When we posted our first half book preview in January, we promised to return in July with a second installment. Although we missed that deadline by just a little (cough, cough), we have returned with an epic Fall Book Preview. As previously stated, our tastes dictated the list and we make no claims to comprehensiveness, thoroughness, or even good taste.
Enjoy! — Eds.
- Joshua Comaroff & Ong Ker-Shing, Horror in Architecture (Oro Editions). Title says it all, doesn’t it?
- Jason Schwartz, John the Posthumous (OR Books). One of the most unusual pieces of fiction published this year. Best start here.
- Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (trans. Humphrey Davies), Leg Over Leg volumes 1&2 (NYU Press). A previously untranslated classic of Arabic literature by a writer compared to Rabelais and Sterne.
- Georges Perec & the Oulipo (trans. Monk, Mathews and Sturrock), Winter Journeys (Atlas). A short story about an imaginary book spawns twenty successive stories. Ladies and gentlemen, the Oulipo!
- Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn and Child (New Directions). This mind-boggling play on the mystery novel starts with a guy getting shot by a ghost car—the car, not someone in it—and gets weirder by degrees.
- Léon Genonceaux (trans. Iain White), The Tutu (Atlas). The “strangest novel of the 19th century,” according to Marc Lowenthal.
- Mary Ruefle, Trances of the Blast (Wave). Ruefle’s first collection of poetry since her wonderful Madness, Rack and Honey.
- Sherry Simon, ed., In Translation - Honouring Sheila Fischman (McGill-Queen’s University Press). A festschrift for Canada’s prolific literary translator. Contributions by: Alberto Manguel, (the late) Michael Henry Heim, and other literati.
- Jeff Jackson, Mira Corpora (Two Dollar Radio). A coming-of-age tale for those who came to age with David Lynch.
- Travis Jeppesen, The Suiciders (Semiotext(e)). Kind of like Mira Corpora, but with more self-mutilation and parrots. Read an excerpt at 3:AM Magazine.
- Robert Walser (trans. Damion Searls), A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories (NYRB Classics). Fans of Jakob von Gunten should check out this collection by the “clairvoyant of the small.”
- Pitigrilli (trans. Eric Mosbacher), Cocaine (New Vessel). Worth buying just for the “I’ve got Cocaine in my bag” jokes you can make. Here’s the Complete Review’s take.
- Pierre Mac Orlan (trans. Napolean Jeffries), Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer (Wakefield). A satirical guide to the art of passive adventuring.
- NYRB Poets (ed. Mary Ann Caws), Pierre Reverdy (NYRB Classics). An anthology of the great French poet’s work, with translations by Kenneth Rexroth, Frank O’Hara, Lydia Davis, and others.
- Sergio Chejfec (trans. Heather Cleary), The Dark (Open Letter). A subtle and oblique novel, written in Chejfec’s signature style, that works along the borders of memory and reality.
- Jeremias Gotthelf (trans. Susan Bernofsky), The Black Spider (NYRB Classics). A terrifying supernatural tale in an excellent new translation. Yes, there’s a giant spider.
- Orly Castel-Bloom (trans Dalya Bilu), Textile (Feminist Press). Another withering satire by Israel’s most corrosive novelist.
- Roderigo Rey Rosa (trans. Jeffrey Gray), The African Shore (Yale). A haunting novel about a Columbian of uncertain means stranded in Tangier.
- Eduardo Lago (trans. Ernesto Mestre-Reed), Call Me Brooklyn (Dalkey Archive). A kaleidoscopic novel about writers and artists in NYC.
- Robert Lax, Poems (1962-1997) (Wave Books). A monumental collection by the hermit of Patmos.
- Luigi Serafini, Codex Seraphinianus (Rizzoli). The legendary Codex, written in an imaginary language, gets a new release.
- Various authors (and translators), The Library of Korean Literature (Dalkey Archive). A collection of ten never previously translated novels from Korea.
- Marek Hłasko (trans. Ross Ufberg), Beautiful Twentysomethings (Northern Illinois University Press). The first English translation of the 1966 autobiography of a great writer and Poland’s own rebel without a cause.
- Mircea Cărtărescu (trans. Sean Cotter), Blinding (Archipelago Books). A bestseller in Romania, this hallucinatory book, the first of a trilogy, is one of the year’s most interesting novels.
- Herbert Read, The Green Child (New Directions). A fantastical tale with a philosophical undercurrent that riffs on Plato. This new edition of Read’s only novel features an intro by Eliot Weinberger, adding him to the book’s other distinguished admirers: T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Kenneth Rexroth.
- Jean-Christophe Valtat, Luminous Chaos (Melville House). The second novel in Valtat’s steampunk Mysteries of New Venice trilogy, with plenty of dirigibles.
- Alphonse Allais (trans. Doug Skinner), Captain Cap: His Adventures, His Ideas, His Drinks (Black Scat Books). An unabridged and illustrated collection of “the peerless French humorist”, who was later revered by the Surrealists for “his elegant style and disturbing imagination.”
- Martin Vaughn-James, The Cage (Coach House Books). The return of a classic proto-graphic novel.
- Anne Carson, Nay Rather (Sylph). A cahier featuring an essay and poem by Carson, along with illustrations by Lanfranco Quadrio.
- David Ohle, The Old Reactor (Dzanc). Catch up with Moldenke in this sequel to Motorman!
- Renee Gladman, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (Dorothy). The final installment of Gladman’s Ravickian trilogy.
- Jean Ferry (trans. Edward Gauvin), The Conductor and Other Tales (Wakefield). The first full translation of Ferry’s pataphysical tales, which in the original French were favorites of the Surrealists.
- César Aira (trans. Chris Andrews), Shantytown (New Directions). If you were waiting for the ever-mutating Aira to write a noir, your day has come.
- Peter Handke (trans. Martin Chalmers), Storm Still (Seagull). A series of monologues exploring the often tragic lives of Slovenes in Austria.
- Rachel Shihor (trans. Ornan Rotem), Stalin is Dead (Sylph). Parable-like stories inviting comparisons to Kafka. Read an excerpt at Asymptote.
- Rafael Bernal (trans. Katherine Silver), Mongolian Conspiracy (New Directions). Francisco Goldman says it best when he calls Mongolian Conspiracy ”The best fucking novel ever written about Mexico City.”
- Josef Winkler (trans. Adrian West), When the Time Comes (Contra Mundum). Winkler’s chronicle of a rural village in Austria, rife with tragedy, is a dark entertainment.
- Reggie Oliver, Flowers of the Sea (Tartarus Press). More strange stories from a writer deemed a master of the form since his first two collections: The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini and The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler.
- Philippe Jaccottet (trans. Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks (Sylph). Jaccottet’s notebooks collect precise evocations of the natural world and limpid reflections on the arts.
- Yves Bonnefoy (trans. Beverly Bie Brahic), The Present Hour (Seagull). The latest collection from the great French poet.
Ivan Vladislavić, Double Negative (And Other Stories). In which our two protagonists choose three houses to visit from a hill in Johannesburg.
- Alona Kimhi (trans. Dalya Bilu), Lily La Tigresse (Dalkey Archive). Another wicked satire from Dalkey’s Hebrew Literature Series.
- László Krasznahorkai (trans. Georges Szirtes), The Bill (Sylph). An eleven-page sentence on Palma Vecchio, a 16th century Venetian painter.
- Amina Cain, Creature (Dorothy). A beautifully written collection of short experimental stories.
- Curzio Malaparte (trans. David Moore), The Skin (NYRB Classics). Malaparte’s The Skin returns in the first unexpurgated English edition.
- Hilda Hilst (trans. John Keene), Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat). If The Obscene Madame D is any indication, this novel from Hilst will be a wild, metaphysical ride.
- Wiesław Myśliwski (trans. Bill Johnston), A Treatise on Shelling Beans (Archipelago Books). An earthy and comic novel from the author and translator of the Best Translated Book Award winner, Stone Upon Stone.
- Raul Zurita and Forrest Gander, Pinholes in the Night (Copper Canyon). An anthology of Latin American poetry.
- Igor Vishnevetsky (trans. Andrew Bromfield), Leningrad (Dalkey Archive). A contemporary novel of the Siege of Leningard, mixing elements of the absurd and avant-garde.
- Antonio Muñoz Molina (trans. Edith Grossman), In the Night of Time (HMH). A sweeping historical novel set in the days leading to the Spanish Civil War.
- Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (trans. Joanne Turnbull), Autobiography of a Corpse (NYRB Classics). NYRB’s second offering of Krzhizhanovsky’s dark, bizzare, philosophical short stories.
- Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (trans. Antonina W. Bouis), Definitely Maybe (Melville House). The Strugatskys brought us Roadside Picnic, which became Tarkovsky’s cult film Stalker. That in itself is enough reason to read this comic romp. Yes, romp.
- Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea (Knopf). A collection of stories from the author of Notable American Women.
- Mikhail Shishkin (trans. Andrew Bromfield), The Light and the Dark (Quercus). The second of Shiskin’s novels to be translated into English, told in the form of letters between lovers.
A guest post by Katrina Dixon from thespectraldimension.tumblr.com
No one reads Elspeth Davie. At least it seems that way. Even in Edinburgh, where the late Scottish writer lived and worked for many decades before her death in 1995, she is still overshadowed by her contemporary, Muriel Spark. Born in 1919 and writing from the 1950s on, her four novels and five short story collections are rare finds even among the secondhand bookshops, and the only book of hers in the Central Library on George IV bridge, though an excellent one, is The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books, the short story anthology published by Canongate in 2001. Five of Davie’s short stories were apparently read on BBC Radio 4 here in the UK in June of this year, but the stories were grouped (wrongly) as horror tales. Perhaps that was the only way a fan on BBC staff could wheedle her on to air.
Yet Davie was acclaimed in the 60s and early 70s, winning awards and settled in among the carefully selected roster at Calder Books that also included Samuel Beckett, Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet and (an already featured writer no one reads) Ann Quin. Robbe-Grillet’s world of people trapped by inanimate objects, or things, would shape Davie’s writing but she created her own take on it, just as she had her own voice. Neither elegantly stylish like Muriel Spark and her Jean Brodie nor provocatively experimental like Alex Trocchi, instead Davie was the quiet one to watch, setting reality at an angle, using the light and shade of Edinburgh, both literally and in the divided personality of the city, and adding a wry, dark but empathetic humour. Variously described as cubist, semi-surrealist, symbolist and impressionist, Davie, a trained artist and teacher of painting for several years, basically wrote with an artistic eye, picking up on the unsettling shades in the ordinary, honing the view with language and intensifying details within the seemingly banal and superficial.
Davie isn’t a difficult author though. She’s down to earth, accessible, funny. It’s just that her world is self-contained: recognizable but abstract. Hers is a world where people struggle with things: sometimes many things that suffocate them, like pots of paint in a school artroom; sometimes one tiny thing, like obsessing over an eyelash on a glass in a cafe. In struggling with things, her characters struggle with life: the boundaries of convention and environment; how to be free; other people. Communication in these surroundings is fractured at best, sometimes impossible, with characters isolated by their own oddities, unable to express what’s important: a lodger that doesn’t like eggs becomes a burden for a landlady; a young would-be couple can only connect when sitting surrounded by the silent visuals of dozens of TV screens in a furniture shop; a man sits stupendously immobile throughout a concerto, apparently ignorant both of an unconscious man being carried out by a crowd and of the farcical concord of music and human movement.
As Giles Gordon wrote in the foreword to The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books, above all Davie “wrote less about the anxieties of the individual than of the ways by which everyday life conspires against the individual’s modest ambitions, hopes and obsessions, and her stories remain entirely grounded in what she called ‘this day-to-day business of living, its mysteriousness and its absurdity’.” Grounded then, but extraordinary.
The Spark (1968, pictured)
Easiest to find:
The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books (2001)
Creating A Scene (1971)
The High Tide Talker (1976)
Climbers On A Stair (1978)
The Night Of The Funny Hats (1980)
A Traveller’s Room (1985)
Coming To Light (1989)
Death Of A Doctor (1992)
From the short story “Concerto”:
The disturbance comes from the middle stalls. Down there a man has got to his feet and is leaning over the row in front. He appears to be conducting on his own account. He too entreats, he exhorts. He too encourages something to rise. Now a small group of people are up on their feet, and just as the horns extricate themselves, this man who is conducting operations down in the stalls manages to persuade the group to lift something up out of the darkness between the narrow seats. It is a tricky business, but at last a man is pulled clear and comes into view in a horizontal position, his long legs and his shoulders supported by several persons who have started to shuffle sideways with their burden along the row. Everyone now seems anxious to support this thin figure. Each leg is held by at least three people and the arms are carried on either side by two men and two women. Someone cups his head. Another handles the feet. Even those who are too far away to be actually supporting any part of his body feel it their duty to stretch out a finger simply to touch him, as a sacred object might be touched in a procession. He moves, propelled by these reverent touches, bouncing a little in the anxious arms. It is almost as if he were bouncing in time to a great pounding of drums. For since the horn-players lowered their instruments the music has grown violent in tempo and volume.
From Davie’s first novel, Providings:
In the time it had taken for the jars to collect on his shelf Beck realised that there were two types of person as far as gifts were concerned. There were those who liked getting them and those who disliked getting them and who might conceive an aversion or even a positive fear towards those who insisted on giving. He was even more surprised and rather alarmed to discover that all along — perhaps from the very first present he had received — he had belonged to the second category. Or had he always known this about himself — dating from the first time his extraordinary luck had been mentioned? After that there was no present made to him by either parents or relations which did not have this word hooked on to it. Luck got in with the school-satchels made of real leather and the school cases, bound with extra strong metal clasps. It made itself felt with the pigskin stud cases and the tooled collar cases, and by the time he reached the silver-screwed trouser-press he was so lucky that his legs and arms felt heavy with it, as though plated in armour so highly polished it was visible to people for miles around. He began to envy unlucky boys. It struck him that they did not have to smile as he had to smile, or that in receiving some unpleasant gift or even no gift at all, they might be permitted to relax their faces in a hideous scowl. Best of all, they would be invisible to other people — not having the radiant quality that luckiness was supposed to give. By this time it was impressed upon him that even death was to bring luck, if he waited long enough, in the shape of the skilfully accumulated savings of his parents which were piling up for him in the bank; and on his 21st birthday his luck was so great that he temporarily lost the use of his legs and had to lie up for some time in his bed.
From the short story “A Visit To The Zoo”:
From that afternoon all the childishness of the zoo disappeared for me, and as the days went by its whole character changed; its cruelty and beauty, its strident colours and harsh cries gradually took the place of all those mild and comic impressions I had experienced there as a child. Now something savage and sad brooded far back in the darkness of the cages we passed. When I stopped to listen I would hear sounds I had not been aware of before — strange rustlings and whistlings from hidden birds, those unidentified croakings and hoots belonging rather to midnight than to noon; and sometimes there came a howl, heart-freezing, yet so distant that it seemed to come, not from the trim confines of the garden, but through the black arctic air and across miles and miles of snow-covered plain.
This is a guest post by Katrina Dixon from thespectraldimension.tumblr.com
A guest post on Miklós Bánffy by Scott of the seraillon blog
I feel odd to be writing, for a site entitled “Writers No One Reads,” about a writer whose works people actually do read – at least when they can find them. Overcoming that obstacle has become easier with publication this summer of an Everyman’s Library edition of Count Miklós Bánffy’s “Transylvanian Trilogy" of novels: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. Bánffy’s work – published in Budapest in the late 1930s but released in English only a dozen years ago (by Arcadia Books, in a run that quickly went out of print) – should now emerge from its cult following to recognition as one of the great works of the last century.
That it has taken so long for the trilogy to reach this point is a story in itself. After initial publication, the books were eclipsed by war and politics. Bánffy – a politician, cultural leader, and foreign minister of Hungary, denounced by the Nazis and out of favor with the postwar communist government as well – found his books ignored. Soviet dominance of Hungary ensured that they all but vanished. Only in 1982, as communism began to crumble, was the first volume republished, partly to offer insight into the historical roots of the contemporary political situation. The other volumes followed in the early 1990s to great acclaim.
Were it not for fortuitous circumstances, the novels might have remained little known outside of Hungary. Translator Patrick Thursfield, in his preface to the Arcadia edition, recounts learning about them by chance from his neighbor in Tangiers, Bánffy’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelin, who had begun an English translation consisting of loosely bound pages partially mangled by her cat. A collaboration began, and the resulting publication, with a foreword by Patrick Leigh Fermor, won the 2002 Oxford-Weidenfeld prize and accolades from around the world. Unfortunately, the books’ scarcity kept them from wide readership.
As almost anyone who has read the trilogy will attest, the work presents an enthralling, hauntingly lucid panorama of an empire in decline. The three volumes – their titles taken from the warning lines that miraculously appear on a wall during the feast of Belshazzar in the Old Testament – are set largely in Budapest and the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár between 1904 and 1914, and trace the fates of Count Balint Abady and his dissolute cousin Laszlo as Austria-Hungary ignores “the writing on the wall” and lapses into political mismanagement, corruption, pettiness, and abandonment of the principle of noblesse oblige that had governed class relations in a society late to emerge from feudalism.
With unusual clarity and occasionally scathing humor, Bánffy relates the commitment – or lack thereof – of those who were well-off towards those who were not. The trilogy’s depictions of the machinations of politics – both legislative processes and the nuanced array of mechanisms that maintain class and power – stand out as exceptional. A skillful sense of how to orchestrate a scene to evoke its political and social significances pervades the trilogy, a talent likely picked up by Bánffy during his work in theater and as a director of state political pageantry.
Through Balint Abady, Bánffy portrays the rare politician who accepts his privileges as part of a social contract that binds him to the rest of society. Abady represents a model of restrained indignation concerning the abuses of power, the laxity of the rich, and the failure to recognize the fragility of the nation’s assets: its political and cultural institutions, irreplaceable natural resources, and diverse peoples. With wisdom and compassion, Abady decries the decadence of his own short-sighted class while displaying keen understanding of the problems of the poor, the conditions of the lives of women (on issues of gender and sexuality, Bánffy shows disdain for conventions that restrict the independence of women), and the destructive prejudices directed towards gypsies, Jews, and the Romanians who work Transylvania’s forest holdings. Through Abady’s recurring visits to these woodlands, Bánffy conveys a profoundly atmospheric appreciation for these enchanting, priceless wildernesses, the descriptions of which stand out as one of the trilogy’s star attractions.
But it is the work’s modernity and immediacy that may resonate most strongly with contemporary readers. Bánffy’s far-sightedness communicates conflicts manifest in the modern world – not so much because he treats of universal themes as because he lances familiar political and social dynamics anathema to the survival of a culture: an emphasis on short-term profiteering and exploitation of resources; fractious, tribalist squabbles; the paralyzing self-interest of legislatures; an immersion in frivolous pursuits while serious ones are ignored; blind confidence that the good life for some, gained at others’ expense, will continue without consequence.
With this new edition, a literary event to celebrate, Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy will hopefully achieve the wide readership it so richly deserves. The new edition, while unfortunately omitting Thursfield’s preface and Fermor’s foreword, offers compensation through a new introduction from Hugh Thomas that provides critical biographical and historical information previously lacking, a chronology of Bánffy’s life, a genealogy of Bánffy’s family, and helpful maps. Those new to this work will likely find a masterful testimonial to one of the most significant and premonitory collapses of political power in the 20th century (The Guardian recently ranked the Transylvanian Trilogy among the ten best books – fiction or non-fiction – about the Austro-Hungarian empire). They may also find, as in those startling ancient Greco-Egyptian funerary portraits of Fayum, a surprisingly recognizable world staring out at them from across the years with an enrapturing immediacy and a frank, beseeching clarity that looks to the future and asks: And you?
Editor’s note: Discover many more neglected books at Scott’s blog seraillon
Photography of Banffy via
Ben at Toys and Techniques mentions the Welsh writer Owain Owain. It appears his books have never been translated into English (and probably never will be). I have the sense they’re not in print in Wales either.
His science fiction book entitled Y Dydd Olaf (“The Last Day”) was described by the Welsh literary critic Pennar Davies in the book’s preface: “Nothing like this book has been seen before either in our language or in any other language. We should rejoice that such brilliance exists in Welsh writing.”
this photo via Gwenno
Pierre Bettencourt (1917 – 2006) is a merry prankster, an eccentric of French letters. If the history of the French fantastique in the 20th century has gone somewhat underground, if many of its practitioners are forgotten today, Bettencourt is even more obscure, a lifelong outsider artist despite coming from a prominent family: his younger brother André Bettencourt was the head of L’Oréal and held a senate seat for 44 years (that’s three presidents), while André’s wife Liliane was involved in one of the biggest tax evasion and campaign financing scandals in recent French history. Bettencourt was also a painter, known for his layered pieces featuring such mixed media as butterfly wings, stone, eggshells, and pine needles. [cont. reading]
Sample lines translated by Gauvin:
11. My wife and I have a way of sleeping together that might seem a bit bizarre: neither face to face nor back to back, but with the soles of our feet pressed together.
14. I just lost my head. Little by little, my neck stretched out like an hourglass, and then tied off all by itself, without any gush of blood.
22. No one has the right to cut their nails here: except priests.
29. I have pills for dreaming.
34. The spiders around here mean no harm. You fall asleep in a lawn chair and wake up trussed hand and foot.
58. A very elegant thing to do in these parts is dressing half in flesh, half in bones.
Image by Pierre Bettencourt
why, I often wondered
why was I a poet,
first of all
most of all, I wanted
to have been a bird
if I could have been a bird
but I wanted the starlings
to have been fed,
first of all
A guest post by Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise:
No one reads Pamela Moore, though that may be about to change as Chocolates for Breakfast is being reprinted by Harper Perennial. Moore was briefly a celebrity: Chocolates for Breakfast was published in 1956, when she was eighteen and a student at Barnard; she was trumpeted as America’s answer to Françoise Sagan. Chocolates is an astonishingly precocious book: though garishly billed as a sexual free-for-all, it’s actually a very controlled Bildungsroman set in Hollywood; it’s notable not only for the forthright way in which Moore presents adolescent angst but also for its sympathetic portrayal of gay men and women. The novel sold well and remained in print in Europe; it soon disappeared in the United States.
In the next six years, Moore published three more novels, The Pigeons of St. Mark’s Place (given the alternate titles East Side Story and Diana), The Exile of Suzy-Q (also called Teenybopper), and The Horsy Set, though none received the attention that Chocolates for Breakfast had. Published as paperbacks, they were given lurid covers and blurbs (“Loaded with sex,” said the Richmond Times-Dispatch about The Horsy Set) which belie the deadly seriousness of a writer who was writing letters to the New York Times about the ignorance of their review of Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. In 1964, at the age of 25, she committed suicide; she was at work on a fifth novel, Kathy on the Rocks, which remains unpublished.
Chocolates for Breakfast receives most of the attention, but Moore’s other novels are also worthy of attention, particularly The Horsy Set, published in 1962. Here, Moore uses the first person to describe the months around the eighteenth birthday of Brenda Stilwall, an aspiring show rider in the booze-soaked world of Westchester. Though there’s plenty of money, there’s no real glamor to be found, something clear from the first chapter where the virginal Brenda sets out her writing project and world view:
I mean there’s a whole area of life that’s muddy to me no matter how much I hear or read about it. So sometimes I listen to people and I don’t understand them and I know they’re talking from that mud; they’re talking about how it feels and tastes and smells, and I get dizzy thinking I’d know just what was going on if only I took one little step and sank into that sea of mud with them, because they’re all in it together. All the parents in Scarsdale, and I guess in Westchester and I guess in the whole world, are up to their hips in that mud and waving to each other and talking about how it feels. And I just watch them and listen with my mouth open like an idiot, standing on the edge and leaning out to that slippery, sucking muck of a sea, wishing I could look through the mud and see the bottom they’re standing on because the way it looks to me the world doesn’t have any bottom where people could plant their feet like the roots of a scarred old tree. (pp. 8–9.)
In a sense, The Horsy Set might be read as a nightmarish reworking of The Catcher in the Rye, published a decade earlier; but Brenda’s gimlet eye exorcizes Salinger’s maudlin daydreams for decadence. The mud that’s referred to is sex, of course; but it’s also a realization that the carefree bourgeois world in which Brenda comes to adulthood is ineluctably flawed. Brenda’s mother, a chorus girl who married a rich financier, divorces him to marry her riding instructor; the riding instructor tries bribing Brenda to talk her mother out of the marriage. Brenda has a thoroughly horrible Harvard boyfriend trying to make his name by writing a play in the style of Noel Coward and spending ludicrous amounts of money on upscale prostitutes. (Her mother writes from Reno: “Frankly, darling, Larry will make you a perfect first husband.” ) A lieutenant from West Point arrives at the riding stable to train for the Olympics and become an alternate love interest; he is mocked for being a hick. The drunken women at the stable, competing for the riding instructor’s attentions, are attempting to poison each others’ horses. Several people fall off of horses into manure.
Writing about Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke in the aforementioned note to the Times, Moore noted that:
This book is not pure fantasy; it is an exaggerated but fundamentally true picture of yesterday’s Poland, and as such serves to explain the Poles of today far better than the many journalistic studies of Poland.
Mutatis mutandis, she might have been talking about The Horsy Set and the emerging Americans of the 1960s. One aspect of the novel that might not be immediately obvious fifty years later is how retrospective its portrayal is. The action is set ten years earlier, at the close of the Korean War: the Army Reorganization Act had recently dissolved the cavalry. Richard Kar, the lieutenant, knows that his horse training is worthless, especially as one in three of his fellow graduates have died in Korea; making the Olympic team is of value only in keeping him from being deployed. Similarly, the horsy set is a doomed way of life: legalization of the Pill and The Feminine Mystique would radically change the role of women. Brenda finds herself in a $500 brothel on the Upper East Side; Harvard students are given a $400 discount. The numbers are absurd, but women are clearly a commodity to be bought and sold. Even the names of women are controlled by men: born Betsy Baroczy, she becomes Brenda Stilwall when her mother marries up and needs a name less redolent of immigration for her daughter; Brenda considers taking her boyfriend’s name if they marry.
But what stands out most about The Horsy Set is the unrelenting darkness it presents; in its depiction of depression, it prefigures The Bell Jar, which would be published the next year. Mud is never far from Brenda’s mind; she sees herself sinking further into a despoiled adult world where nothing can save her. This risks falling into existential cliché, but Moore’s heroine is interestingly anti-literary: she’s not going to college (“Mother says I’m not college material and would only clutter up the campus and there’s a professor shortage in this country.”). High school was uninteresting to her, aside from her senior term paper, “Training the Horse Trains the Rider”; but what she learns in the stable is the bestiality of those around her. An escape route is presented in Lieutenant Kar, who botches his Olympic trial so that he can be deployed by Germany, taking Brenda with him. The novel ends on this note of hope of salvation, but it’s clearly false: to escape, Kar has thrown himself into the mud.
A 1997 essay from The Baffler by Robert Nedelkoff presents a good overview of Moore’s life and work; her son, Kevin Kanarek, has put together a website on his mother’s work, as well as a biographical essay in the new Chocolates for Breakfast which goes some way to explaining the neglect that her writing fell into. An essay on the different editions of Chocolates for Breakfast is also illuminating: in the preface to the French edition of the book, which contained content expurgated from the American version, Moore explains the self-censorship she’d employed there:
It is difficult for us to offer each reader the unvarnished truth, especially when it concerns the essential conflict that exists between the principles of our way of life and the demands of the human condition. This conflict lies latent in all the hearts in our country and torments many of us. We turn away from this terrifying truth with what I would term a kind of collective bad faith. This is what led me to express myself with some reticence in the course of my initial work. But after having reflected on it, I felt obliged to try to arrive at the causes of this moral crisis that so afflicts the youth whom I describe in this book.
[Image: George Platt Lynes’ 1938 photo of Frederic Prokosch was floating around tumblr yesterday]
I recently scrolled through the blog seraillon and found numerous Writers No One Reads (some more Unread than others, many new-to-me). Follow the links below to read the posts:
—Jan Křesadlo [“I would be especially interested to see a translation of what is purported to be his magnum opus: ’Astronautilia,’ an epic science fiction poem modeled after Homer’s Odyssey, running to more than 6,500 lines, and written entirely in classical Greek, with Czech translation on facing pages.”]
—”Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s 1834 work The Queen’s Tiara (Drottningens Juvelsmycke) — ‘The Great Swedish Classic’ according to the cover of my Arcadia Press edition — ranked easily among the most fascinating books I read in 2012 and among the oddest books I’ve read in any year.”
—“The pachyderm in question in Ángel Ganivet’s hugely entertaining and disquieting 1897 novel, The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya, is a hippopotamus.”
—”Amanda McKittrick Ros (1861-1939), frequently heralded as the worst novelist in the English language”
"The history of literature is, of course, strewn with the neglected, the misunderstood, the forgotten, the never fully realized, and minor figures more influential than renowned. If one were to draw a Venn diagram comprised of each of these categories, Marcel Schwob, along with a handful of others, would be at the heart of their intersections. But how, one despairs, can a man praised so highly during his own life fall completely by the wayside posthumously, as if it was his vitality alone that kept him from obscurity?"
Bookseller Callum James discusses a writer no one reads and scans some rare work by illustrator Alberto Martini:
Perceval Landon (1869-1927) was a lawyer, journalist and author and was best known in his day as a war correspondent during the Boer War. Raw Edges was his only collection of stories that verged into the supernatural but this rare 1908 publication contains one of the best ghost stories ever written which has been regularly anthologised since this first appearance, “Thurnley Abbey”. The book is further distinguished, however, by its illustrations. Alberto Martini provides four intense black and white designs which meld his own proto-surrealist style with the dark edges of Landon’s prose and create something rather striking and memorable. [more]
Mark Valentine writes about another work by Landon:
In 1903 he published a book (dated 1904) of sundial mottoes which purported to be from an old volume Englished in the early 17th century by one John Parmenter, Clerk of Wingham in the County of Kent. Landon claimed to be simply the editor. The British Library catalogue, however, is not convinced: it notes the book is “edited [or rather written]” by Landon. In other words, the entire book is an amiable hoax, and Landon himself is the creator of Parmenter and all the sundial mottoes.
[This guest post by John Glassie is partially adapted from A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in a Time of Change, his new book about Athanasius Kircher, published by Riverhead Books.]
No one reads Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a seventeenth-century Jesuit priest and polymath who wrote more than thirty big books on everything from optics, acoustics, linguistics, and mathematics to cryptology, Egyptology, numerology, and Sinology. Kircher was born on the eve of a municipal witch-hunt in what is now central Germany. As described in his memoirs, he then survived stampeding horses, a severe hernia, and the armies of an insane bishop, among other things, before showing up in Rome in 1633, just a few months after the Galileo trial. He lived there for more than forty years until his death.
Kircher wasn’t just a writer. He was an inventor of speaking statues, eavesdropping devices, and musical machines. (He is alleged to have invented an instrument called the cat piano. It’s probably more accurate to say he helped popularize the idea.) He was the curator of an early modern museum — a cabinet of curiosities featuring the tailbones of a mermaid and a brick from the Tower of Babel — at the Jesuit college in Rome. He collaborated with baroque master Gianlorenzo Bernini on two of his most famous sculptures. He pursued his interest in geological matters by climbing down inside the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius. And he was perhaps the first to use a microscope to examine human blood.
The main reason no one reads him today is that he wrote everything, something like seven million words, in Latin. English translations are few and far between. Another important reason: a general sense that so much of what he wrote was wrong. It is true that many of Kircher’s ideas — secret knots of cosmic influence, universal sperm, the hollowness of mountains — didn’t stand the test of time. Kircher was steeped, like all of his contemporaries, in the magic and superstition of the pre-scientific period. But he was also a brilliant, extremely erudite man whose beautifully illustrated, encyclopedic works — books such as Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), Musurgia Universalis (Universal Music-making), and Mundus Subterraneus (Subterranean World) — served as benchmarks of knowledge of the era. The great intellectuals of the day, people such as Descartes, Leibniz, Huygens, Boyle, and Hooke, all contended with his writings in one way or another.
Kircher’s prose, not exactly sparse, frequently aspired to a kind of mystic greatness. Why, for example, is the sky blue? Blue is “a color by which the uninterrupted sight may contemplate that most agreeable space of the heavens.” Light itself, meanwhile, “passes through everything” and “by so passing through, it shapes and forms everything; it supports, collects, unites, separates everything. All things which either exist or are illuminated or grow warm, or live, or are begotten, or freed, or grow greater, or are completed or are moved, it converts to itself.”
Kircher’s poetical tendencies found their fullest expression in his erroneous “translations” of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions. Oedipus Aegyptiacus (Egyptian Oedipus), his 2,000-page tome on the subject, was published in the early 1650s after two decades of work. According to one of Kircher’s later interpretations, a certain section of the Egyptian obelisk now in the Piazza della Minerva in Rome has to do with the way the
supreme spirit and archetype infuses its virtue and gifts in the soul of the sidereal world, that is the solar spirit subject to it, from whence comes the vital motion in the material or elemental world, and abundance of all things and variety of species arises.
Perhaps there’s no surprise here: it was during his own lifetime that Kircher began to develop his reputation as an author who couldn’t always be trusted. Descartes, for example, was vexed by Kircher’s claim in Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica (The Magnet, or the Art of Magnetics) of 1641 that a sunflower seed could drive a clock — based on its innate sensitivity to the magnetic attraction of the Sun. The notion was absurd, but not so absurd that that Descartes didn’t try it himself. “I had enough free time to do the experiment,” he wrote in a letter, “but it didn’t work.”
Exaggerations and even fabrications notwithstanding, Kircher wrote only one book that could rightly be called a work of fiction, and that was Itinerarium Exstaticum (Ecstatic Journey) of 1656. At the time, Kircher wanted to enter the discussion about all the new astronomical observations afforded by the telescope, but an insufficiently critical treatment of the new astronomy could get you in trouble with the Inquisition, if not burned at the stake. So he wrote it as work of the imagination — the story of a cosmic dream in which an angel named Cosmiel leads Kircher’s fictional stand-in, a priest named Theodidactus (“taught by God”), on an edifying flight through the heavens.
There isn’t much doubt, by the way, that Kircher privately believed in the Copernican model of the universe. But his opinion wasn’t based solely on the astronomical evidence. A sun-centered system also made much more mystical sense. “The whole mass of this solar globe is imbued . . . with a certain universal seminal power,” Cosmiel explains about the Sun. It “touches things below by radiant diffusion.”
Whatever else may be said about it, Ecstatic Journey represented a step toward modern science fiction. In fact, although Kircher’s scientific stature largely faded, his work influenced many writers and artists, including Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Marcel Duchamp, and Giorgio De Chirico.
In Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the narrator comes face to face with a mile-wide vortex in a northern sea, and is understandably awe-struck. “Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelström is an abyss penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part,” he says. “This opinion … was the one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented.”
• Scans of Kircher’s books offered online by various libraries and institutions. Google Books and the Internet Archive provide access to many scans as well.
• John E. Fletcher and Elizabeth Fletcher. A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher “germanus Incredibilis”: With a Selection of His Unpublished Correspondence and an Annotated Translation of His Autobiography. Leiden: Brill, 2011.
• Athanasius, Kircher, China Illustrata. translated by Charles D. Van Tuyl from the 1677 original Latin edition. Muskogee, Okla: Indian University Press, Bacone College, 1987.
• Athanasius Kircher, The Vulcano’s: Or, Burning and Fire–vomiting Mountains, Famous in the World: With their Remarkables. Collected for the most part out of Kircher’s Subterraneous World (1669).
• Daniel Stolzenberg. Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.