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.
Bobrowski wrote a few books of short stories (Mäusefest, Boehlendorff, and Der Mahner), two novels (Levins Mühle / Levin’s Mill and Litauische Claviere / Lithuanian Pianos), and four volumes of poetry (Sarmatische Zeit / Samartian Time, Schattenland Ströme, Wetterzeichen, and Im Windgesträuch).
He was very much a writer who himself reads writers no one reads, such as Jakob Reinhold Michael Lenz (the actual Lenz from Büchner’s novella) and Boehlendorff. Boehlendorff was a friend of Hölderlin and their letters became the subject of a great essay by Peter Szondi on Hölderlin’s surpassing of classicism (“Überwindung des Klassizismus”). Here is an excerpt of the Bobrowski’s story “Boehlendorff”:
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,
Some of Bobrowski’s work has been translated into English: New Directions publishes Levin’s Mill, a collection of his poems (Shadow Lands), and a selection of his stories (Darkness and a Little Light).
During his lifetime he was recognized and awarded a couple of prizes, among them the prize of the Group 47.
He influenced a number of his contemporaries. Gerhard Wolf (Christa Wolf’s husband) wrote a few studies on Bobrowski, a 1967 biography and a description of Bobrowski’s room (Beschreibung eines Zimmers).
Michael Hamburger has translated some of his poetry and his correspondence with Bobrowski was published in German. He was translated into Dutch by C. O. Jellema (a Dutch Michael Hamburger) who also wrote an essay on Bobrowski’s poetry (“Over de poëzie van Johannes Bobrowski”). Jellema’s translations can be found in his Verzameld Werk.
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.
(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.
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)
The following is a submission from Molly Parent, who, in light of Kate Zambreno’s recently published study Heroines, considers the special cases of two writers no one reads: Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Ed.)
* * *
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines—a thoughtful, confessional, research-rich book recently published by Semiotext(e)—focuses on the mythology and the actualities of a particular camp of writers no one reads: the mad wives of modernism.
While some of these women, including Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Djuna Barnes, had brilliant but often under-acknowledged literary careers, the words of many of their contemporaries never made it onto—or, considering their perpetual role as characters in others’ fictions, off of—the page.
One such woman is Vivien(ne) Eliot, wife of T.S, who preferred to drop the last two letters from her name, the most transparent pseudonymous identity of a handful she used throughout her life. A pal of the Bloomsbury group (in a sense: Virginia Woolf once described her as “the bag of ferrets Tom wears around his neck”), Vivienne was assumed not to have much literary talent of her own. She frequently wrote semi-autobiographical short stories, an activity condescendingly prescribed as an exercise to soothe her “nerves”. Zambreno writes: “Eliot praised her mind as being ‘not at all a feminine one,’ which reveals only Eliot’s bias, not any truth regarding her prose style, or even regarding his.”
Still, Vivienne’s mind was capable of co-editing The Criterion, the Eliots’ quarterly literary magazine. Writing under a pen name, many of her contributions were based on Bloomsbury gossip; Zambreno describes her as “the bored yet alienated female Prufrockian narrator who listens in and cattily, wittily exhumes.” (One of many in a line of literary gossips, of course. “Or,” as Elizabeth Hardwick said, “as we gossips like to call it, character analysis.”) This was not always well received, and eventually Tom gave in to the complaints of his social circle and shut down the publication. It reappeared a year later as The New Criterion. Vivienne was banned from contributing.
Soon after, the Eliots’ marriage began unraveling, along with Vivienne’s mental health, though this tumultuous time coincided with a feverish period of literary activity on her part. Ultimately, Tom arranged for a formal separation—so formal, in fact, that he instructed his friends and business partners to cut off contact with his estranged wife and to not tell her where he was, a move that baffled and further unhinged her.
Vivienne’s life from that point on was marked by desperation, ill health and psychiatric wards. Despite this, she still produced a prolific amount of journaling, which she at least saw as valuable: “You who in my later years will read these very words of mine,” she wrote in a diary entry in 1934, “and will be able to trace a true history of this epoch, by my Diaries and Papers.” Their value did not go unnoticed by certain interested parties; Vivienne’s diaries and papers cannot be accessed without permission of the estate of Eliot’s second (recently deceased) wife Valerie. Should one wish to read Vivienne’s writing without navigating such litigious waters, her most concise and heartbreaking prose may be found in an advertisement she tried to place in the paper after Tom’s departure. It reads:
Will T.S Eliot please return to his home, 68 Clarence Gate Gardens, which he abandoned Sept. 17th, 1932.
A few years later, a more famous literary wife would experience a similar litany of institutionalization and silencing despite a more focused literary ambition. Zelda Fitzgerald, remembered mostly as an emblem of the flapper lifestyle and as Scott’s less stable half, wrote the entirety of her one novel, Save Me The Waltz, in a six-month stay at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore (one of multiple institutions to which she was committed throughout her life). The novel drew heavily on autobiography, which posed a problem for Scott, who tended to use facts about Zelda to color the novels that had made him quite famous—and it happened to share some such content with a draft he had been agonizing over for the last seven years. Luckily for him, editors took the side of the literary heavyweight and not the notorious nut job. Save Me The Waltz, with much of it slashed out by Scott’s pen, was eventually published to “meh” reviews. Tender is the Night, the seven-year masterpiece, fared much better.
Undeterred, Zelda had designs for a second novel, which Scott, with the help of doctors (enlisted by him) and editors (his), firmly and rather brutally talked her out of pursuing. In Heroines, Zambreno quotes the transcripts of one such “psychiatric evaluation”:
The doctor tells Zelda that if she could not write “masterpieces” like her husband, then her “ambitions” would only further “depress” her. “I will always be unhappy then,” she said. “I was a good deal more unhappy when I did not want to write.” She finally agrees to what the doctor prescribes… she is forbidden from writing fiction that draws on a shared biography (in other words, her own life.)
As such, should one wish to read Zelda, one of the truest ways to do so may be to read Scott, whose writing often lifted entire phrases from her letters or speech. The most famous and eerily aware of these is Zelda’s exclamation at the birth of their daughter, which became one of the most recognizable of Daisy’s lines in Gatsby: “Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups,” Zelda said upon seeing her child, having stated moments before that she herself was drunk for the occasion. “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” And so Zelda the myth lives in fiction, Scott the myth lives as its author.
Zelda died in a fire in the hospital where she was finally institutionalized for schizophrenia. An incorrect date was printed on her tombstone, and her husband’s words placed literally atop her grave.
Despite the tragedy and justified anger in which Heroines is steeped, it ends with something like hope regarding the idea of being read. After all, the book is a chronicle of Zambreno’s obsession with reading these unread or unreadable women, an exorcism of their ghosts that produced the thing they longed for: their words, their truths, in print. And, Zambreno argues, today the internet provides a forum for questioning the cannon and a community that informs, supports and reads each other, one that may have aided Vivienne and Zelda had they been granted access. In a poignant shift in the book’s last twenty pages, Zambreno suddenly turns her narrative towards a you – triumphantly, a reader, and if you take up her charge, a writer, a decider of the mythology. The question, as she puts it: “Who gets to be remembered and who does not?”
No one reads German polymath Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915). Yet during his prolific career his eccentric fiction, art, and poetry influenced a range of intellects, from architect Bruno Taut to writer Walter Benjamin. It’s a testament to Scheerbart’s prophetic vision that his fiction has attracted such lasting attention: he wrote mostly outer-space novels and utopian stories about things like glass architecture.
Beyond the quirky concepts, however, Scheerbart’s work has a revolutionary, philosophical zeal and the image of him that arises is that of a steampunk Ralph Waldo Emerson with imaginative powers equal to those of Thomas Edison and Jules Verne.
Some major university presses have published a handful of Scheerbart’s work in English. MIT Press brought out his glass architecture novella, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel, and University of Chicago Press published The Light Club (the full title is The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette), about an underground utopia created by a group of wealthy humanists. These are enjoyable books, optimistic, ironic, and, as the titles indicate, pro-feminist for their time.
The most recent Scheerbart in translation is Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel, and kudos to Wakefield Press (in Cambridge) for creating a wonderful illustrated edition of Scheerbart’s short novel about brainy humanoid worm-aliens, dreamers who float around and consider their place in the cosmos. Using the basic tropes of sci-fi, Scheerbart creates a sharp social satire of European salon culture, industrial ambition, and the groupthink of his day, including offhand musings like this about quantum mechanics and string theory that are startlingly accurate:
Lesabendio fell asleep. He dreamed of an enormous solar system—and it appeared to him like a system of millions of rubber bands that were continuously being stretched apart and then rebounding back together again.
My favorite Scheerbart in English so far is The Perpetual Motion Machine (Wakefield Press). The central question seems to be—is success or failure better for the imagination? Translator Andrew Joron did great work capturing Scheerbart’s wonderful range of raw emotion as he struggles to tell “The Story of an Invention,” as the book is subtitled. The diary of intense frustration hits innumerable highs and lows as Scheerbart tries, fails, and fails again to invent a real perpetual-motion machine (he and his wife needed the money). “I’m getting nowhere with my prototype,” he says. “This has not in the least hindered the outpouring of my imagination.”
(The book also shows off Scheerbart’s impressive skills as a draughtsman: it includes 26 schematic diagrams of prototypes for a real perpetual motion machine, which will prove humorous for anyone familiar with, say, gravity, or the concept of friction.)
Eventually, Scheerbart uses failure as a route to revelation, and revelation as an engine for belief in infinite creativity. The diary gives way to several short stories, including “The Astral Direction,” in which Scheerbart mentions “the significance of the Earthstar.” His failures have yielded a vision that “The Earth itself is a perpetual motion machine” and if his “perpet” (his nickname for a perpetual motion machine) could actually harness gravity’s power it would cause a “sublime revolution,” bringing about the “obsolescence of labor,” freeing humanity from “nation-states” and “militarism.” He imagines great changes ahead. “We are standing, then, before a cultural earthquake. A great many old arrangements will be undone.”
He was right, but unfortunately wrong about the nature of the impending earthquake—World War I would soon break out. The mass death would reveal how earnest Scheerbart was about his dreams for utopia and peace: Joron states in his introduction to The Perpetual Motion Machine that Scheerbart is said to have killed himself in a hunger strike protesting the war.
No one reads the poems of Carolyn Rodgers (Dec. 14, 1940-April 2, 2010). She was a key member of the Black Arts Movement and a student of Gwendolyn Brooks. As so often happens with women in the arts, she was chastised for what men were celebrated for. Here she addresses the use of profanity in a poem:
—from "The Last M.F."
that i should not use the word
in my poetry or in any speech i give.
that i must and can only say it to myself
as the new Black Womanhood suggests
a softer self
a more reserved speaking self. they say,
that respect is hard won by a woman
who throws a word like muthafucka around
and so they say because we love you
throw that word away, Black Woman …
that i only call muthafuckas, muthafuckas
so no one should be insulted.
How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award (1976). Over time she shifted away from revolutionary and militant themes to more personal concerns but she never neglected the plight of being poor and black in America:
"East of New Haven"
you see so many
these little towns
out in the open
spaces & places.
i guess big cities
have not enough space for the
let alone the dead.
there is so much
and back home in
chicago we would call
them rocks, lying all on the ground(s)
lots of rocks around / but
you would call them
see how much smoother
the world is.
the farther east we
the more frequent
are the stops at rich small
quaint towns and the more frequent
are the admonitions to “watch one’s
ticket on the rack above the seat
or to be very sure to take it with
you if you leave your seat!”
the very wealthy,
as i ride the train
watching the many white students
eating out of brown paper
sacks, saving their now
money so that they can
be the very wealthy later
Carolyn Rodgers will be inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2012.
Perhaps a few more people will read her poems now.
[The following was written by Stephen (SS), a bookseller and panelist on the Best Translated Book Award jury—and, as a caveat, a one-time employee of Dalkey Archive. Any responses should be directed to him. I apologize to those of you not interested in polemics. Nevertheless, it’s my hope that among the followers of this blog, which represents a sizeable community of readers who care about discovering and disseminating works that are too easily overlooked, there will be some who care enough to feel that the actions of Dalkey Archive Press are, at the very least, irresponsible.]
To reward you for at least scrolling past this rant on your dashboard, the three of us at WNOR offer some book recommendations below.
[NOTE: As of December 7, Dalkey Archive submitted several worthy titles (as PDFs) to the BTBA committee.]
A few weeks ago, I learned through Chad Post, organizer of the Best Translated Book Award, that Dalkey Archive Press, who publish the most translations per year of any English-language publisher, was withdrawing from the competition, citing expenses. The justification offered was that sending eligible titles to the members of the nine-person judging panel, of which I am a member, leaves “a smoking hole in [our] budget.” (Despite the fact that the judges all accept PDFs.) Tacked on to this already questionable excuse was the kicker: “And… we’ve never won.”
As a reader and a bookseller, I’ve long been passionate about translated fiction. Along with inimitable New Directions, which served as a model for Dalkey’s early efforts, Dalkey Archive has always seemed to me one of the most daring publishers in the United States. The Press brings to English-language readers work from across the world, often publishing the kind of challenging and innovative fiction that larger, for-profit publishing houses would never touch. Their list is rich in significant, enduring titles and I can happily say that during the course of my career I have sold hundreds of copies of these books.
So it’s a real disappointment—less for myself than for those whose reading worlds just got a little smaller for lack of exposure to Dalkey’s books—that (a) a publisher of this caliber would withdraw from a competition designed to promote translated literature, their ostensible raison d’etre and (b) that their excuse for doing so would be so transparently insincere. In his reaction to this move, Chad Post, who in addition to organizing the BTBA also runs Three Percent, a good resource for readers interested in translated literature, effectively sums up the reasons why a publisher claiming budget concerns in their refusal to send books to the judges is baseless. (It boils down to this: it would cost Dalkey in total about $120 to mail books to the panelists.) Even if we accept for a moment the possibility that the Press is in such desperate financial straits that it can’t afford to mail—or, again, to email!—books to judges, the lack of consideration the publisher is demonstrating toward its authors and translators, the cultural agencies who underwrite the work, and the readers the Press ostensibly aims to reach is galling.
No one reads Margaret Anderson’s and Jane Heap’s Little Review but it was one of the preeminent literary publications of the ’10s and ’20s. Along with Poetry, Blue Sky Press, and countless other forgotten magazines and presses started in Chicago early in the 20th century, The Little Review introduced adventurous readers to some of best writers of the day. Anderson started it in 1914, reportedly declaring at a party with other Chicago literary types, that it was time for a magazine which “would make no compromise with public taste.” In time that sentiment became part of its masthead. She had many admirers, among them a very young Ben Hecht, who was apparently heartbroken when she moved away to New York. Jane Heap joined as an editor in 1916. She was a far less public figure than Anderson, often referred to in the pages of their journal as just “jh.” The two women maintained a professional and romantic relationship that lasted until about 1925.
In 1917 they took on Ezra Pound as an editor and moved to New York. A year later they began to serialize James Joyce’s Ulysses, which would bring them their highest acclaim as well as their greatest infamy. Anderson, as publisher, was tried for obscenity but remained defiant. The magazine continued to publish feminist, anarchist, and surrealist articles and art that was often at great odds with the tastes of established American society.
In 1923 Anderson and Heap moved their base of operations to Paris to join Pound, but by 1925 the two women parted ways—Anderson remained in Europe and Heap assumed head editorship of their magazine and went back to New York. She continued The Little Review until 1929 when she grew disillusioned and was forced to conclude bitterly that “Modern art has finally come into its own…advertising.”
Margaret Anderson eventually wrote a three-volume autobiography chronicling her time as a publisher as well as her many illustrious years in the company of literary and artistic high society thereafter. Of her role in the creative world, she said, “I had vicarious experience of the artist’s ecstasy without having had to undergo the daily lonely labor of the functioning virtuoso. I have been a cheat, and no one has ever been more rewarded for cheating.”
“You may be familiar with Robert Bridges, who served as England’s Poet Laureate. But chances are, you are unfamiliar with the work of Digby Mackworth Dolben, a school friend of Bridges’s who died at only nineteen. An eccentric and a zealous Anglo-Catholic, long after his death Dolben continued to exercise a compelling hold over his circle, which included Gerard Manley Hopkins.”