wisdom still speaks to us today, as the U.S. fights two wars in the region during this convulsive Arab Spring. Lawrence could have been writing about Americans in Iraq when he wrote these words about his fellow British soldiers: “And we were casting them by thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.”
Nathanael West (1903-1940) – Nathanael West, born Nathan Weinstein, wrote just four short novels in his short life, but two of them – Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust – are undisputed classics. After graduating from college he managed two New York hotels, where he allowed fellow aspiring writers to stay at reduced rates or free of charge, including Dashiell Hammett, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell. When his first three novels – The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and A Cool Million (1934) – earned a total of $780, a demoralized West went to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting.
There he enjoyed his first success. He wrote scripts for westerns, B-movies and a few hits, then used his experiences in the trenches of the movie business to brilliant effect in his masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), which satirizes the tissue of fakery wrapped around everything in Los Angeles, from its buildings to its people to the fantasies that pour out of its dream factories. The novel also paints a garish portrait of the alienated and violent dreamers who come to California for the sunshine and the citrus and the empty promise of a fresh start. West’s original title for the novel was, tellingly, The Cheated. It was eclipsed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which was a published a few weeks before it and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, then was made into a hit movie. West wrote ruefully to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Sales: practically none.”
In April of 1940 West married Eileen McKenney. Eight months later, on Dec. 22, a day after Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack, West and McKenney were returning to their home in Los Angeles from a bird-hunting expedition in Mexico. Outside the farming town of El Centro, West, a notoriously bad driver, gunned his sparkling new Ford station wagon through a stop sign at high speed, smashing into a Pontiac driven by a poor migrant worker. West and McKenney were flung from the car and died of “skull fracture,” according to the coroner’s report.
Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney, closes her book with what I think is a fitting eulogy: “Dead before middle age, Nat left behind no children, no literary reputation of importance, no fine obituary in the New York Times ensuring immortality, no celebrity eulogies, just four short novels, two of them unforgettable. When a writer lives only 37 years and ends up with very little reward, it might seem a waste, until you look at what he did. For Nathanael West, what he did seems enough.”
Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) – Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, was published in the summer of 1936. By the end of the year it had sold a million copies and David O. Selznick had bought the movie rights for the unthinkable sum of $50,000. Mitchell spent the rest of her life feeding and watering her cash cow, work that was not always a source of pleasure. Her New York Times obituary said the novel “might almost be labeled a Frankenstein that overwhelmed her,” adding, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.”
She gave up fiction but continued to write letters, and her correspondence is filled with accounts of illnesses and accidents, boils and broken bones, collisions with furniture and cars. In fact, she claimed she started writing her novel because “I couldn’t walk for a couple of years.”
On the evening of Aug. 11, 1949, Mitchell and her husband John Marsh were about to cross Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta on their way to see a movie. According to witnesses, Mitchell stepped into the street without looking – something she did frequently – and she was struck by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty taxi driver named Hugh Gravitt. Her skull and pelvis were fractured, and she died five days later without regaining consciousness.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose familiarity with failure surely colored his opinion of Mitchell’s staggering success, said of Gone With the Wind, “I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind.”
Albert Camus (1913-1960) – He had planned to take the train from Provence back to Paris. But at the last minute, the Nobel laureate Albert Camus accepted a ride from his publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard. On Jan. 4, 1960 near the town of Villeblevin, Gallimard lost control of his Facel Vega sports car on a wet stretch of road and slammed into a tree. Camus, 46, died instantly and Gallimard died a few days later. Gallimard’s wife and daughter were thrown clear of the mangled car. Both survived.
In the wreckage was a briefcase containing 144 handwritten pages – the first draft of early chapters of Camus’s most autobiographical novel, The First Man. It closely paralleled Camus’s youth in Algiers, where he grew up poor after his father was killed at the first battle of the Marne, when Albert was one year old. The novel was not published until 1994 because Camus’s daughter Catherine feared it would provide ammunition for the leftist French intellectuals who had turned against her father for daring to speak out against Soviet totalitarianism and for failing to support the Arab drive for independence in the country of his birth. Camus dedicated the unfinished novel to his illiterate mother – “To you who will never be able to read this book.” He once said that of all the many ways to die, dying in a car crash is the most absurd.
Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) – In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote prophetically, “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times… A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems.”
In the 1960s, as his 50th birthday approached, Jarrell’s poetic inspiration was in decline. While he didn’t stop writing poetry, he concentrated on criticism, translations and children’s books. He also sank into a depression that led him to slash his left wrist and arm in early 1965. The suicide attempt failed, and a month later his wife Mary committed him to a psychiatric hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was there when his final book of poems, The Lost World, appeared to some savage reviews. In The Saturday Review, Paul Fussell wrote, “It is sad to report that Randall Jarrell’s new book… is disappointing. There is nothing to compare with the poems he was writing 20 years ago… (His style) has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attended now too often with the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos.”
Though stung, Jarrell returned to UNC-Greensboro in the fall, where he was a dedicated and revered teacher. In October he was back in Chapel Hill undergoing treatments for the wounds on his left arm. On the evening of Oct. 14, 1965, Jarrell was walking alongside the busy U.S. 15-501 bypass, toward oncoming traffic, about a mile and a half south of town. As a car approached, Jarrell stepped into its path. His head struck the windshield, punching a hole in the glass. He was knocked unconscious and died moments later from “cerebral concussion.” The driver, Graham Wallace Kimrey, told police at the scene, “As I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car.” Kimrey was not charged.
Was it a suicide? A tragic accident? We’ll never know for sure. One thing we do know is that this brilliant critic, uneven poet and inspiring teacher died too young, at 51, the same age as his heroes Proust and Rilke.
Richard Farina (1937-1966) – There was a time when every young person with claims to being hip and literary absolutely had to possess a battered copy of Richard Farina’s only novel, that terrific blowtorch of a book called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. Like a handful of other novels – Tropic of Cancer, On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest come immediately to mind – Farina’s creation was as much a generational badge as it was a book. Farina’s novel, which recounts the picaresque wanderings of Gnossos Pappadopoulis, was published in 1966, after Farina and his wife Mimi, Joan Baez’s sister, had become a successful folk-singing act. The best man at their wedding was Thomas Pynchon, who’d met Richard while they were students at Cornell.
On April 30, 1966, two days after the novel was published, there was a party in Carmel Valley, California, to celebrate Mimi’s 21st birthday. Richard decided to go for a spin on the back of another guest’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The driver entered an S-curve at excessive speed, lost control and tore through a barbed-wire fence. Farina died instantly, at the age of 29. Pynchon, who later dedicated Gravity’s Rainbow to Farina, said his friend’s novel comes on “like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch.”
Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) – For a writer who lived such a long and fruitful life – he was a teacher, environmentalist, decorated novelist and author of short stories, histories and biographies – Wallace Stegner does not enjoy the readership he deserves. “Generally students don’t read him here,” said Tobias Wolff, who was teaching at Stanford in 2009, the centennial of Stegner’s birth. “I wish they would.”
It was at Stanford that Stegner started the creative writing program and nurtured a whole galaxy of supernova talents, including Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, George V. Higgins, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone. He won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and a National Book Award but was ghettoized as “the dean of Western writers.” In a cruel irony, this writer who deplored “the stinks of human and automotive waste” was on his way to deliver a lecture in Santa Fe, N.M., on March 28, 1993, when he pulled his rental car into the path of a car bearing down on his left. The left side of Stegner’s car was crushed, and he suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone. A heart attack and pneumonia followed, and he died in the hospital at the age of 84.
For all his love of the West, Stegner knew it was no Eden. He once told an interviewer: “The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too. The West is rootless, culturally half-baked. So be it.”
Steve Allen (1921-2000) – Though best known as a television personality, musician, composer, actor and comedian, Steve Allen also wrote more than 50 books on a wide range of topics, including religion, media, the American educational system and showbiz personalities, plus poetry, plays and short stories. Lovers of Beat literature will always remember Allen for noodling on the piano while Jack Kerouac recited passages from On the Road on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1959.
On Oct. 30, 2000, Allen was driving to his son’s home in Encino, California, when his Lexus collided with an SUV that was being backed out of a driveway. Neither driver appeared to be injured in the fender bender, and they continued on their ways. After dinner at his son’s home, Allen said he was feeling tired and lay down for a nap. He never woke up. The original cause of death was believed to be a heart attack, but a coroner’s report revealed that Allen had suffered four broken ribs during the earlier collision, and a hole in the wall of his heart allowed blood to leak into the sac surrounding the heart, a condition known as hemopericardium.
On the day of his death Allen was working on his 54th book, Vulgarians at the Gate, which decried what he saw as an unacceptable rise of violence and vulgarity in the media.
W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) – It has been said that all of the German writer W.G. Sebald’s books had a posthumous quality to them. That’s certainly true of On the Natural History of Destruction, his magisterial little exploration of the suffering civilians endured during the Allied fire-bombing of German cities at the end of the Second World War. I should say his exploration of the unexplored suffering of German civilians, because the book is partly a rebuke, a challenge to his shamed countrymen’s willed forgetfulness of their own suffering.
I lived for a time in Cologne, target of some of the most merciless bombing. I’ve seen photographs of the city’s Gothic cathedral standing in a sea of smoking rubble. I’ve heard old-timers talk about the war – men grousing about the idiocy of their military officers, women boasting about how they cadged deals on the black market. But I never heard anyone say a word about the horror of watching the sky rain fire. Until Sebald dared to speak.
He produced a relatively short shelf of books – novels, poetry, non-fiction – but he was being mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate until Dec. 14, 2001, when he was driving near his home in Norwich, England, with his daughter Anna. Sebald apparently suffered a heart attack, and his car veered into oncoming traffic and collided with a truck. Sebald died instantly, at the age of 57. His daughter survived the crash.
David Halberstam (1934-2007) – David Halberstam died working. On April 23, 2007 he was riding through Menlo Park, California, in the passenger seat of a Toyota Camry driven by a UC-Berkeley journalism student. They were on their way to meet Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants quarterback, who Halberstam was keen to interview for a book he was writing about the epic 1958 N.F.L. title game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. As the Camry came off the Bayfront Expressway, it ran a red light. An oncoming Infiniti slammed into the passenger’s side and sent the Camry skidding into a third vehicle. The Camry’s engine caught fire and Halberstam, 73, was pronounced dead at the scene from blunt force trauma. All three drivers survived with minor injuries.
Halberstam made his mark by winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting in the New York Times that questioned the veracity of the men leading America’s war effort in Vietnam. Eight years later he published what is regarded as his masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the brilliant but blind men who led us into the fiasco of that unwinnable war. He went on to write 20 non-fiction books on politics, sports, business and social history. I think The Fifties, his re-examination of the supposedly bland Eisenhower years, contains all the virtues and vices of his work: outsized ambition and pit-bull reporting shackled to prose that’s both sprawling and clunky. Like so many writers with big reputations and egos to match, Halberstam never got the tough editor he needed.
The book he was working on when he died, The Glory Game, was completed by Frank Gifford, who played for the Giants in that 1958 title game. It was published – “by Frank Gifford with Peter Richmond” – a year after Halberstam’s death.
Doug Marlette (1949-2007) – Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the popular comic strip “Kudzu,” published his first novel in 2001. The Bridge spins around the violent textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1930s, in which Marlette’s grandmother was stabbed with a bayonet. The novel is set in the fictional town of Eno, loosely modeled on Hillsborough, N.C., the hot house full of writers where Marlette was living when he wrote the book. When Marlette’s neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus, read the novel in galleys, he saw a little too much of himself in the composite character Ruffin Strudwick, a gay man who wears velvet waistcoats and sashays a lot. Gurganus called the publisher and demanded that his name be removed from the book’s acknowledgements. A bookstore cancelled a reading, charging Marlette with homophobia, and Hillsborough became the scene of a nasty literary cat fight between pro- and anti-Marlette camps. People who should have known better – a bunch of writers – had forgotten Joan Didion’s caveat: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”
Marlette produced a second novel, Magic Time, in 2006. After delivering the eulogy at his father’s funeral in Charlotte, N.C., Marlette flew to Mississippi on July 10, 2007 to help a group of Oxford High School students who were getting ready to stage a musical version of “Kudzu.” The school’s theater director met Marlette at the airport. On the way to Oxford, the director’s pickup truck hydroplaned in heavy rain and smashed into a tree. Marlette was killed at the age of 57. He was at work on his third novel when he died.
Jeanne Leiby (1964-2011) – In 2008 The Southern Review named a woman as editor for the first time since Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks founded the literary journal at Louisiana State University in 1935. The woman was Jeanne Leiby, a native of Detroit who had published a collection of short stories called Downriver, set in the corroded bowels of her post-industrial hometown. Her fiction had appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Greensboro Review, New Orleans Review and Indiana Review. Leiby had also worked as fiction editor at Black Warrior Review in Alabama and as editor of The Florida Review before taking the job at The Southern Review.
On April 19, 2011, Leiby was driving west on Interstate-10 near Baton Rouge in her 2007 Saturn convertible. The top was down and she was not wearing a seat belt. When she tried to change lanes she lost control of the car and it hit a concrete guard rail and began to spin clockwise. Leiby was thrown from the car and died later at Baton Rouge General Hospital. She was 46.
At the time of her death Leiby was, by all accounts, performing masterfully at a thankless job. Due to punishing state budget cuts, she had slimmed The Southern Review down, cancelled some readings and other events for the journal’s 75th anniversary in 2010, and ended the annual $1,500 prizes for poetry, non-fiction and fiction. She did all that without a falloff in quality. She was also working to merge The Southern Review with the LSU Press.
In a conversation with the writer Julianna Baggott, Leiby confided that during her job interviews at The Southern Review she’d offered her opinion that the journal had gotten stodgy and that it was too Old South and too male. One of the first things this woman from Detroit did after she got the job was to lower the portraits of her predecessors – all men – because she thought they were hung too high.
Don Piper (1948 – ) – Don Piper might be the most intriguing person on this list. He died in a car crash – then came back from the other side to write a best-seller about the experience.
On Jan. 18, 1989, Piper, a Baptist minister, was driving his Ford Escort home to Houston after attending a church conference. It was a cold, rainy day. As he drove across a narrow, two-lane bridge, an oncoming semi-truck driven by a trusty from a nearby prison crossed the center line and crushed Piper’s car. When paramedics arrived at the scene, Piper had no pulse and they covered his corpse with a tarp. Since I can’t possibly improve on Piper’s telling of what happened next, I’ll give it to you straight from his book, 90 Minutes in Heaven:
Immediately after I died, I went straight to heaven… Simultaneous with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension or description. Only that. In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood in front of a brilliant, ornate gate… As the crowd rushed toward me, I didn’t see Jesus, but did see people I had known… and every person was smiling, shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, I intuitively knew that they were my celestial welcoming committee.
Piper recognized many people who had preceded him to the grave, including a grandfather, a great-grandfather, a childhood friend, a high school classmate, two teachers and many relatives. His story continues:
The best way to explain it is to say that I felt as if I were in another dimension… everything was brilliantly intense… (and) we began to move toward that light… Then I heard the music… The most amazing sound, however, was the angels’ wings… Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time… my heart filled with the deepest joy I’ve ever experienced… I saw colors I would never have believed existed. I’ve never, ever felt more alive than I did then… and I felt perfect.
Alas, perfection was not destined to last. A fellow preacher had stopped at the scene of the accident to pray. Just as Piper was getting ready to walk through the “pearlescent” gates and meet God face-to-face, the other minister’s prayers were answered and Piper, miraculously, rejoined the living. This, surely, ranks as one of the greatest anti-climaxes in all of Western literature. Nonethless, 90 Minutes in Heaven, published in 2004, has sold more than 4 million copies and it has been on the New York Times paperback best-seller list for the past 196 weeks, and counting.
(Image: Orange Car Crash – 14 Times from eyeliam’s photostream)
Once you have seen the astonishingly evocative portraits of the neo-Modernist painter Carl Köhler (1919-2006), you will wonder how he died relatively unknown outside of his native Sweden. Such are the vagaries of the art world: Andy Warhol’s rather uninteresting 200 One Dollar Bills sells for over 40 million dollars, while the remarkable author portraits of Carl Köhler go all but unnoticed.
But this, perhaps, is changing. Thanks to the efforts of his son, Henry, Köhler’s work has made its way outside of Sweden for the first time. If you live in New York, you might have seen “Beyond the Words: The Author Portraits of Carl Köhler” at the Brooklyn Central Library this past winter and spring, or the write-up in The New York Times’ blog Paper Cuts. The show was also briefly at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, in Washington, D.C., in July and August. Now, this exhibit is on its way to Canada: Its next stop is the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto (January-March 2010). After that, the show’s on to the University of British Columbia’s Irving K. Barber Learning Centre in Vancouver (April-June/July 2010). With any luck, these shows will not be the last.
While Köhler’s figure drawings from his time in Paris in the 1950’s are remarkable, as are his abstract figural paintings, it is what he called his “authorportraits,” his paintings of European and American writers, intellectuals, and popular artists that I am most taken with—as much for their content as for their formal diversity. These portraits comprise an astonishing variety of media and styles, a variety that reflects the variety of Köhler’s subjects, who included James Joyce, Günter Grass, Joyce Carol Oats, Michael Jackson, Simone de Beauvoir, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, among many others. With the exception of a few Swedish artists, Köhler did not actually meet any of his subjects. His inspiration for his portraits came through each artist’s work. He was an avid reader of wide-ranging tastes and wrote himself, though he never published. Literature—and music and film—were his inspiration, but paint, ink, collage, and blockprint were his media.
While artists like R.B Kitaj and Don Bachardy have also produced significant collections of artist/author portraits, their own artistic styles remained relatively unchanged regardless of their artist subjects. Köhler’s experimentation with many startlingly different techniques and media in his portraiture, and his often exquisite pairings of style and subject, give his work an arresting and distinctive expressiveness. His portraits infuse the physiognomy of each artist’s face with the immaterial, spiritual dimension of his or her work and life. The authorportraits distill the essence of each artist—the mood and aesthetics of each artist’s work—with an uncanny, luminous intensity.
Köhler’s woodblock print of Franz Kafka, for instance, offers a disorienting, sinister labyrinth of lines whose sharp edges seem simultaneously to represent and dismantle the face of the artist. This vision of Kafka’s face is tenuous (a few more lines carved in the woodblock and the face would be unrecognizable) and this sense of human fragility suggested by the print echoes Kafka’s own. In works like The Metamorphosis or “Josephine the Singer (The Mouse Folk)”, Kafka asks us to see how delicate and vulnerable our lives and loves and societies are. This print’s black maze is also a vision of the byzantine, dehumanizing bureaucracy of a novel like The Trial, and a demonstration of metamorphosis: the longer you look at the portrait, the more it seems to represent the carapace of an insect, or a skull, or a snarled, unreadable web—all symbols of the Kafkaesque, with its the atmosphere of impending danger and death, its sense of menacing, disorienting complexity, of something becoming something else.
Köhler painted the American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski— uninhibited, antisocial spokesman for drinking, fighting, and fucking; defender of the inescapable squalor, oppressiveness, and futility of life—in an earthy, visceral red. The paint looks, appropriately, like dried, clotted blood. Bukowski was a poet of bodies and bodily hungers. His writings depict the dirty, lusty, ignoble side of human life and human nature and don’t apologize for their unsavory vision. Köhler’s rough, mottled, blood-colored paint communicates this essence precisely. The wound-like eyes and mouth of Köhler’s Bukowski—rough-gouged scars where the sensory organs ought to be—emphasize again the raw, brutal quality of Bukowski’s poetic vision, while the whole composition’s symmetry and balanced color palate suggest the lyricism of which Bukowski was also capable.
Henry Miller, the controversial and much demonized author of Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Black Spring, Köhler depicts “as Demon.” Using again the black and white block-print style of his Kafka, Köhler reassembles Miller’s rather benign facial features into a snarled, sinewy, black fist. Miller’s work is raw, uncomfortable stuff. I struggled with the apathy, squalor, and obscenity of Tropic of Cancer, and even the admiring can be a little circumspect about his work: George Orwell, ultimately Miller’s champion, described him as, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” Köhler’s distortion of Miller’s face befits his work’s darkness, its difficulty, its simultaneously arresting and repellent frankness.
In contrast to Andy Warhol’s iconic images of Monroe, whose garish colors and tiled formats offer the actress as a celebrity brand, as something both less and more than human, Köhler’s portrait, with its delicate, wash-out palate and deconstructed, barely recognizable features, draws attention to the artifice and constructedness of Monroe’s celebrity. Köhler’s portrait is the inverse, the negative, of Warhol’s: it captures the troubled, shy, stuttering Monroe—the fragile private self that her celebrity obscured.
In this photo-collage, Michael Jackson’s face looks as if it is made of porcelain, as if it is a doll’s face—but a doll’s face that has been vandalized or inexpertly drawn. The lips, eyebrows, and nostrils are, deliberately, not quite right. Köhler’s altered photo and the collage technique emphasize Jackson’s physical freakishness, which became the outward sign of his freakish personal life. The toy-like quality of the face also connotes Jackson’s obsession with childhood, while the doll face’s troublingly irregular features—somewhat suggestive of Heath Ledger’s Joker make-up—recall his brutal childhood and his questionable interest in children.
The portrait and it’s title borrow something from surrealist painting (Think of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, sometimes known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe./This is not a pipe.) Köhler’s technique here forces the viewer into a kind of blindness, an approximation of Joyce’s failing sight.
Köhler’s portrait of Fyodor Doestoyevsky gives the author’s profile an otherworldly incandescence and suggests itself as perhaps inflected by the redemption plot of Crime and Punishment.
There are more images of Köhler’s work at the official website.
All images © Carl Köhler.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.A Mercy by Toni Morrison recommended by EdanNow, Toni Morrison doesn’t need my staff pick (I’m sure it pales in comparison to her Nobel Prize in Literature), but I thought it appropriate since she’s a contender for this year’s Tournament of Books. Also, one time I tried to hand-sell A Mercy at the bookstore where I work, and the customer said, “Oh I hated her other book, you know, that Caged Bird Singing one?” So, let me set the record straight: Toni Morrison is not Maya Angelou. Got that? Also, I must say this: Toni Morrison has written an incredible and mesmerizing new novel. The prose in A Mercy blew me away, it was so strange and beautiful. From start to finish this book’s language put a charge through me – I actually felt the prose in my body, as a tingling in my wrists and up my arms. The language itself transported me to this historical era (the 1680s), and my mind had to shift to accommodate the language, and thus, this particular, brutal, past.The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom recommended by AnneLike a wanton lover, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s Mirror in the Well leads you sensuously and breathlessly into the throes of an affair between “she,” the unnamed adulteress, and “you,” the beloved. Lust yields to ecstasy that seesaws into despair as the married mother of two’s web of trysts, lies, and longing grows larger. The blazing physicality of Marcom’s language is like a feminine countersignature to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer; the trapped wife’s ennui and awakening shares its soul with Louis Malle’s The Lovers.The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem recommended by AndrewJonathan Lethem pushes the unsuspecting reader into one troubling, convoluted short story after another, then, when he’s good and ready, spits the reader out into the real world, leaving him twitching and scratching his head, barely able to catch his breath before luring him back into his alternate universe where futuristic horror butts heads with mystery and suspense.The genres aren’t new to him – his novels Amnesia Moon and Motherless Brooklyn ventured into futuristic sci-fi and mystery, albeit taking routes into these genres that I hadn’t taken before – but it’s a different experience to get these flights of fancy and fear in seven short bursts. I was exhausted and sometimes unsettled after each, but I couldn’t wait to get back into Jonathan Lethem’s crazy world.On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt recommended by EmilyA rare treat awaits those who missed On Bullshit when it came out in 2005. Professor Harry Frankfurt’s unassuming little volume (four by six inches and a mere 67 pages long – somewhat physically reminiscent of the original binding of Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice) is not only, to use its own words, a “crisp and perspicuous” account of what bullshit is, but also a lesson in clean, graceful prose and logical, orderly thought.And what is bullshit, you ask? Quoting a bit of Longfellow that Ludwig Wittgenstein considered a personal motto:In the elder days of artBuilders wrought with greatest careEach minute and unseen part,For the Gods are everywhere.Frankfurt explains the mentality that these lines express: “The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.” And so beings an excellent explanation of the carelessly made and shoddy product we know as bullshit.For its clarity, gentle humor, conversational tone, and intelligence, On Bullshit is a delight. So charming is Frankfurt’s book, that even those traumatized by encounters with philosophy’s mind-wrecking titans (Hegel or Kant, say), might find themselves taken in.Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die by Mark Binelli recommended by MaxI’m not sure I have much fortitude for the mini-genre that has been termed “ahistorical fantasia” (coined by Matthew Sharpe author of Jamestown, perhaps the most widely recognized example of the form), but I do know that Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, is undoubtedly ahistorical fantasia and undoubtedly a thoroughly entertaining book. Here’s the ahistoria: Mark Binelli reimagines Sacco and Vanzetti not as suspected anarchist bombers but as a slapstick comedy duo from the golden age of cinema. And here’s the fantasia: the pie and seltzer plot of Binelli’s pair slowly melds with the death-row fate of their real-life counterparts. The book is incredibly inventive and manages a rare feat: It is both challenging and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes simultaneously.Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel recommended by GarthGertrude Stein aside, Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga is the most excitingly strange book of poems I have ever read. In this case, the oddity lies not in the syntax, but in the author’s peculiar persona, at once cool and fevered. The collision of the “debonair” voice, the hallucinatory imagery, and a prosody keenly (even innocently) interested in rhyme and wordplay shouldn’t work, but it does: “And the old excellence one used to know / Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow.” Consumed steadily over the course of a couple of weeks, Ooga-Booga reveals itself as a cohesive, almost novelistic statement about death, sex, wealth, motorcycles, and geopolitics. (And doesn’t that about sum it up?) I’m torn between the trenchant short poems and the long, visionary ones, like “Barbados” and “The Bush Administration.” Against the latter, one might say that elegy gets done to death these days. But when has it ever been so savage, or so full of joy?
I started 2004 with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn. It surprised me greatly as I had finished Tropic of Cancer only about a month prior and expected more of what I imagined to be crazy real life accounts – starvation, the artists’ world in 1930s Paris, heavy boozing, sex, sex, and more sex. There’s a glimpse of this, but instead of more scandalous stories, I found in Tropic of Capricorn Miller’s inspiration for Tropic of Cancer. In this heavy, philosophical work, Miller puts forth his disgust for New York and everything it represents, draws a great picture of Brooklyn during the 1920s, and shows the first signs of his status as a misfit. Tropic of Capricorn is greatly revealing as the source of Miller’s genius, and it is by no means the easy going, fun, weird read that Tropic of Cancer is.Next came two Turkish novels by Tuna Kiremitci, both of which moved me deeply. Both Git Kendini Cok Sevdirmeden and Bu Iste Bir Yanlizlik Var are pop culture page turners that also managed in depth character studies. Unfortunately, the novels are not available in English, hence I shall cut the description short.A Confederacy of Dunces was the second English language novel I read in 2005, and a mighty one at that. The genius of this novel is even quoted in the coolest movie of late, Sideways. It is rather unfortunate that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and left us with only one piece, because after reading about the funny, and brilliantly lazy Ignatius, I am left to wonder what else Toole was capable of. Ignatius’ addiction to hot dogs, the costumes, the literary efforts, the complicated love affair, a disgruntled mother, and finally, the closing of the valves make for an amazing, laugh-out-loud read.