[This guest post by John Glassie is partially adapted from A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in a Time of Change, his new book about Athanasius Kircher, published by Riverhead Books.]
No one reads Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a seventeenth-century Jesuit priest and polymath who wrote more than thirty big books on everything from optics, acoustics, linguistics, and mathematics to cryptology, Egyptology, numerology, and Sinology. Kircher was born on the eve of a municipal witch-hunt in what is now central Germany. As described in his memoirs, he then survived stampeding horses, a severe hernia, and the armies of an insane bishop, among other things, before showing up in Rome in 1633, just a few months after the Galileo trial. He lived there for more than forty years until his death.
Kircher wasn’t just a writer. He was an inventor of speaking statues, eavesdropping devices, and musical machines. (He is alleged to have invented an instrument called the cat piano. It’s probably more accurate to say he helped popularize the idea.) He was the curator of an early modern museum — a cabinet of curiosities featuring the tailbones of a mermaid and a brick from the Tower of Babel — at the Jesuit college in Rome. He collaborated with baroque master Gianlorenzo Bernini on two of his most famous sculptures. He pursued his interest in geological matters by climbing down inside the smoking crater of Mount Vesuvius. And he was perhaps the first to use a microscope to examine human blood.
The main reason no one reads him today is that he wrote everything, something like seven million words, in Latin. English translations are few and far between. Another important reason: a general sense that so much of what he wrote was wrong. It is true that many of Kircher’s ideas — secret knots of cosmic influence, universal sperm, the hollowness of mountains — didn’t stand the test of time. Kircher was steeped, like all of his contemporaries, in the magic and superstition of the pre-scientific period. But he was also a brilliant, extremely erudite man whose beautifully illustrated, encyclopedic works — books such as Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), Musurgia Universalis (Universal Music-making), and Mundus Subterraneus (Subterranean World) — served as benchmarks of knowledge of the era. The great intellectuals of the day, people such as Descartes, Leibniz, Huygens, Boyle, and Hooke, all contended with his writings in one way or another.
Kircher’s prose, not exactly sparse, frequently aspired to a kind of mystic greatness. Why, for example, is the sky blue? Blue is “a color by which the uninterrupted sight may contemplate that most agreeable space of the heavens.” Light itself, meanwhile, “passes through everything” and “by so passing through, it shapes and forms everything; it supports, collects, unites, separates everything. All things which either exist or are illuminated or grow warm, or live, or are begotten, or freed, or grow greater, or are completed or are moved, it converts to itself.”
Kircher’s poetical tendencies found their fullest expression in his erroneous “translations” of Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions. Oedipus Aegyptiacus (Egyptian Oedipus), his 2,000-page tome on the subject, was published in the early 1650s after two decades of work. According to one of Kircher’s later interpretations, a certain section of the Egyptian obelisk now in the Piazza della Minerva in Rome has to do with the way the
supreme spirit and archetype infuses its virtue and gifts in the soul of the sidereal world, that is the solar spirit subject to it, from whence comes the vital motion in the material or elemental world, and abundance of all things and variety of species arises.
Perhaps there’s no surprise here: it was during his own lifetime that Kircher began to develop his reputation as an author who couldn’t always be trusted. Descartes, for example, was vexed by Kircher’s claim in Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica (The Magnet, or the Art of Magnetics) of 1641 that a sunflower seed could drive a clock — based on its innate sensitivity to the magnetic attraction of the Sun. The notion was absurd, but not so absurd that that Descartes didn’t try it himself. “I had enough free time to do the experiment,” he wrote in a letter, “but it didn’t work.”
Exaggerations and even fabrications notwithstanding, Kircher wrote only one book that could rightly be called a work of fiction, and that was Itinerarium Exstaticum (Ecstatic Journey) of 1656. At the time, Kircher wanted to enter the discussion about all the new astronomical observations afforded by the telescope, but an insufficiently critical treatment of the new astronomy could get you in trouble with the Inquisition, if not burned at the stake. So he wrote it as work of the imagination — the story of a cosmic dream in which an angel named Cosmiel leads Kircher’s fictional stand-in, a priest named Theodidactus (“taught by God”), on an edifying flight through the heavens.
There isn’t much doubt, by the way, that Kircher privately believed in the Copernican model of the universe. But his opinion wasn’t based solely on the astronomical evidence. A sun-centered system also made much more mystical sense. “The whole mass of this solar globe is imbued . . . with a certain universal seminal power,” Cosmiel explains about the Sun. It “touches things below by radiant diffusion.”
Whatever else may be said about it, Ecstatic Journey represented a step toward modern science fiction. In fact, although Kircher’s scientific stature largely faded, his work influenced many writers and artists, including Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, Marcel Duchamp, and Giorgio De Chirico.
In Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the narrator comes face to face with a mile-wide vortex in a northern sea, and is understandably awe-struck. “Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelström is an abyss penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part,” he says. “This opinion … was the one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented.”
• Scans of Kircher’s books offered online by various libraries and institutions. Google Books and the Internet Archive provide access to many scans as well.
• John E. Fletcher and Elizabeth Fletcher. A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher “germanus Incredibilis”: With a Selection of His Unpublished Correspondence and an Annotated Translation of His Autobiography. Leiden: Brill, 2011.
• Athanasius, Kircher, China Illustrata. translated by Charles D. Van Tuyl from the 1677 original Latin edition. Muskogee, Okla: Indian University Press, Bacone College, 1987.
• Athanasius Kircher, The Vulcano’s: Or, Burning and Fire–vomiting Mountains, Famous in the World: With their Remarkables. Collected for the most part out of Kircher’s Subterraneous World (1669).
• Daniel Stolzenberg. Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
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). 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
- For more, see a gallery of photographs included in the book or some of Fernand Knopff’s haunting artwork inspired by the novel.
- Dedalus Books publishes English translations of three of Rodenbach’s works, including Bruges-la-Morte.
[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)
The WNOR First Half of 2013 Book Preview (January-July)
With no aspirations to completeness or claims about this being the only book preview you’ll need to consult, we present a selection of books we’re excited to see published in the first half of 2013. Our reading tastes dictated the list: included are a lot of translations, works published by small presses, and reprints of out-of-print books. We’re undoubtedly missing some gems and have deliberately skipped over titles you’ll see previewed elsewhere, but hope our offering points you in the right direction nonetheless. A second half preview will follow in July.
Happy new year and happy reading. — Eds.
- Ludwig Hohl (trans. Donna Stonecipher), Ascent (Black Square Editions). A short gem about two mountaineers and two bad decisions, from an overlooked Swiss writer.
- Alejandro Zambra (trans. Megan McDowell), Ways of Going Home (FSG). The darling of Latin American literature returns with this, his third playful and tender novel to be translated into English.
- Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin, The End of Oulipo? (Zero Books). A critical examination of the role and future of the Oulipo.
- William Gaddis (ed. Steven Moore), The Letters of William Gaddis (Dalkey Archive). This promises to be an illuminating collection of letters from the spotlight-wary Gaddis. Including correspondence with notable figures like William Gass, Saul Bellow, Robert Coover, and others.
- Georges Perec (trans. Daniel Levin Becker), La Boutique Obscure (Melville House). Will answer the burning question: did Perec’s dreams operate under constraints?
- William Gerhardie, The Polyglots (Melville House). A reprint of a novel called by William Boyd “the most influential English novel of the twentieth century.” A welcome addition to Melville House’s excellent Neversink Library.
- Arnon Grunberg (trans. Sam Garrett), Tirza (Open Letter). The latest novel by Grunberg, who has also published fiction under the pseudonym Marek van der Jagt, to be translated into English is perhaps his darkest yet.
- Christa Wolf (trans. Damion Searls), City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (FSG). Christa Wolf’s last novel, set in Los Angeles.
- Jacob Slauerhoff (trans. Paul Vincent), The Forbidden Kingdom (Pushkin). The early 20th century Dutch classic, included on the list of “1001 Novels You Must Read Before You Die,” finally available in English.
- William Gass, Middle C (Knopf). The prolific Gass’ third novel and first since his legendary Tunnel.
- Daniel Spoerri, At the Museum of Natural History: An Incompetent Dialogue? (Kerber). Spoerri, a visual artist and writer (see our earlier post) embarks on a project comparing his work with the collection of the Vienna Museum of Natural History.
- Anne Carson, Red Doc> (Knopf). A sequel of sorts to Carson’s long poem/novel Autobiography of Red.
- Robert Desnos (trans. Terry Hale), Liberty or Love! and Morning for Mourning (Atlas). Two novellas by Surrealist poet Desnos, now available in the U.S.
- Severo Sarduy (trans. Mark Fried), Firefly (Archipelago). A richly lyrical coming of age tale of a boy with a head too big and a sense of direction too poor to do anything but get him into trouble in pre-Castro Cuba.
- Nathalie Sarraute (trans. Barbara Wright), Childhood (Univ. of Chicago). A reprint of Sarraute’s memoir, with a new forward by Alice Kaplan.
- Renata Adler, Speedboat and Pitch Dark (NYRB). Two eagerly anticipated reprints of books that have been inexplicably languishing out-of-print for years.
- E.M. Cioran (trans. Richard Howard), The New Gods (Univ. of Chicago). Reprint of a collection of brooding essays and aphorisms by the inimitable Cioran.
- Jean-Marie Blas de Robles (trans. Mike Mitchell), Where Tigers Are At Home (Other Press). A massive tale of intrigue spanning centuries, with 17th century scholar and man of dubious science Athanasius Kircher at its heart. Winner of the Prix Medicis.
- Italo Calvino (trans. Martin McLaughlin), Letters 1941-1985 (Princeton). Will hopefully reveal all sorts of dirt on Raymond Queneau.
- Carlos Rojas (trans. Edith Grossman), The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell (Yale). A fantastical tale about the death and afterlife of poet Garcia Lorca, translated by Edith Grossman.
- Luis Chitarroni (trans. Rhett McNeil), The No Variations (Dalkey Archive). A classic of Latin American metafiction compared to the work of David Markson and Cesar Aira.
- Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Damion Searls), Her Not All Her (Sylph Editions). Jelinek takes on Robert Walser in this play about the writer’s life and work.
- Stig Dagerman (trans. Steven Hartman), To Kill a Child (Godine). A collection of stories by one of the most famous forgotten Swedish writers.
- Agnieszka Kuciak, Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don’t Exist (White Pines Press). The title says it all.
- Ulf Peter Hallberg (trans. Anderson & Cassady), European Trash (Sixteen Ways to Remember a Father) (Dzanc). The first title in Dzanc’s Disquiet imprint, which will bring more translated literature to English-language readers.
- Danielle Collobert (trans. Nathanael), Murder (Litmus Press). Collobert’s first novel, published by Editions Gallimard in 1964, captures the zeitgeist of the period of the Algerian War.
- Santiago Roncagliolo (trans. Edith Grossman), Hi, This is Conchita (Two Lines Press). Two Lines expands its publishing venture with this comic novella—told entirely in dialogue—from Premio Alfaguara de Novela winner Roncagliolo (Red April).
- Jorge Luis Borges (trans. Katherine Silver), Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (New Directions). A previously untranslated collection of Borges’ lectures on English literature.
- Adam Bodor (trans. Paul Olchvary), The Sinistra Zone (New Directions). A black comedy about a man who’s job it is to guard blueberries at a bear preserve in Eastern Europe.
- Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright (Text Classics). This 1961 novel has been called “the greatest outback horror story” and is here reprinted by Text Classics.
- Imre Kertesz (trans. Tim Wilkinson), Dossier K (Melville House). A self-interview that blends memoir and fiction written by the oddly neglected Nobel laureate.
- Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (trans. Levine & Campbell), Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (Melville House). Husband and wife team and collaborators with Borges brought back into print.
- Franz Fuhmann (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole), The Jew Car (Seagull). A collection of searing stories examining a life lived under the shadow of National Socialism.
- Marie NDiaye (trans. Jordan Stump), All My Friends (Two Lines). This collection of stories follows the publication of Prix Goncourt winner NDiaye’s acclaimed novel Three Strong Women.
- Guy Davenport (ed. Eric Reese), Guy Davenport Reader (Counterpoint). A collection of essays and stories by the lamentably overlooked Davenport that will hopefully remind people of his greatness.
- Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (trans. C. Heinowitz & A. Graman), Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic (Wave Books). A translation of the book length poem by the co-founder of infrarealism. Readers of The Savage Detectives will recognize Santiago as the Ulises Lima of the novel.
- Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below (New Directions). An introduction to a strand of Krasznahorkai’s oeuvre that might surprise some readers.
- Ror Wolf (trans. Jennifer Marquart), Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions (Open Letter). An “anti-book” of short stories by a writer who mines a similar vein as two Roberts: Walser and Pinget.
- Samuel Beckett, Echo’s Bones (Grove). Eighty years after it was written, this little known story by Samuel Beckett will come as a welcome addition to the libraries of completists.
- Curzio Malaparte, Coup D’Etat (Enigma Books). Subtitled “The Technique of Revolution,” this is a translation of the book that earned Malaparte a jail sentence in Mussolini’s Italy. Malaparte’s novel The Skin will be reprinted by NYRB Classics this spring.
- Jules Supervielle (trans. Terry & Kline), Poems of Jules Supervielle (Black Widow). During his lifetime, Supervielle was praised highly by T.S. Eliot; perhaps this new translation will help resuscitate his posthumous reputation.
- Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness (NYRB). At long last, the great Australian essayist’s work is gathered in a selection ranging from topics as diverse as Chinese history (of which Leys is a scholar) and “the Quixotism of the sea.”
- Sibylle Lewitscharoff (trans. Katy Derbyshire), Apostoloff (Seagull). A novel of bitterness and reckoning by an award-winning German writer.
- Stephen Romer (ed.), French Decadent Tales (Oxford). Translator Stephen Romer collects thirty-six dark and darkly humorous tales from 1880-1900, including short stories by Maupassant, Leon Bloy, and Georges Rodenbach.
- Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (FSG). A whopping 2600-page collection of the Italian poet’s notebooks. This is the first time the notebooks have been made available in their entirety in English.
- Marguerite Duras (trans. Ali & Murphy), L’Amour (Open Letter). A previously untranslated novel by Marguerite Duras.
- Almantas Samalavicius, The Dedalus Book of Lithuanian Literature (Dedalus). A century-spanning collection of Lithuanian literature, reflecting the culture’s changing political and artistic position.
- Alexander Kluge (trans. Martin Chalmers), Air Raid (Seagull Books). Kluge’s book about the near total destruction of his German hometown during World War II, finally published in English. With an appreciation by W.G. Sebald.
Forthcoming (no publication date listed)
- Emil Hakl (trans. Marek Tomin), The Witch’s Flight (Twisted Spoon). A dark chronicle of the consequences of an inexplicable crime.
- Bruno Jasienski, (trans. Gauger & Torr) The Legs of Izolda Morgan (Twisted Spoon). A classic of Polish Futurism, published along with Jasienski’s manifestos and later pieces.
- Pierre Mac Orlean (trans. Napolean Jeffries), A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer (Wakefield). A tongue-in-cheek guide for the armchair adventurer.
- Jean Ferry (trans. Edward Gauvin), The Conductor & Other Tales (Wakefield). A collection of humorous stories by noted screenwriter and member of the College of Pataphysics.
- Miklos Szentkuthy, Towards the One and Only Metaphor (Contra Mundum). The second book in the eight-volume St. Orpheus Breviary, written by an author who was praised as “out-Prousting Proust.”
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)
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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.