A guest post by Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise:
There will, perhaps, never be a more apposite time than the present to read the works of Frederick Rolfe. Rolfe lived a difficult life, full of perceived injustices; but none might be so unjust as his having died before Pope Benedict XVI abdicated. The man the Vatican needs right now has been dead a century.
Frederick Rolfe was born in 1860 in London to a middle-class family; after attending Oxford, he decided to convert to Catholicism, and that is where the trouble started. Becoming Catholic made things harder for him. He strongly believed that he had a vocation for the priesthood, though this belief was not shared by the Catholic hierarchy, who seem to have been afraid of his convert’s zeal. His failure to become a priest only made Rolfe more creative; he began abbreviating his name as the ambiguous Fr. Rolfe. He moved to Italy; he acquired, or assumed, the title Baron Corvo. His life was hard, and he seems to have fallen out with everyone he ever knew; he died in poverty in Venice in 1913.
His writing, however, remains, as strange as when it appeared. Hadrian the Seventh, his best-known novel, was published in 1904. The novel starts out semi-autobiographically: George Arthur Rose lives in poverty with only his cat for company, having been unjustly denied the priesthood he desired. And then everything changes: a bishop and a cardinal appear, who explain that a terrible mistake has been made. Rose is made a priest; they go to the Vatican, where a papal conclave is deadlocked. Against all odds, Rose is elected Pope, taking the name Hadrian VII after the previous British pope. He institutes sweeping changes, which anger many, and redresses past wrongs against him. After a brief reign, he is assassinated by a deranged socialist.
Hadrian VII sounds funny, and it is. But it’s not the rollicking satire that the summarized plot implies: rather than being presented as a ridiculous figure, Rose is simply right, and he deserves to be Pope in a just world. The book that Rolfe thought he was writing is a different one than any reader who is not Rolfe reads; Rolfe’s world-view is utterly and uniquely his own.
Some of his later novels continue this autobiographical streak, most notably The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, written near the end of his life; Nicholas Crabbe, the protagonist, has written very similar books and lived a life similar to Rolfe’s:
Beside, he had published a book of personal experiments with priests, Peter of England, an awful audacious book which flayed whom it did not scald; and his mood was not to compete for reprisals. ‘It is not I who have lost the Athenians; it is the Athenians who have lost me,’ he superbly said. So, when priests slank up to him, he civilly warned them off: if they merited kindness and persisted, he gave them double: but, never any more would he admit them beyond the barbican of his lifted drawbridge, never any more would he go beyond parleys from the height of his impregnable battlements – unless they should come, at high noon, with a flag of truce and suitable gages – never any more would he on any account seek them, but to serve him as ministers of grace. (pp. 60–61)
Fiction, however, allows him the last laugh, as when a character strongly reminiscent of one of Rolfe’s former friends – there were many! – is described:
The Reverend Bobugo Bonsen was a stuttering little Chrysostom of a priest, with the Cambridge manners of a Vaughan’s Dove, the face of the Mad Hatter out of Alice in Wonderland, and the figure of an Etonian who insanely neglects to take any pains at all with his temple of the Holy Ghost, but wears paper collars and a black straw hat. (p. 36)
"Bobugo Bonsen" is presumably the mostly forgotten Catholic novelist Robert Hugh Benson; here, Rolfe is settling scores with Benson for his 1906 novel The Sentimentalists, which contains a none-too-flattering portrayal of Rolfe.
The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole has a plot past biographical recounting, though it’s so strange that it’s hard to know what to make of it. Crabbe, sailing on the Adriatic Sea, rescues a girl, Zilda, from an earthquake that has destroyed her village; but propriety says that an unmarried man and woman shouldn’t be on a boat together. Crabbe gets around this by declaring that Zilda is actually Zildo and everything is fine; his companion is accommodating. After several plot twists, Zildo becomes Gilda and she marries Crabbe, bringing the novel to a confusing ending.
Rolfe’s diction goes well past baroque into the rococo; it’s one of the great pleasures of his prose. Don Renato: An Ideal Consort, a medieval fantasia, might be his most extreme work. Ostensibly the notebook of a monk engaged in horrifying experiments on his prisoners, the book is written using a macaronic language of Italian, Greek, and Latin of Rolfe’s own concoction; helpfully, a glossary is provided so that the dedicated reader might decipher what Don Renato is saying. From it, we learn that a progymnast is a “slave who performs gymnastics with (but preceding) his master”, proterve is an adjective meaning “violent, wanton,” a pube is “one arrived at puberty,” and something that is pudibundis “modest”. The result is something like this:
This day of Venus, at Nemi, in the ilicet, an immense number of little serpents were disturbed in the termination of their torpor; and, having returned to this munimental city, palatial and ducal puerice has adsisted at vespers with a still torpid serpent on each head, in the similitude of the anguicomous Gorgon, in order to secure immunity from snake-bite. And the said serpents, decapitated, are dejected in the river. (p. 215)
Don Renato predictably had trouble making its way into print; it was rejected numerous times, Rolfe wrote in a letter, because “the work errs on the side of extreme distinction.” One can’t argue with that.
It should be noted that it’s not entirely fair to call Rolfe a writer that no one reads; Hadrian the Seventh and A. J. A. Symons’s 1934 biography, The Quest for Corvo, are both in print in nice editions from New York Review Books. (The latter is a good place to start with Rolfe, though not without its flaws: Symons stays well away from Rolfe’s homosexuality, both in life and fiction.) For the strangeness of his life and prose, Rolfe is a particular favorite of book collectors. Several of his books can be found online, though caution should be used: the text of the online Don Renato, for example, is badly mangled. And finally, a syndrome has been named after him, though it has not yet attained the legitimacy of Wikipedia. Perhaps that’s what he would have wanted.
[The following is a submission from David Winters, a literary critic who writes for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and various other publications. He is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine. His twitter handle is @davidcwinters, and links to his work are collected at his website, www.whynotburnbooks.com.]
Heywood Orren (or “Hob”) Broun (1950-1987) published three books in his brief lifetime, none of which are widely known today. But Broun’s intense, eccentric fictions ought to be more than a mere footnote to modern American literary history.
His first book, Odditorium (Harper & Row, 1983) could ostensibly be called a “novel,” although it digressively destabilises “character,” “story,” and almost all other hallmarks of the form. A seedy, pulpy pinball game of botched drug deals and bungling gunplay, the book’s pleasure lies in its unpredictability; to read it is to watch it run off the rails.
Broun’s next text, Inner Tube (Knopf, 1985), was acquired by legendary editor Gordon Lish, whose stylistic influence can be felt throughout Broun’s subsequent work. By now Broun had become—a little like Barry Hannah, another author from Lish’s stable—a writer less of conventional “sentences” than of freewheeling, aphoristic riffs. But beyond this, Inner Tube displays a brilliant strain of misanthropy that is all Broun’s own. The book begins with the narrator’s mother committing suicide by putting her head through a TV screen. Compelled to escape this constitutive trauma (plus his incestuous lust for his sister), he flees into an increasingly fractured, ersatz social world. Along the way, man is revealed as merely
an over-evolved creature whose most dangerous enemies come from within… Imagine the first useless panic, the first nightmare, the first crushing turn of anomie. Ten thousand generations later, all we can do is palliate. Misery abhors a vacuum, and history is a list of sedatives.
Eventually Broun’s narrator escapes from this failed civilization, leaving to live alone in the desert. Inner Tube’s plot provides no palliation; instead it presents a pessimistic awareness that “we are animals. All the consoling fabrications must be waived.”
Six chapters into writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a tumour surrounding his spine. He lived, but was left paralysed from the neck down. As he said to his agent at the time, the surgeons had “snipped every God-damn wire.” From now on, Broun’s very breath was brought about by a respirator. His deep depression during this period is perhaps easy to appreciate. What is remarkable, however, is the way in which he overcame it—willing himself, against all odds, to go on writing.
Broun finished Inner Tube, and wrote the stories collected in Cardinal Numbers (Knopf, 1988) by means of a mechanical prosthesis: an oral catheter (known as a “sip-and-puff device”) connected to a Franklin Ace 2000 computer, running a customised word processer triggered by Broun’s breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen.
It’s worth remembering how much he resented this set-up: had he “had hands,” as he put it, he would rather have written on a 1948 Remington, a picture of which he kept pinned to his wall. Nonetheless, this method suggests a rich metaphor for the role of “technique” in recent American writing. Academics like Mark McGurl have remarked on an implicit “technicity”—a technological turn of the imagination—in the way certain writers conceive of their craft. Ben Marcus, for instance, describes writing as “a delivery-system for feeling,” a machine that mediates emotion using rhetorical mechanisms. This terminology is echoed in the title of the course he teaches at Columbia: “Technologies of Heartbreak.” In a sense, Broun presents an extreme (and, of course, tragically enforced) example of this emphasis on taut, fraught, high-stakes execution.
In Marcus’s formulation, the flipside of technique, or technicity, is raw emotional urgency. And this, above all, is what matters most about Broun. Among more well-known writers, his linguistic manoeuvres most closely resemble those of Sam Lipsyte—another author profoundly shaped by Lish’s painstaking approach to sentence construction. Each writer, in his way, illustrates the Lishian dictum that “every morpheme, every phoneme counts.” The point, though, is that such stylistic exactitude mustn’t be misread as emotionless. Observing my interest in what could crudely be called the “Lish line” of fiction, a friend of mine once claimed that he couldn’t see any “angst” beneath the pyrotechnics; any “existential” pressure. Broun’s prose provides powerful proof of why this is wrong. Without doubt, here was a writer, as Lipsyte has said of him, for whom “every word was hard won.”
Broun’s best book by far is his last, the story collection Cardinal Numbers. Written in clipped, compressed sentences, these stories share a surface similarity that some might mislabel as “minimalism.” But Broun was only a minimalist in the simple, quantitative sense of being able to squeeze nineteen stories into 150 pages. The fact is that Cardinal Numbers gleefully runs the gamut of literary forms, from fabulism to free association. The standout story, “Highspeed Linear Main St.,” is a shifting, swerving improvisation about modern art and sensory overload. At one point its manic narrator pauses for breath and announces: “modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage.”
As with other books on his list at Knopf, Lish himself wrote the jacket copy for Cardinal Numbers. In 2013, it’s hard to imagine any commercially-minded publisher countenancing the ecstatic rant that graces this book’s flaps. As is made abundantly clear here, Broun’s stories arose from
a tension quite special to those whose lives must be lived in the face of calamitously punishing circumstances. Such conditions of existence produced in Hob Broun a living instance of the Beckettian principle I can’t go on; I must go on, and accordingly made of his fiction a kind of literary embodiment of these opposing statements. To be sure, it is this very irony that suffuses the stories in this book, and that imparts to them the heartaching air of hope struggling between moments of its being successively suffocated and set aflame. These entries should be read as a map of the will of their author to keep on.
This will is what’s behind the lasting value of Broun at his best. Stymied by life, he brought life to his words; the writing of fiction was, he once said, “the focus of what I’m surviving for.” To pour all of oneself into writing; this is the challenge his stories set for any would-be author who reads them. And it’s why they still stand, decades later, as urgent, ultimately exuberant examples of how writing can address what Lish has called “the problem of being alive.” In its audacious inventiveness, Cardinal Numbers measures itself against the life its author could not live. Any paralysis, it seems to say, can be briefly escaped in feats of verbal velocity; in fiction’s reach for freedom.
The papers record that Hob Broun died in 1987, accidentally asphyxiated when his respirator broke down. He was 37 years old. “Ice Water,” the opening story of Cardinal Numbers, was recently reprinted in New York Tyrant, one of America’s leading literary magazines. At the time of his death, Broun had begun work on a third novel, reportedly called Wild Coast, Wild Coast, which, to our loss, no one will ever read.
[Writers No One Reads is on Facebook.]
[The following is a submission from C. Torre, who blogs at Belcimer.]
What is the limit of human endurance, what tools do we have to fight against the forces that seek to overwhelm us – these are the impossible questions the Lithuanian poet Henrikas Radauskas once tried to answer. Radauskas is not read by anyone in the English-speaking world, and in truth he is now probably unknown to anyone outside his homeland. Yet his work is an example of the greatest determination, deserving to be read alongside that of Akhmatova and Mandelstam and the countless other poets who by intense labor sought out a measure of life in the midst of the unspeakable.
Born in 1910 in the city of Panevėžys in central Lithuania, the entirety of Radauskas’ life was determined by years of upheaval and devastation. As a youth he absorbed the writings of the French Romantics, the Russian symbolists, the Acmeists, the Polish poet Julian Tuwim; by the year of his death in 1970, had spent time as a teacher, a radio-announcer, a secretary, a manual laborer, and a librarian in Russia, Germany, Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington D.C. In 1946 he escaped from Soviet-occupied Berlin only to find himself in a displaced-persons camp where, under conditions of intense confinement, he resumed the artistic project he had been forced by war to set aside.
Four small volumes of poetry were published in Radauskas’ lifetime: Fontanas (The Fountain, 1935), Strėlė danguje (Arrow in the Sky, 1950), Žiemos daina (Winter Song, 1955), and Žaibai ir vėjai (Lightnings and Winds, 1965) and there is a notable fifteen-year gap between his first collection, made while still in Lithuania, and his second, produced by the émigré press abroad. To date only a single, slim collection has ever been available in the U.S., published by Wesleyan University Press in 1986 as part of a series under the title Chimeras In the Tower. The selections in that volume are divided between verse and prose and are frequently short, less than a page.
The entirety of a poem called “Winter and Summer” is this:
Everything was so warm and round:
Heaven and the sun, pears and grapes,
And the breasts of a young girl
Who waited for love in the shade of a cloud.
Autumn crushed the weeping grapes,
Winter strewed the fields with lime,
And the sun, dead bird of paradise,
Falls through my window like a stone.
Another, entitled “Speed” reads:
Pouring time and space into one straightaway, shivering in a great wind, speed, having smashed its steel hand across the landscape, sees that trees and poles, eyes shut with fear, fly screaming toward their inevitable destiny.
In both of these poems are the techniques that recur throughout Radauskas’ work: an aggressive, palpable sense of imagery, coupled with the description of a force beyond the reach of human comprehension. The reader finds little that is overtly specific, nothing unique – no places, houses, families, or towns are mentioned – everything presented in a simple, straightforward language that seems to strip the parts of things down to the element itself. And yet, despite this simplicity, everything is quite suddenly thrown on its end.
A poem titled “A Mechanical Angel,” presents a seemingly familiar myth:
A mechanical angel’s duties are not difficult:
Feed chimeras in the tower every hundred years,
Step softly so the metal does not clang,
Cloak freezing caryatids with fog.
That is immediately contradicted:
A mechanical angel’s duties are difficult:
Blockade the door, do not let Death in,
And if she enters, show her a sleeping brother,
And convince her he doesn’t have a soul.
This is a world in which the subjects are as condemned as the souls in Purgatory. That which is familiar is forever and inevitably subjected to a destabilizing paradox, as if the universe, being infinite, cannot yet be entirely determined.
In an essay, Radauskas’ translator Jonas Zdanys names his subject’ approach “applied aestheticism” – an attempt by the poet, in his view, to fashion a world beyond the reach of his terrible history and pain and freed from the sense of his world’s destruction. Zdanys uses as an example of purpose the poem “Arrow in the Sky”
I am an arrow that a child shot through
An apple tree in bloom beside the sea;
A cloud of apple blossoms, like a swan,
Has shimmered down and landed on a wave;
The child is wondering, he cannot tell
The blossoms from the foam.
I am an arrow that a hunter shot
To hit an eagle that was flying by;
For all his strength and youth, he missed the bird,
Wounding instead the old enormous sun
And flooding all the twilight with its blood;
And now the day has died.
I am an arrow that was shot at night
By a crazed soldier from a fort besieged
To plead for help from mighty heaven, but
Not having spotted God, the arrow still
Wanders among the frigid constellations,
Not daring to return.
Though Zdanys’ assessment overlooks, I think, the presence of destruction, he is perceptive in noting that Radauskas’ poems are otherwise not totally preoccupied with despair. They are not like those of Trakl or Baudelaire - there is still a sense, a very slight sense, that the future can be left unwritten (which is to say that the inverse might also be true: if the apocalypse is real, it may have already happened).
It is a sense of reflection after ending. Radauskas writes of eloquently in the poem “Muse”:
The dressmaker muse from Denis’s painting
Puts her sewing on the bench, rises,
Walks down an empty street of summer
Yellowed like a Chinese face.
The checkered dress begins to climb the stairs,
And beneath her feet an oak voice
Scans running words into iambs.
She goes through the heavy sleeping door
Like the wind and suddenly
Grows like a statue in the room.
Seeing the blind stone face
The children scream and start to run,
But she throws the children out the window,
And the geranium and the canary,
And the infants, flapping their wings,
Set down like angels in the square.
The flower sings in the street like a bird
And the canary sprouts
A bright yellow blossom. And the stone
Hands the man a pen and a notebook
And languidly begins to dictate.
“The stone/Hands the man a pen and a notebook/And languidly begins to dictate.” There is no better personification for the unreasonableness of art.
In his lifetime Radauskas translated into Lithuanian the writers Martin du Gard, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Verlaine, Heine, Goethe, and Achmatova. His poems have been translated into English, Latvian, Estonian, Finnish, Polish, and German.
Readers unfamiliar with mid-century Lithuanian poetry might find the introduction to Chimeras In the Tower useful: Zdanys provides a summary of the history of the Lithuanian language and its idiosyncrasies in syntax.
Some of the poems of Chimeras have been included alongside uncollected poems here.
"I was unable to go to sleep yesterday evening. At half-past eleven everything around me was suddenly lighted up, and the vivid light permitted me to distinguish surrounding objects. I arose this morning with a very clear remembrance of that which I then saw. A tableau was formed in that light, and I had more before me than the interior of a Martian house—an immense square hall, around which shelves were fastened, or rather little tables suspended and fastened to the wall. Each of these tables contained a baby, but not at all bundled up; all the movements of these little infants were free, and a simple linen cloth was thrown round the body. They might be said to be lying on yellow moss. I could not say with what the tables were covered. Some men with strange beasts were circulating round the hall; these beasts had large flat heads, almost without hair, and large, very soft eyes, like those of seals; their bodies, slightly hairy, resembled somewhat those of roes in our country, except for their large and flat tails; they had large udders, to which the men present fitted a square instrument with a tube, which was offered to each infant, who was thus fed with the milk of the beasts. I heard cries, a great hurly-burly, and it was with difficulty that I could note these few words [of this text]. This vision lasted about a quarter of an hour; then everything gradually disappeared, and in a minute after I was in a sound sleep."
Hélène Smith, pseudonym for Catherine-Elise Muller, quoted by Théodore Flournoy in From India to the Planet Mars (1900; in print from Princeton; Amaz link). Note that I opened the book at random and started typing.
Read all about Smith—and see samples of her Martian writing (no one reads Martian writing)—in an article from the very first issue of Cabinet Magazine.
No one reads the Belgian Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898), author Bruges-la-Morte, which in addition to being called “the Symbolist novel,” was the first fictional work to incorporate photographs.
Rodenbach, who stated that silence was the thread connecting all of his work—which spanned eight volumes of poetry, four novels, a number of essays and short stories—worked as a lawyer and journalist in Paris (where he befriended Mallarme, Renoir, and Maeterlink, among others), despite his deep affection for his native soil. Of the distance he put between himself and Belgium, he wrote:
One only truly loves what one no longer has. Truly to love one’s little homeland, it is best to go away, to exile oneself for ever, to surrender oneself to the vast absorption of Paris, and for the homeland to grow so distant it seems to die. […] The essence of art that is at all noble is the DREAM, and this dream dwells only upon what is distant, absent, vanished, unattainable.
Bruges-la-Morte, which made him famous when it was published in serial form in 1892 and is undoubtedly his masterpiece, conjures the city of its title. In his forward, in fact, Rodenbach stated his goal in writing the novel was to “evoke a city… in its essence, [as] a person whose shifting moods persuade or dissuade us and determine our actions.”
The plot centers on the obsessive widower Hugues Viane, who moved to Bruges after the death of his wife several years before the novel opens. With no occupation to fill his time, Hugues wanders the melancholy town, meditating on death and longing for the grave. A bizarre and scandalous romance begins when he sees a woman he takes to be the exact double of his dead wife in the streets. The novel’s associations with morbidity and despair, not to mention its shocking conclusion, created a stir among town officials, who later refused to permit a memorial statue of the writer to be erected in Bruges—hence Rodenbach’s suitably eye-catching tomb in Paris, pictured above.
The outline of the plot may lead one to assume that the novel is a melodrama, but it steers away from action in favor of the internal world. Writing in the Guardian, novelist Alan Hollinghurst claims that Rodenbach “creates a rarefied world, internalized and intensified by feeling.” And the always reliable Nick Lezard contends that Bruges-la-Morte “is one of the greatest novels ever written about grief, loneliness, and isolation…”
Some representative passages should suffice to put you under the pall of Bruges’ gray northern skies:
Bruges was his dead wife. And his dead wife was Bruges. The two were united in a like destiny. It was Bruges-la-Morte, the dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.
As he walked, the sad faded leaves were driven pitilessly around him by the wind, and under the mingling influences of autumn and evening, a craving for the quietude of the grave … overtook him with unwanted intensity
[Photo of Rodenbach’s tomb in Paris by nikoretro]
Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, a niece of Paul Celan, was born in 1924 in Czernowicz and died at age 18 of typhus in the Mikhailovska labor camp. Fifty-seven poems survived in a notebook that she called “Blütenlese” (Harvest of Blossoms).
This is the last poem in her notebook:
Tragedy:Dec. 23, 1941
This is the hardest: to give yourself
and know that you are unwanted,
to give yourself fully and to think
that you vanish like smoke into the void.
(translation by Pearl Fichman)
Over at Tin House, Stephen offers a reading list for fans of Laszlo Krasznahorkai.
In March of last year, English-language readers were finally presented with Satantango, the first novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, the writer Susan Sontag once called “the contemporary Hungarian master of the apocalypse.” The novel, considered a masterpiece in the author’s native country since its original publication in 1985, adds to his work now available in English, revealing in the process one of the most singular oeuvres in contemporary literature. And, though the time between translations of Krasznahorkai’s novels appears to be shortening (New Directions will publish his Seiobo There Below this spring), readers suffering withdrawal from his bleak, absurdist universe have much to explore. Below is a short, non-exhaustive list of writers, all Mittel-European, who share affinities with Krasznahorkai.
The Castle, Franz Kafka
Looming behind Krasznahorkai is the hulking edifice of Kafka’s Castle, a novel perhaps all the more imposing because of its incompleteness. Krasznahorkai shares with Kafka a sense of metaphysical darkness and confusion coupled with a suitably dark sense of humor, rendering a world in which context is at best guesswork. Unanchored, Krasznahorkai’s characters drift through a gloomy landscape that mirrors their own uncertain morality, unable, as Kafka so relentlessly exposed, to make informed decisions—and, as we’ve come to expect, doomed to be punished for what they do not know.
The Adventures of Sindbad, Gyula Krudy
Kafka isn’t the only of Krasznahorkai’s forerunners to have his name turned into an adjective. According to translator George Szirtes, “Krudyesque” is a term that in Hungarian extends beyond a merely literary descriptor to encompass “experience comprised of the nostalgic, the fantastic and the ironic.” Krudy’s Sindbad Stories—collected as The Adventures of Sindbad (NYRB)—take place in a world that will strike readers of Krasznahorkai as familiar, if less unrelentingly bleak. These tales of amorous conquests unfurl mistily, though they ring with an achingly melancholic erotic tension. Modernist, prefiguring “magical realism,” and amoral: the stories are not cautionary in any sense, despite the constant refrain that desire causes nothing but trouble—and leads to a landscape strewn with suicides.(Zoltan Huszarik adapted Krudy’s stories in his 1971 film Szindbad.)
Kornel Esti, Dezso Kosztolanyi
Perhaps one need look no further than Krasznahorkai’s (typically lengthy) praise on the jacket of Kornel Esti to understand the importance of this novel not only to Krasznahorkai, but generations of Hungarian writers:
If anyone truly wanted to write the history of the Hungarian people, the author would certainly take the Dantean first sentence of Kosztolanyi’s Kornel Esti as the work’s epigraph: in a word, the most wondrous first sentence ever written in the Hungarian language.
Kornel Esti is the shadow self we all dream we have, a figure who arises at that moment when we first become aware that making one decision excludes all others. He’s the one who thereafter says ‘yes’ when we say ‘no,’ who lights fires and causes trouble. While the writer—Kosztolanyi and his stand-in narrator—sits at home, Esti is out gathering experiences in a world in which the following logic applies: “If a girl jumps into a well, she loves somebody” (in Bernard Adams’ translation). Like Sindbad before him and like Krasznahorkai’s characters after, Esti is a ravenous scamp, always moving and scheming, even if he has no particular destination or goal in mind.
George Szirtes famously characterized Krasznahorkai’s prose as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” This often earns him comparisons to Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, the vitriolic Austrian. Beckett’s influence on modern literature is obvious; Bernhard’s less so. And while at the sentence level the comparison between Krasznahorkai and Bernhard is slightly superficial, the two writers do share similar, almost gnostic worldviews.
One gets the impression from reading Bernhard that middle Europe (i.e., the whole world) is full of raving lunatics doing their best to refrain from contact with the idiocy of other people. What in the U.S. we refer to quaintly or claustrophobically, depending on our temperament, as “small town life” is in Bernhard—and Krasznahorkai—a cesspit of malice, intrigue, and decay. His landscapes, like nearly all of those mentioned so far, are strewn with suicides. His narrators are hyper-aware of their own incipient madness and the fine line wavering between sanity and insanity. Despite (or possibly because of) this, Bernhard’s angst-ridden fiction is unsettlingly funny: laughter echoing out of the abyss. This, in the end, might be the best way to characterize Krasznahorkai’s work as well.
The only non-novelist included in the list is the Romanian ex-patriot E.M. Cioran, whose aphorisms are collected in volumes with titles such as On the Heights of Despair, All Gall is Divided, The Trouble with Being Born, and A Short History of Decay. Cioran’s pithiness may stand in contrast to Krasznahorkai’s abhorrence of the full-stop, but the two men share a sensibility and sensitivity that transcends its articulation. A sampling of Cioran’s aphorisms (in Richard Howard’s translations) should suffice to prove the point:
“Man secretes disaster.”
“The proof that man loathes man? Enough to be in a crowd, in order to feel that you side with all the dead planets.”
“He who has not suffered is not a being: at most, a creature.”
“If death were not a kind of solution, the living would certainly have found some means of avoiding it.”
Tranquility, Attila Bartis
Attila Bartis is a contemporary of Krasznahorkai. His novel Tranquility, published in Hungary in 2001 and in an English translation by Imre Goldstein in 2009 (which won the first Best Translated Book Award), has been called “one of the bleakest books ever,” an assessment that holds even if the novel is compared to the Krasznahorkai’s fiction. Bartis’ novel is an unforgettable portrayal of madness, incest, violence, and that species of hatred that boils over in the cauldron of an Oedipal relationship. It convincingly depicts a world in which “pleasure [is] but ennobled pain,” a scathing allegorical representation of an era scarred by disastrous, inhumane politics. Of the books on this list, it stands the closest to the psychological depths plumbed by Krasznahorkai.
But one has heard, my dear Boehlendorff, and of course read, you went around with a whole swarm of poets in Germany.
Taciturn, Boehlendorff, put out?
With a whole swarm. Try to remember: Neuffer, Schmidt, Wilman, Zwilling, Seckendorff, Magenau, a certain Hölderlin, Sinclair.
But surely not all at the same time? What was it like? Master Hölderlin went to live at glazier Wagner’s, in Homburg the air is good, Herr von Sinclair went to court, Zwilling set his heart on a uniform.Well, Boehlendoriff, says Pastor Beer.
It wasn’t like that, says Boehlendorff slowly, and now the sentence Boehlendoriff brings forth wherever he goes, here in the provinces, whose answer Boehlendorff reads on the wood, the wood of the fences and the wood of the barn doors, and on the earth during the rain, the sentence families object to and Herr von Campenhausen and Pastor Giese’s wife, the sentence with which Boehlendorff steps out of this drawing room as he stepped out of the folding doors of the estate houses and the french windows of the parsonages: How must a world be created worthy of a moral being?
Moral being, oh for God’s sake. Everyone is that, or thinks he is, wherever he goes, this Boehlendorff. Moral being.
And a world?
The valley of shadow imposed upon us as an ordeal?But which one day will happen.
And be created?
We all had ideas one time or another, says Pastor Beer. And, as they say, water subsides.
And the people, what do they say? When he tells of the revolution of the Franks and of the Helvetians? Around a lake and unimaginably high mountains. What do the people say?
Sit and cover their faces with their hands, sigh through their fingers: horrible. With eyes closed.
When Boehlendorff has gone out they say: Good person, the Hofmeister, that fellow.
(from Marc Linder’s translation of a collection of Bobrowski’s stories, I taste Bitterness)
prehistory, of ancestral
star-time, rolling suns
over the dance of the peoples,
as the south,
a reddish bird, roars
in the falling mountains.
a song on the sword-point,
girl. Voices of birds
above the banks now.
we see you
clearly, the form of the manly
goddess under the oak-tree,
proud head as
high as the branches.
Dreamily your hands
when the sun declined —
the swallow which we loved
came then no more.
Deep, riddled with hail,
Did you stay,
a friend with gentle speech,
hands? — we heard the drag
of air and the dusk, I have
drunk a water.
with burning sails,
I shall go, Boötes to my right,
above my head the Swan, —
windless, night, I shall go,
No one reads the “storm goddess” Mary Butts (1890-1937), a woman who “more often sought out what was curious than what was virtuous.” Admired by her contemporaries Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Marianne Moore, Butts’ writing (where it gathers any light at all) tends to be overshadowed by her notorious escapades, which included practicing black magic with Aleister Crowley, smoking enormous amounts of opium, and abandoning her only child.
Possessing legendary vitality, Butts was not always unread: in the 1920s, she published pieces in The Little Review, which was not then a forgotten periodical, and her novels, especially Armed With Madness and Death of Felicity Taverner (collected and published by McPherson & Co. as The Taverner Novels) were praised and scorned by the more renowned—and remembered—of the modernists. With a more than a hint of panic, Virginia Woolf called the former work, with its relentless questioning of values, “indecent.” This is perhaps not surprising given Butts’ natural predilection for the outlandish.
More generous in his assessment is Paul West, who compares Butts to Clarice Lispector and writes that her
most conspicuous originality consisted in her resolve to depict worst things, or things at their worst, with a view to transforming them, which means assimilating into one’s being a sense of Creation’s massive, impersonal onslaught.
Written as an inverse of Eliot’s desolate Waste Land, Armed With Madness is Butts’ finest work, an ecstatic, allegorical quest for meaning in a world shattered by war and nihilism. Set in a remote corner of Cornwall, Armed With Madness chronicles the discovery, by a close-knit group of young men and women, of what may be the Holy Grail. It is a book ripe with strangeness, madness, love, and violence. It is also the most perfect embodiment of Butts’ odd, bewitching prose:
They went in. Pine-needles are not easy to walk on, like a floor of red glass. It is not cool under them, a black scented life, full of ants, who work furiously and make no sound. Something ached in Carston, a regret for the cool brilliance of the wood they had left, the other side of the hills, on the edge of the sea. This one was full of harp-noises from a wind when there was none outside. He saw Picus ahead, a shadow shifting between trunk and trunk. Some kind of woodcraft he supposed, and said so to Felix who said sleepily: “Somebody’s blunt-faced bees, dipping under the thyme-spray”; a sentence which made things start living again. Would they never have enough of what they called life? There was no kind of track over the split vegetable grass. A place that made you wonder what sort of nothing went on there, year in year out.
Mary Butts’ wild life caught up to her in 1937, when she died of a perforated ulcer.
For more, read a review of Nathalie Blondel’s biography, Mary Butts: Scenes From the Life or browse the writer’s Journals.
(Portrait by Cedric Morris)
[Writers No One Reads is on Facebook.]
New category: Fictional “Writers No One Reads”
No one reads Enoch Soames.
When a book about the literature of the eighteen-nineties was given by Mr. Holbrook Jackson to the world, I looked eagerly in the index for SOAMES, ENOCH. I had feared he would not be there. He was not there. But everybody else was. Many writers whom I had quite forgotten, or remembered but faintly, lived again for me, they and their work, in Mr. Holbrook Jackson’s pages. The book was as thorough as it was brilliantly written. And thus the omission found by me was an all the deadlier record of poor Soames’ failure to impress himself on his decade.
I daresay I am the only person who noticed the omission. Soames had failed so piteously as all that! Nor is there a counterpoise in the thought that if he had had some measure of success he might have passed, like those others, out of my mind, to return only at the historian’s beck. It is true that had his gifts, such as they were, been acknowledged in his life-time, he would never have made the bargain I saw him make—that strange bargain whose results have kept him always in the foreground of my memory. But it is from those very results that the full piteousness of him glares out.
Read the rest of Max Beerbohm's story “Enoch Soames" (1916) in his book Seven Men. Drawing also by Beerbohm.
Nobody reads George Egerton (born Mary Chavelita Dunne, 1859-1945). Born in Melbourne, and raised there, in New Zealand and Chile, she later claimed Ireland as her spiritual home. Early plans to become an artist were halted by the death of her mother: instead she trained as a nurse, and then eloped to Norway with a violently alcoholic bigamist, living there until he wisely died two years later. But it was in Scandinavia that her writing began to blossom—she was fascinated by Strindberg and Ibsen, and became both the lover and the first English-language translator of Knut Hamsun.
Egerton was an early contributor to The Yellow Book, and her first story collection, Keynotes, was a scandalous success. Punch lampooned her as “Borgia Smudgiton.” A leading and active exponent of the ‘New Woman’ lifestyle, Egerton (“Chav” to her friends, numerous lovers and various husbands) was especially good at rich, vivid and sometimes purple prose.
Ironically enough it was domesticity that ruined her talent. When she settled down as a wife and mother, her prose and popularity collapsed. Though she wrote plays to the end of her life, Egerton never recaptured the successes of her first two short books of stories.
From “Virgin Soil,” in her second collection, Discords, a new bride is being told the facts of life by her mother:
The bridegroom is waiting in the hall; with a trifle of impatience he is tracing the pattern of the linoleum with the point of his umbrella. He curbs it and laughs, showing his strong white teeth at the remark of his best man; then compares the time by his hunter with the clock on the stairs. He is florid, bright-eyed, loose-lipped, inclined to stoutness, but kept in good condition; his hair is crisp, curly, slightly grey; his ears peculiar, pointed at their tops like a faun’s. He looks very big and well-dressed, and, when he smiles, affable enough.
Upstairs a young girl, with the suns of seventeen summers on her brown head, is lying with her face hidden on her mother’s shoulder; she is sobbing with great childish sobs, regardless of reddened eyes and the tears that have splashed on the silk of her grey, going-away gown.
(photo via NYPL)
The Kingdom of Writers No One Reads?
From the Paris Review, Art of Fiction, no. 190:
In addition to being a Spanish citizen, you are the king of the island of Redonda, a micronation in the West Indies. I believe you are the first monarch The Paris Review has interviewed. How did you come by your crown?
There was a shipping magnate in the nineteenth century by the name of Shiel, who lived in the Caribbean, and he had eight or nine daughters but no son. Finally, he had a male baby, Matthew Phipps Shiel, who became a writer. To celebrate his son’s fifteenth birthday in 1880, Shiel claimed ownership of the uninhabited island of Redonda, which is close to Montserrat and not far from Antigua. He organized a coronation with a Methodist minister from Antigua, and M. P. Shiel was crowned king of that island. Recently, I learned that Redonda is the equivalent to Transylvania in Europe, which is appropriate for a literary legend. It’s a very rocky place with limited access. It was used as a harbor for smugglers, and there were legends of terrible beasts and horrific events that happened there. Shortly after Shiel’s coronation the British decided to annex the island because aluminum phosphate was found. The Shiels disputed the British for years, and finally the colonial office said they were not going to give the island back to anyone, let alone a crazy ship owner and a writer, but they had no objection to Shiel using the title of king of Redonda as long as it was, as they said, void of content.
Eventually, Shiel settled in Britain, where a younger writer named John Gawsworth helped him in his old age. When Shiel died in 1947, Gawsworth became his literary executor and heir to his estate. Gawsworth activated an intellectual aristocracy, as it was called, and named dukes and duchesses, including Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, and Dylan Thomas. Gawsworth had been a very promising figure, publishing books at nineteen. He fought in India, Algeria, and Egypt during the war. Amazingly, he published small booklets of poetry everywhere, even in Calcutta. I don’t know how he managed to do that during the war. He was one of the youngest members of the Royal Society of Literature and was in touch with many of the major literary figures of the time, from Thomas Hardy to T. E. Lawrence. But Gawsworth became a drunkard and was soon penniless. He had a lot of debts with his landlord and bartenders and started to sell titles to these people. He even put an ad in the Times to sell the title of king of Redonda. A lot of people were interested. I reproduced a telegram in one of the books I published under my Reino de Redonda imprint. I have it here. Carl Werner Skogholm of Denmark wrote:
Your Royal Highness, King John Gawsworth of Redonda,
Regarding your advertisement I beg to send you the following questions which I hope you will kindly answer:
1) What is the King’s duties?
2) What is the King’s rights?
3) Is the Isle of Redonda a good place to live in?
4) Is it possible for the King to contact Diana Dors?
5) I have two daughters. Is it possible for girls to inherit the throne?
It would be wonderful to become a king suddenly. I hope to be able to—if you are still willing to sell.
(image via littletoboggans)