It’s unlikely that your somewhat erratic editors at Writers No One Reads will be able to provide a massive 2014 Book Preview in the near future, but in the meantime, possibly more to allay our own concerns in that regard than yours, we will, as should be expected, erratically share what we’re reading.
Originally published in 1969, Stanley Crawford’s Travel Notes has been out of print for decades until being rescued from oblivion by Calamari Press. Travel Notes is a strange novel capable of making any reader feel the surreality of being a tourist. It’s a work of baroque imagination, full of invention and absurdity: there is a linguist whose invented word has the capacity to destroy the world; a conspiracy of mail carriers in an abandoned city; a seaside resort where the beaches are lined with mausoleums; an oxymoronic line of hermit janitors… In the end, the book proves to be more than the sum of its parts, making it a welcome addition to Crawford’s sadly unread body of work. (SS)
I learned of the forgotten novelist Claire Spencer (1895–1987) through Houghton Library's post of this art deco cover. Spencer might fall into the category of “justly neglected?”—and it’s likely I’ll never get around to reading her three novels, Gallows’ Orchard (1930), The Quick and the Dead (1932), and The Island (1935). (You can read two of the books online by following those links.) At first I was just going to post the cover, but finding no wikipedia entry or online bio I decided to cobble one together myself.
Claire Spencer was born in Paisley, Scotland, and emigrated to the United States in 1918. At some point before the publication of her first novel, she married the editor and publisher Harrison “Hal” Smith, and they had two children together. They divorced in 1933 and the same year Claire married John Evans, the only son of bohemian arts patron Mable Dodge Luhan and the author of two novels. Much of this info was gleaned from the letters of Robinson Jeffers’ wife Una, who was friends with John and Claire during their time in Taos. Una called Claire “the strangest woman I’ve ever met & one of the most interesting.” Hal Smith did publish The Island two years after the divorce, but it would be Claire’s last book. The couple and their brood eventually settled in Brooksville, Maine, where Claire Spencer Evans died in 1987 (I cannot find an obituary). John served in a number of government positions until his death in 1978.
(John Evans and Claire Spencer, portraits by Edward Weston)
In Gallows’ Orchard, “marriage and child birth and death take on distorted forms for Effie Gallows. Her neighbors loathe and fear her, and eventually the village children stone her to death.” It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. (Time says, “Book-of-the-Month selectors defend their choice by comparing Gallows’ Orchard to the work of the late great Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy.”)
Kirkus Reviews tells us that The Island “emerges with a certain stark beauty in spite of an incredible number of tragedies and violent deaths.” They end their short review, "Not a book to be sold indiscriminately."
The Quick and the Dead — set in New York City, unlike the Scottish village setting of the other novels — seems to have gotten the strongest reaction from 1930s reviewers. John Bronson, reviewer for The Bookman, drolly summarizes, “When his mother dies Peter is at last happy and commits suicide” and continues:
The retching jagged emotion, the dribbling loathsome sensation, the hysterical impression, the granulation and distortion and decomposition of life are Miss Spencer’s material. There is no question of the success of her style: it is sensitive, intense, and original. The only questions are whether the public is interested in being tortured and nauseated and, this premise granted, whether Miss Spencer’s rather abstract characters possess the reality to attain that end. [source]
That sounds like a review of an AMC or HBO TV show.
The notice in Literary Sign-Posts couldn’t have helped sell many copies: “The people are filled with a deep revulsion with themselves and with each other and with the lives they lead, occasionally touching a depth of disgust that is almost a spiritual nausea.”
I wonder if Graves and Faulkner read her books?
A guest post by Russian literary scholar Muireann Maguire, who blogs about literature as Russian Dinosaur
Between 1918 and 1928, Alexander Vasilievich Chayanov (1888-1937) wrote and published (at his own expense) five short Gothic-fantastic tales in separate volumes with print runs of no more than 300 copies, mostly under the whimsical pseudonym “Botanist X.” In his lifetime and until the 1990s, Chayanov was better known as an expert in agricultural economics, particularly peasant labor – and his objections to Stalin’s program of forced collectivization caused his arrest in 1930, exile from Moscow to Kazakhstan, and eventual execution. After his rehabilitation in the post-Soviet period, these stories were re-issued in a single volume and ran to multiple editions, sparking a short-lived Russian “Chayanov boom” and a renewal of academic interest in his fiction.
Scholars are particularly intrigued by the potentially significant creative link between Chayanov’s short story “Venediktov” (1921) and the novel The Master and Margarita (1940) by his much better-known contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov. Chayanov’s illustrator, a friend of Bulgakov’s, gave the latter a copy of “Venediktov” as a gift. Bulgakov was intrigued and somewhat spooked to discover that this story’s narrator is also called Bulgakov, and that his fictional namesake falls victim to a bizarre form of psychic possession, or hypnotic persuasion, exerted by a quasi-diabolic force. Since both Chayanov and Bulgakov share an obsession with demonic characters, carnivalesque grotesquerie and magical chaos, it is reasonable to speculate that the former’s now-obscure tales influenced the latter’s now world-famous fiction.
Another tantalizing link to literary celebrity is the coincidence that Chayanov’s science-fiction utopia, My Brother Alexey’s Journey* (probably intended to demonstrate the future social benefits of his principles of agricultural economy) is set in 1984, the same year immortalized in George Orwell’s dystopian novel (published in 1949). While there is absolutely no evidence that Orwell was aware of Chayanov’s novella, he did read and review the first English translation of Evgeny Zamyatin’s science-fiction novel We (written 1921), which may have been influenced, or partially inspired, by My Brother Alexey’s Journey.
Three of Chayanov’s stories – “Venediktov,” “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin, or, The Last Love Affair of a Moscow Architect,” and “The Venetian Mirror, or, The Extraordinary Adventures Of The Glass Man” – are available in my translation in a collection of Russian twentieth-century ghost stories called Red Spectres. Two still await publication: a love story about a ghost, and a picaresque trans-European adventure starring two accidental mermaids and a magician. All five are indulgently intertextual, erratically citing Hoffmann, Pushkin, Karamzin, Catullus, and the occasional authority on agronomy. For me, the great charm of these stories is their robust pastiche of a genre I love – the late Romantic fantastic. Chayanov intermingles an abundance of characters and tropes beloved of the early nineteenth century: mermaids, mirrors, mesmerists, and card-playing demons who worship Satan in London gentlemen’s clubs. E.T.A. Hoffmann is acknowledged as “the great master” (in the dedication of “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin”), but Chayanov’s eclectic knowledge of Russian and European culture is reflected in the multiplicity of his influences. Théophile Gautier’s eponymous opium-hazed artist in the short story “Onuphrius” (1832) could be refracted in the beautiful female spectre, conjured by tobacco smoke blown from a charmed pipe, who enchants the naïve diarist-narrator in “Julia, or Trysts At Novodevichy Convent” (1928). Alexey, the hero of “The Venetian Mirror” (1923), whose double escapes from an antique looking-glass to cause havoc around Moscow and even kidnap his wife, joins a long Romantic tradition of mirror-doubles – but Chayanov may have been inspired by the comparably malign runaway reflection in the 1913 German silent film The Student of Prague, directed by another now little-read author, Hanns Heinz Ewers. Ewers’s film inspired Otto Rank’s psychoanalytic treatise The Double (1914). We can only imagine what Rank or Freud would have said about Chayanov’s fiction had they enjoyed the opportunity to read it – doubtless, a great deal.
In Yuli Kagarlitskii’s phrase, Chayanov “belonged to the flower of the Russian democratic intelligentsia.”** This was a uniquely cosmopolitan and intellectually dowered generation whom Stalin and the Communist Party did their best to exterminate or exile. Chayanov’s fascination with urban topography and architecture, his knowledge of European languages, his passion for engravings and his aspirations to write historical fiction (even during his first arrest he began a novel about the medieval Slav prince Yuri Suzdalskii), all bespeak the breadth of his interests and his apparently inexhaustible energy. His second wife and staunch supporter Olga Gurevich was a theatre historian, whose career was also destroyed by the Soviet regime. Chayanov’s imaginary universe was almost ludicrously antithetical to the political environment of his own time: his entire oeuvre is an anomalous outcropping against the realistic trend of Soviet literature. The rediscovery and translation of his fiction is hard to justify by economic principles, but remains deeply enjoyable for all lovers of the eccentric and eclectic.
* Chayanov’s unfinished sci-fi novella, My Brother Alexey’s Journey Into the Land of Peasant Utopia (first published in Moscow in 1920 under a pseudonym) was published in an English translation as a slightly eccentric addendum to the late Professor R.E.F. Smith’s 1977 book The Russian Peasant, 1920 and 1984.
**Yuli I. Kagarlitskii, Slavic Review, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 634-642 [link]
images: (1) photo of Chayanov, 1921; (2) original 1924 cover illustration by Natalia Ushakova (who gave “Venediktov” to Bulgakov); (3) & (4) recent woodcuts by Grigory Babich for a Chayanov edition via book designer Alina Vekshina; (5) unpublished 1928 illustration by Kravchenko via nasledie-rus.ru; (6) photo of Chayanov
This is a guest post by Russian literary scholar Muireann Maguire, who blogs about literature as Russian Dinosaur.
A guest post by David van Dusen, who has reviewed Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova for the Los Angeles Review of Books
Hungarian novelist Miklós Szentkuthy is not unread in Paris and Brussels. Ten of his works have seen French editions since his death in 1988. Nor is Szentkuthy unread in Budapest, where it is no trouble to find him in handsome, mid-century Hungarian editions. He is, however, unheard-of and unread in the Anglosphere, from London to Los Angeles. And if this is changing—as it should—it is only because a boutique publisher out of New York, Contra Mundum Press, has released superb, annotated translations by Tim Wilkinson of his 1939 novel-essay, Marginalia on Casanova, and his 1935 notebook, Towards the One and Only Metaphor. Contra Mundum has also announced forthcoming translations of Szentkuthy’s 1934 novel, Prae, which will be followed by his Chapter on Love, Narcissus’ Mirror, and Black Renaissance. (Marginalia on Casanova is the first volume, and Black Renaissance the second, of a ten-volume novel-essay titled St. Orpheus Breviary.) Szentkuthy may, then, be a writer no one yet reads in English.
In any case, he deserves to be read. In a 1949 letter postmarked Santa Monica, California, and addressed to Mária Hercz—one of Szentkuthy’s translators and lovers—in Budapest, Thomas Mann says that Hercz’s German translation of a Szentkuthy essay had “put me in mind of … some oeuvre with which I could satisfy a certain European fastidiousness created by Proust and Joyce.” Since Szentkuthy later translated Joyce’s Ulysses and had designs to “outproust Proust,” Mann’s constellation is not a haphazard one. But it is also not a stylistic one: no one could confuse Szentkuthy with an imitator of Proust or Joyce. He is fiercely, prolifically, unmanageably his own man. And this makes him, and his works, hard to classify.
Szentkuthy’s first novel, Prae, is rightly considered to be the first “modernist” novel in Hungarian, while his early critics also labelled it “experimental” and “avant-garde.” Szentkuthy was neither flattered nor convinced, and termed his own style “hyper-Baroque.” This is not the place to decide what “hyper-Baroque” means (though etymologically, baroque refers to an irregular pearl, which is apt), but there is a passage in Towards the One and Only Metaphor that gives an impression, at once, of Szentkuthy’s style and “Baroque” ideals. These pages take up one of modernism’s defining obsessions—language—and are occasioned by Szentkuthy’s reading of Sir Thomas Browne’s curious 17th-century treatises, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus, in 1934.
For Szentkuthy, these Baroque texts are “more Joycean than Joyce,” unparalleled exhibits of “the thousand-jointed undulations of language.” Language is “a living Neander-valley,” and any modernist’s language—like Browne’s, if less visibly so—is a dense matrix of “chance reflex crystals (which is what words are, after all).” If Szentkuthy is “hyper-Baroque,” then, it is not least because:
In the language of the 17th century, the prowling in time & space of all languages is perceptible: in the language of the 17th century it is precisely not the 17th century which is sensed but the 3rd, the 14th … i.e., each separate, undigested, raw temporal layer, preserved in various words.
Szentkuthy is a prowler in time and space, and he wants us to perceive the sediments—and revenants—within all that modernists call “modern.” He writes earlier in this book: “To every explicitly psychic phenomenon there always belongs some anachronism.” And in this sense, Szentkuthy is an “anachronist” as much as a modernist.
These pages on Browne are also interesting since they attest to Szentkuthy’s mastery of English. He recalls his wife Dóra, who herself wrote a dissertation on W. Somerset Maugham, reading aloud to him when he was ill. In Dóra’s mouth, the English words “do not reach the air by a direct route but after yachting, meandering about.” Because she is only “loosely, sketchily forming the syllables,” Szentkuthy is able to hear sounds prised away from their sense, which gives him a distinct sort of pleasure. His own reading of Browne is differently, but no less sharply attuned: “Instead of ‘blue’ all one has to write is ‘blew’ & that banal word becomes at once important, isolated.” When Browne calls the brain a “Metropolis of humidity,” for instance, or invents the word “vinosity” (“some yet retaining a Vinosity and spirit in them”), Szentkuthy is so nourished that he “almost put on weight due to it.” It is not difficult to argue that a man like this should be translated into English.
I have said that Szentkuthy is a prowler in time and space, and he is also a genre-prowler. His most recent translation, Towards the One and Only Metaphor, roves from erotic memoir to confessions, prose-poetry to burlesque, literary criticism to archetypal invention, “Stuart-collars of starched organdie” to “the bangs on Katherine Hepburn’s forehead,” in three hundred pages. There is a super-abundance of material in his books, much of which will satisfy you, and some of which did not even satisfy him. But regardless: when he is afire, Szentkuthy burns bright.
Szentkuthy in English
Miklós Szentkuthy. Marginalia on Casanova. Tr. by Tim Wilkinson. Intro. by Zéno Bianu. Afterword by Mária Tompa. New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2012. (Visit the publisher’s page.)
Miklós Szentkuthy. Towards the One and Only Metaphor. Tr. by Tim Wilkinson. Intro. by Rainer J. Hanshe. New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2013. (Visit the publisher’s page and read an excerpt at Asymptote)
Special Issue on Szentkuthy
“Miklós Szentkuthy Special Issue.” Hyperion. On the Future of Aesthetics VII.2 (July 18, 2013). 318 pp.
Other Recent Essays
Rainer J. Hanshe, “Entering the World Stage: Miklós Szentkuthy’s Ars Poetica,” The Quarterly Conversation (September 2, 2013).
András Nagy, “Masks behind Masks: A Portrait of Miklós Szentkuthy,” The Berlin Review of Books (March 25, 2013).
David van Dusen, “All That Exists Is the Only True Luxury: Miklós Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova,” Los Angeles Review of Books (May 2, 2013).
Situating Szenkuthy’s first novel, Prae (forthcoming in English)
[Szentkuthy’s first novel Prae has] “aspirations at least as ambitious as Ulysses or À la recherche du temps perdu, the two books with which it has been frequently and, in my view, misleadingly compared. It is certainly fiction, though not quite a novel, not even in a Joycean or Proustian sense of the term. A more accurate description of its fictional mode could be Northrop Frye’s ‘anatomy’ or ‘Menippean satire’: the basic concern of the book is intellectual, its pervading mood is that of the comedy of ideas.… If we must insist on comparisons, Prae is much closer to [Musil’s] Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften than to anything in Joyce or Proust, while it is as important to recognize an older tradition informing this apparently unorthodox work: ‘anatomies’ by Lucian, Rabelais, and, more particularly, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy provide a loose generic framework we can usefully apply. (This latter connection is perhaps the most important: Szentkuthy is emphatically part of that already ‘classic’ trend in the modern which sees highly significant affinities between the baroque and surrealism, between metaphysical conceit and diaphoric juxtaposition.)” – Ferenc Takács, Professor of English Literature at Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest) and President of the Hungarian James Joyce Society
This is a guest post by David van Dusen, who has reviewed Szentkuthy’s Marginalia on Casanova for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book. Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren’t that good.
Which is why we are starting a new book award, the Daphnes, that will celebrate the best books of 50 years ago. We will right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards, which ugh, decided that John Updike’s The Centaur was totally the best book of that year.
[One of our Founding Members (we need to call it that for the historians of the future that will look back on this important moment) has nicknamed the award The Corrections, which is funny to me on so many levels. We must take back the word “Corrections” from our oppressor, Jonathan Franzen! Reclaim its use!]
We need your help, though, to flesh out the nominees for the Best Books of 1963. We have been frustrated in our efforts to find a comprehensive list of books published in 1963, most of the online lists have listed only or mostly American and British books, and there have been some conflicting publishing dates on some of our books. We are asking for fact-checkers and submissions for nominees. Nominate the best books of 1963 by emailing me.
Our list so far:
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis
V by Thomas Pynchon
updated to add:
Frost by Thomas Bernhard
The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung
The Words by Jean Paul Sartre
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
Six Easy Pieces by Richard P. Feynman
Destruction of Dresden by David Irving
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
updated to add:
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
Flight to Africa by Austin Clarke
Burning Perch by Louis MacNeice
Reality Sandwiches by Allen Ginsburg
73 Poems by e e cummings
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich
All My Pretty Ones by Anne Sexton
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
The Dot and the Line by Norton Juster
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Mr Rabbit by Charlotte Zolotow
Email us to let us know what we are forgetting.
Exact Change, one of our favorite small presses, has nobly published many writers no one reads, including Leonora Carrington, Stefan Themerson, Unica Zurn, and Denton Welch, among others. Their new e-zine (the first 3 issues are free) is definitely worth a download.
[Art: Alice James, from Lara Tomlin’s Imaginary Portraits series.]
Marc Lowenthal of Wakefield Press writes about a new publication from Atlas Press: Princess Sappho/Léon Genonceaux’s The Tutu (1891), “the strangest novel of the nineteenth century.”
The 20 Best Books in Translation You've Never Read -
Chad Post (Open Letter Books) and I compiled a list of translations you may never have read for Publishers Weekly. With only 20 titles on the list, we couldn’t be comprehensive, but hope you discover something new. (via hmhlit)
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
At Weird Fiction Review, Edward Gauvin discusses a writer no one reads and translates the first lines from 65 of his stories:
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
At Tin House, Stephen writes about the forgotten poet Alfred Starr Hamilton, whose strange and haunting work has been revived by The Song Cave.
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.