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[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.”

*

Further Reading:

• 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. 

[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 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.

[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.

The Mad Wives of Modernism

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.

Tom and Vivienne Eliot

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. 

Zelda Fitzgerald, self-portrait

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.

Zelda's 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?”

Thank you so much for this submission, Book Storey!

No one reads Brigid Brophy (1929 – 1995) who was a writer, activist, opera enthusiast and animal lover. Fastidious with grammar, she was also an advocate of the Shavian alphabet, most notably in her spelling of show as shew. Her personal life was also unconventional: not only was she bisexual; but she also had an open marriage with Michael Levey, director of The National Gallery between 1963-1987, whom she married in 1954.
Brophy’s love of Mozart figures prominently in her writing. In 1964 she published the nonfictional work Mozart the Dramatist: A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age. In the same year she published what is arguably her masterpiece, The Snow Ball, which attempts to answer the question she poses in her nonfiction work: “whether, when the opera opens, Don Giovanni has just seduced or has just failed to seduce Donna Anna.”
In between writing, she also somehow found time to champion many causes. An article that appeared in the Sunday Times in 1965 credits her with having triggered the animal rights movement in England. Her most lasting legacy is her campaigning for Public Lending Rights (which gives writers a small sum each time their book is borrowed from a British Public Library) which led to the PLR Act being passed in parliament in March 1979. Tragically, just a few months later, Brophy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and her output soon after dwindled.

Thank you so much for this submission, Book Storey!

No one reads Brigid Brophy (1929 – 1995) who was a writer, activist, opera enthusiast and animal lover. Fastidious with grammar, she was also an advocate of the Shavian alphabet, most notably in her spelling of show as shew. Her personal life was also unconventional: not only was she bisexual; but she also had an open marriage with Michael Levey, director of The National Gallery between 1963-1987, whom she married in 1954.

Brophy’s love of Mozart figures prominently in her writing. In 1964 she published the nonfictional work Mozart the Dramatist: A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age. In the same year she published what is arguably her masterpiece, The Snow Ball, which attempts to answer the question she poses in her nonfiction work: “whether, when the opera opens, Don Giovanni has just seduced or has just failed to seduce Donna Anna.”

In between writing, she also somehow found time to champion many causes. An article that appeared in the Sunday Times in 1965 credits her with having triggered the animal rights movement in England. Her most lasting legacy is her campaigning for Public Lending Rights (which gives writers a small sum each time their book is borrowed from a British Public Library) which led to the PLR Act being passed in parliament in March 1979. Tragically, just a few months later, Brophy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and her output soon after dwindled.

A submission from fereshteh (blackflamedsun [at] gmail [dot] com), though I’ve wanted to feature him too: Ladislav Klima (1878 - 1928), an influential Czech writer brought into English by Twisted Spoon Press (who are also on tumblr!) in two books:

The Sufferings of Price Sternenhoch (Twisted Spoon / Amazon)
Glorious Nemesis(Twisted Spoon / Amazon)

TS list three additional books as forthcoming: The Blind Snake’s Wanderings for TruthI Am Absolute WillTales of Weirdness. Bio from the TS website:

Ladislav Klíma was born August 22, 1878, in the western Bohemian town of Domazlice. His father was a fairly well-to-do lawyer. At first a top student, he became steadily more rambunctious (he lost two brothers, both sisters, his mother and grandmother during his youth), and in 1895 he was expelled from gymnasium, and all the schools in the Austrian monarchy, for insulting the ruling Habsburg dynasty. He attended school in Zagreb at his father’s behest, but came home after only half a year resolved never to subject himself to formal education again. Adamantly refusing to engage in any sort of “normal” life as well, he lived alternately in the Tyrol, Zelezná Ruda in the Sumava Mountains, Zurich, and Prague, never seeking permanent employment, burning through any money he had inherited and living off the occasional royalty or the sporadic largesse of his friends. He settled in Prague’s Smíchov district where he wrote his first work in 1904, The World as Consciousness and Nothing (published anonymously and at his own expense), in which he makes the case that “the world” is nothing but a fiction. His major inspirations were Berkeley, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the Czech symbolist poet Otokar Brezina. Klíma’s philosophy has been called radical subjective idealism, where all reality culminates in an absolute subject, and he developed this into the metaphysical systems of egosolism and deoessence (one fully understanding his substance and becoming the creator of his own divinity). These themes are also explored in his fictions, chief among which are The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch and Glorious Nemesis. His other major philosophical works are compilations of shorter texts: Tractates and Dictations (1922) and A Second and Eternity (1927). While only part of Klíma’s oeuvre was published during his lifetime, numerous manuscripts were edited and collected posthumously — stories, novels, plays, and a copious correspondence (it is estimated that Klíma, in a fit of disgust, destroyed some 90% of his unpublished manuscripts). And though his writing was marginalized and suppressed by the communist regime for many years it still managed to inspire a generation of underground artists and dissident intellectuals with its vision of one’s innate ability to achieve inner freedom, to pursue spiritual sovereignty through deoessence. As Jan Patocka put it : “He was our first, untimely absurdist thinker.” Klíma died of tuberculosis on April 19, 1928, and is buried in Prague. 

A welcome submission from Nathaniel Davis at ausmalen: No one reads H. C. Artmann, who described himself in 1964:

My homeland is Austria, my fatherland Europe, my place of residence Malmö, my skin color white, my eyes blue, my courage varied, my mood moody, my intoxications correct, my endurance strong, my concern erratic, my longings like the compass rose, in a flash content, in a flash vexed, a friend of cheerfulness, in principle sad, affectionate towards girls, a big moviegoer, a lover of the twist, a lousy swimmer, a marksman at the shooting range, careless at cards, a zero at chess, not a bad bowler, a master at battleship, shot up in war, cut up in peace, a hater of police, a despiser of authority, an emetic to the left, itching powder to the right, uneasy with parents-in-law, a father of children, a Judas to mother, loyal like Pilatus, soft like Puccini, laid-back like Doctor Ward, shy at first, energetic towards morning, evenings always thirsty, bored at concerts, happy at the tailor, baptized in St. Lorenz, divorced in Klagenfurt, in Poland poetic, in Paris a breather…[continue reading]

In English:—The Quest for Dr. U, Or, a Solitary Mirror in Which the Day Reflects (Atlas Press, 1993) [Atlas/Amazon]—Under the Cover of a Hat (montage and sequences) and Green-sealed Message (90 Dreams) (Quartet, 1985)—Skewed Tales (Atlas Printed Head series)—Sweat and Industry (Atlas Printed Head series)
and
—poems in The Vienna Group: Six Major Austrian Poets—the story “Blind Chance and Roast Duck” in Beneath Black Stars: Contemporary Austrian Fiction 
Pictured: back cover of Under the Cover of a Hat, illustration by Chris Long (from the 50 Watts post Stacks of Books Crushing Me)

A welcome submission from Nathaniel Davis at ausmalen: No one reads H. C. Artmann, who described himself in 1964:

My homeland is Austria, my fatherland Europe, my place of residence Malmö, my skin color white, my eyes blue, my courage varied, my mood moody, my intoxications correct, my endurance strong, my concern erratic, my longings like the compass rose, in a flash content, in a flash vexed, a friend of cheerfulness, in principle sad, affectionate towards girls, a big moviegoer, a lover of the twist, a lousy swimmer, a marksman at the shooting range, careless at cards, a zero at chess, not a bad bowler, a master at battleship, shot up in war, cut up in peace, a hater of police, a despiser of authority, an emetic to the left, itching powder to the right, uneasy with parents-in-law, a father of children, a Judas to mother, loyal like Pilatus, soft like Puccini, laid-back like Doctor Ward, shy at first, energetic towards morning, evenings always thirsty, bored at concerts, happy at the tailor, baptized in St. Lorenz, divorced in Klagenfurt, in Poland poetic, in Paris a breather…[continue reading]

In English:

The Quest for Dr. U, Or, a Solitary Mirror in Which the Day Reflects (Atlas Press, 1993) [Atlas/Amazon]
Under the Cover of a Hat (montage and sequences) and Green-sealed Message (90 Dreams) (Quartet, 1985)
Skewed Tales (Atlas Printed Head series)
Sweat and Industry (Atlas Printed Head series)

and

—poems in The Vienna Group: Six Major Austrian Poets
—the story “Blind Chance and Roast Duck” in Beneath Black Stars: Contemporary Austrian Fiction 

Pictured: back cover of Under the Cover of a Hat, illustration by Chris Long (from the 50 Watts post Stacks of Books Crushing Me)

[Submission by Rhea137]:

No one reads Nicholas Moore, son of philosopher G.E. Moore and a poet who in the 1940s was as renowned as Dylan Thomas, but who faded into obscurity through a series of misfortunes and “mysterious circumstances.” Later deemed an eccentric, Moore may have had his revenge on the establishment by pseudonymously submitting 31 translations of Charles Baudelaire’s “Spleen” to a contest in the Sunday Times judged by George Steiner. These translations, available on Ubuweb, brilliantly evoke a number of poetic voices and bring to light many of the thorny issues surrounding translation.

  • For more of Moore’s poems, see the September 1945 issue of Poetry

No One Reads Marcel Béalu

Author of The Experience of the Night.

A personal fave book (of both of us), submitted by Michael Cisco.

Wikipedia entry

Raymond Queneau

"His thoughts were hemmed in. One can only draw curved lines on the terrestrial sphere which, as they extend, forever meet with themselves. At such intersections we always encounter what we have already seen." - Queneau (via Frenchtwist)

(For more Queneau see, for example, this conversation at the Review of Contemporary Fiction or his One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets.

Edmond Jabès: Few Read Him, More Should

I discovered Edmond Jabès’ The Book of Questions  serendipitously. The son of wealthy Egyptian Jews, Jabès’ earliest literary friendships were with Max Jacob, Paul Eluard, and Rene Char.

The Book of Questions is the story of two young lovers during the Nazi deportations; not using any traditional narrative, it speaks of Jewishness, silence, dispossession, and writing.

As explained:

There seems nothing strange about the fact that ancient rabbis can converse with a contemporary writer, that images of stunning beauty can stand beside descriptions of the greatest devastation, or that the visionary and the commonplace can co-exist on the same page. From the very beginning, when the reader encounters the writer at the threshold of the book, we know that we are entering a space unlike any other.” - Paul Auster

And:

In the last ten years nothing of interest has been written in France that does not have its precedent somewhere in the texts of Jabès.” - Jacques Derrida, 1972

Few read him, more should.

Submitted by aperfectcommotion.

Mary Webb … nobody reads her any more

[ANONYMOUS READER SUBMISSION]

Author of Precious Bane and a couple other novels from the early 20th century.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Webb

No One Reads Violette Leduc

[SUBMITTED BY http://dailykvetch.tumblr.com/]

I came across Violette Leduc's Mad in Pursuit in a used bookshop, and bought it due to the mention of Simone de Beauvoir on the back jacket. I then found La Bâtarde at my university’s bookstore. Maybe she’s taught in a French Authors in Translation there; I didn’t investigate. I was just happy to find the book. But I’ve never seen her mentioned anywhere, and I’ve never heard anyone else reference her.

J. F. Powers

Submitted by Deirdre Donahue of USA Today. (Nice.)

No one reads J.F. Powers 

Some books (Amazon links):

 Cover by Milton Glaser, via Kyle K

Sadegh Hedayat

Sadegh Hedayat

No one reads Sadegh Hedayat (this post was a submission, but we all love this guy and may do a bigger post some day)

In English:

And:

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