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A guest post by Katrina Dixon from thespectraldimension.tumblr.com
No one reads Elspeth Davie. At least it seems that way. Even in Edinburgh, where the late Scottish writer lived and worked for many decades before her death in 1995, she is still overshadowed by her contemporary, Muriel Spark. Born in 1919 and writing from the 1950s on, her four novels and five short story collections are rare finds even among the secondhand bookshops, and the only book of hers in the Central Library on George IV bridge, though an excellent one, is The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books, the short story anthology published by Canongate in 2001. Five of Davie’s short stories were apparently read on BBC Radio 4 here in the UK in June of this year, but the stories were grouped (wrongly) as horror tales. Perhaps that was the only way a fan on BBC staff could wheedle her on to air.
Yet Davie was acclaimed in the 60s and early 70s, winning awards and settled in among the carefully selected roster at Calder Books that also included Samuel Beckett, Raymond Queneau, Alain Robbe-Grillet and (an already featured writer no one reads) Ann Quin. Robbe-Grillet’s world of people trapped by inanimate objects, or things, would shape Davie’s writing but she created her own take on it, just as she had her own voice. Neither elegantly stylish like Muriel Spark and her Jean Brodie nor provocatively experimental like Alex Trocchi, instead Davie was the quiet one to watch, setting reality at an angle, using the light and shade of Edinburgh, both literally and in the divided personality of the city, and adding a wry, dark but empathetic humour. Variously described as cubist, semi-surrealist, symbolist and impressionist, Davie, a trained artist and teacher of painting for several years, basically wrote with an artistic eye, picking up on the unsettling shades in the ordinary, honing the view with language and intensifying details within the seemingly banal and superficial.
Davie isn’t a difficult author though. She’s down to earth, accessible, funny. It’s just that her world is self-contained: recognizable but abstract. Hers is a world where people struggle with things: sometimes many things that suffocate them, like pots of paint in a school artroom; sometimes one tiny thing, like obsessing over an eyelash on a glass in a cafe. In struggling with things, her characters struggle with life: the boundaries of convention and environment; how to be free; other people. Communication in these surroundings is fractured at best, sometimes impossible, with characters isolated by their own oddities, unable to express what’s important: a lodger that doesn’t like eggs becomes a burden for a landlady; a young would-be couple can only connect when sitting surrounded by the silent visuals of dozens of TV screens in a furniture shop; a man sits stupendously immobile throughout a concerto, apparently ignorant both of an unconscious man being carried out by a crowd and of the farcical concord of music and human movement.
As Giles Gordon wrote in the foreword to The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books, above all Davie “wrote less about the anxieties of the individual than of the ways by which everyday life conspires against the individual’s modest ambitions, hopes and obsessions, and her stories remain entirely grounded in what she called ‘this day-to-day business of living, its mysteriousness and its absurdity’.” Grounded then, but extraordinary.
The Spark (1968, pictured)
Easiest to find:
The Man Who Wanted To Smell Books (2001)
Creating A Scene (1971)
The High Tide Talker (1976)
Climbers On A Stair (1978)
The Night Of The Funny Hats (1980)
A Traveller’s Room (1985)
Coming To Light (1989)
Death Of A Doctor (1992)
From the short story “Concerto”:
The disturbance comes from the middle stalls. Down there a man has got to his feet and is leaning over the row in front. He appears to be conducting on his own account. He too entreats, he exhorts. He too encourages something to rise. Now a small group of people are up on their feet, and just as the horns extricate themselves, this man who is conducting operations down in the stalls manages to persuade the group to lift something up out of the darkness between the narrow seats. It is a tricky business, but at last a man is pulled clear and comes into view in a horizontal position, his long legs and his shoulders supported by several persons who have started to shuffle sideways with their burden along the row. Everyone now seems anxious to support this thin figure. Each leg is held by at least three people and the arms are carried on either side by two men and two women. Someone cups his head. Another handles the feet. Even those who are too far away to be actually supporting any part of his body feel it their duty to stretch out a finger simply to touch him, as a sacred object might be touched in a procession. He moves, propelled by these reverent touches, bouncing a little in the anxious arms. It is almost as if he were bouncing in time to a great pounding of drums. For since the horn-players lowered their instruments the music has grown violent in tempo and volume.
From Davie’s first novel, Providings:
In the time it had taken for the jars to collect on his shelf Beck realised that there were two types of person as far as gifts were concerned. There were those who liked getting them and those who disliked getting them and who might conceive an aversion or even a positive fear towards those who insisted on giving. He was even more surprised and rather alarmed to discover that all along — perhaps from the very first present he had received — he had belonged to the second category. Or had he always known this about himself — dating from the first time his extraordinary luck had been mentioned? After that there was no present made to him by either parents or relations which did not have this word hooked on to it. Luck got in with the school-satchels made of real leather and the school cases, bound with extra strong metal clasps. It made itself felt with the pigskin stud cases and the tooled collar cases, and by the time he reached the silver-screwed trouser-press he was so lucky that his legs and arms felt heavy with it, as though plated in armour so highly polished it was visible to people for miles around. He began to envy unlucky boys. It struck him that they did not have to smile as he had to smile, or that in receiving some unpleasant gift or even no gift at all, they might be permitted to relax their faces in a hideous scowl. Best of all, they would be invisible to other people — not having the radiant quality that luckiness was supposed to give. By this time it was impressed upon him that even death was to bring luck, if he waited long enough, in the shape of the skilfully accumulated savings of his parents which were piling up for him in the bank; and on his 21st birthday his luck was so great that he temporarily lost the use of his legs and had to lie up for some time in his bed.
From the short story “A Visit To The Zoo”:
From that afternoon all the childishness of the zoo disappeared for me, and as the days went by its whole character changed; its cruelty and beauty, its strident colours and harsh cries gradually took the place of all those mild and comic impressions I had experienced there as a child. Now something savage and sad brooded far back in the darkness of the cages we passed. When I stopped to listen I would hear sounds I had not been aware of before — strange rustlings and whistlings from hidden birds, those unidentified croakings and hoots belonging rather to midnight than to noon; and sometimes there came a howl, heart-freezing, yet so distant that it seemed to come, not from the trim confines of the garden, but through the black arctic air and across miles and miles of snow-covered plain.
This is a guest post by Katrina Dixon from thespectraldimension.tumblr.com
A guest post on Miklós Bánffy by Scott of the seraillon blog
I feel odd to be writing, for a site entitled “Writers No One Reads,” about a writer whose works people actually do read – at least when they can find them. Overcoming that obstacle has become easier with publication this summer of an Everyman’s Library edition of Count Miklós Bánffy’s “Transylvanian Trilogy" of novels: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. Bánffy’s work – published in Budapest in the late 1930s but released in English only a dozen years ago (by Arcadia Books, in a run that quickly went out of print) – should now emerge from its cult following to recognition as one of the great works of the last century.
That it has taken so long for the trilogy to reach this point is a story in itself. After initial publication, the books were eclipsed by war and politics. Bánffy – a politician, cultural leader, and foreign minister of Hungary, denounced by the Nazis and out of favor with the postwar communist government as well – found his books ignored. Soviet dominance of Hungary ensured that they all but vanished. Only in 1982, as communism began to crumble, was the first volume republished, partly to offer insight into the historical roots of the contemporary political situation. The other volumes followed in the early 1990s to great acclaim.
Were it not for fortuitous circumstances, the novels might have remained little known outside of Hungary. Translator Patrick Thursfield, in his preface to the Arcadia edition, recounts learning about them by chance from his neighbor in Tangiers, Bánffy’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelin, who had begun an English translation consisting of loosely bound pages partially mangled by her cat. A collaboration began, and the resulting publication, with a foreword by Patrick Leigh Fermor, won the 2002 Oxford-Weidenfeld prize and accolades from around the world. Unfortunately, the books’ scarcity kept them from wide readership.
As almost anyone who has read the trilogy will attest, the work presents an enthralling, hauntingly lucid panorama of an empire in decline. The three volumes – their titles taken from the warning lines that miraculously appear on a wall during the feast of Belshazzar in the Old Testament – are set largely in Budapest and the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár between 1904 and 1914, and trace the fates of Count Balint Abady and his dissolute cousin Laszlo as Austria-Hungary ignores “the writing on the wall” and lapses into political mismanagement, corruption, pettiness, and abandonment of the principle of noblesse oblige that had governed class relations in a society late to emerge from feudalism.
With unusual clarity and occasionally scathing humor, Bánffy relates the commitment – or lack thereof – of those who were well-off towards those who were not. The trilogy’s depictions of the machinations of politics – both legislative processes and the nuanced array of mechanisms that maintain class and power – stand out as exceptional. A skillful sense of how to orchestrate a scene to evoke its political and social significances pervades the trilogy, a talent likely picked up by Bánffy during his work in theater and as a director of state political pageantry.
Through Balint Abady, Bánffy portrays the rare politician who accepts his privileges as part of a social contract that binds him to the rest of society. Abady represents a model of restrained indignation concerning the abuses of power, the laxity of the rich, and the failure to recognize the fragility of the nation’s assets: its political and cultural institutions, irreplaceable natural resources, and diverse peoples. With wisdom and compassion, Abady decries the decadence of his own short-sighted class while displaying keen understanding of the problems of the poor, the conditions of the lives of women (on issues of gender and sexuality, Bánffy shows disdain for conventions that restrict the independence of women), and the destructive prejudices directed towards gypsies, Jews, and the Romanians who work Transylvania’s forest holdings. Through Abady’s recurring visits to these woodlands, Bánffy conveys a profoundly atmospheric appreciation for these enchanting, priceless wildernesses, the descriptions of which stand out as one of the trilogy’s star attractions.
But it is the work’s modernity and immediacy that may resonate most strongly with contemporary readers. Bánffy’s far-sightedness communicates conflicts manifest in the modern world – not so much because he treats of universal themes as because he lances familiar political and social dynamics anathema to the survival of a culture: an emphasis on short-term profiteering and exploitation of resources; fractious, tribalist squabbles; the paralyzing self-interest of legislatures; an immersion in frivolous pursuits while serious ones are ignored; blind confidence that the good life for some, gained at others’ expense, will continue without consequence.
With this new edition, a literary event to celebrate, Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy will hopefully achieve the wide readership it so richly deserves. The new edition, while unfortunately omitting Thursfield’s preface and Fermor’s foreword, offers compensation through a new introduction from Hugh Thomas that provides critical biographical and historical information previously lacking, a chronology of Bánffy’s life, a genealogy of Bánffy’s family, and helpful maps. Those new to this work will likely find a masterful testimonial to one of the most significant and premonitory collapses of political power in the 20th century (The Guardian recently ranked the Transylvanian Trilogy among the ten best books – fiction or non-fiction – about the Austro-Hungarian empire). They may also find, as in those startling ancient Greco-Egyptian funerary portraits of Fayum, a surprisingly recognizable world staring out at them from across the years with an enrapturing immediacy and a frank, beseeching clarity that looks to the future and asks: And you?
Editor’s note: Discover many more neglected books at Scott’s blog seraillon
Photography of Banffy via
A guest post by Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise:
No one reads Pamela Moore, though that may be about to change as Chocolates for Breakfast is being reprinted by Harper Perennial. Moore was briefly a celebrity: Chocolates for Breakfast was published in 1956, when she was eighteen and a student at Barnard; she was trumpeted as America’s answer to Françoise Sagan. Chocolates is an astonishingly precocious book: though garishly billed as a sexual free-for-all, it’s actually a very controlled Bildungsroman set in Hollywood; it’s notable not only for the forthright way in which Moore presents adolescent angst but also for its sympathetic portrayal of gay men and women. The novel sold well and remained in print in Europe; it soon disappeared in the United States.
In the next six years, Moore published three more novels, The Pigeons of St. Mark’s Place (given the alternate titles East Side Story and Diana), The Exile of Suzy-Q (also called Teenybopper), and The Horsy Set, though none received the attention that Chocolates for Breakfast had. Published as paperbacks, they were given lurid covers and blurbs (“Loaded with sex,” said the Richmond Times-Dispatch about The Horsy Set) which belie the deadly seriousness of a writer who was writing letters to the New York Times about the ignorance of their review of Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. In 1964, at the age of 25, she committed suicide; she was at work on a fifth novel, Kathy on the Rocks, which remains unpublished.
Chocolates for Breakfast receives most of the attention, but Moore’s other novels are also worthy of attention, particularly The Horsy Set, published in 1962. Here, Moore uses the first person to describe the months around the eighteenth birthday of Brenda Stilwall, an aspiring show rider in the booze-soaked world of Westchester. Though there’s plenty of money, there’s no real glamor to be found, something clear from the first chapter where the virginal Brenda sets out her writing project and world view:
I mean there’s a whole area of life that’s muddy to me no matter how much I hear or read about it. So sometimes I listen to people and I don’t understand them and I know they’re talking from that mud; they’re talking about how it feels and tastes and smells, and I get dizzy thinking I’d know just what was going on if only I took one little step and sank into that sea of mud with them, because they’re all in it together. All the parents in Scarsdale, and I guess in Westchester and I guess in the whole world, are up to their hips in that mud and waving to each other and talking about how it feels. And I just watch them and listen with my mouth open like an idiot, standing on the edge and leaning out to that slippery, sucking muck of a sea, wishing I could look through the mud and see the bottom they’re standing on because the way it looks to me the world doesn’t have any bottom where people could plant their feet like the roots of a scarred old tree. (pp. 8–9.)
In a sense, The Horsy Set might be read as a nightmarish reworking of The Catcher in the Rye, published a decade earlier; but Brenda’s gimlet eye exorcizes Salinger’s maudlin daydreams for decadence. The mud that’s referred to is sex, of course; but it’s also a realization that the carefree bourgeois world in which Brenda comes to adulthood is ineluctably flawed. Brenda’s mother, a chorus girl who married a rich financier, divorces him to marry her riding instructor; the riding instructor tries bribing Brenda to talk her mother out of the marriage. Brenda has a thoroughly horrible Harvard boyfriend trying to make his name by writing a play in the style of Noel Coward and spending ludicrous amounts of money on upscale prostitutes. (Her mother writes from Reno: “Frankly, darling, Larry will make you a perfect first husband.” ) A lieutenant from West Point arrives at the riding stable to train for the Olympics and become an alternate love interest; he is mocked for being a hick. The drunken women at the stable, competing for the riding instructor’s attentions, are attempting to poison each others’ horses. Several people fall off of horses into manure.
Writing about Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke in the aforementioned note to the Times, Moore noted that:
This book is not pure fantasy; it is an exaggerated but fundamentally true picture of yesterday’s Poland, and as such serves to explain the Poles of today far better than the many journalistic studies of Poland.
Mutatis mutandis, she might have been talking about The Horsy Set and the emerging Americans of the 1960s. One aspect of the novel that might not be immediately obvious fifty years later is how retrospective its portrayal is. The action is set ten years earlier, at the close of the Korean War: the Army Reorganization Act had recently dissolved the cavalry. Richard Kar, the lieutenant, knows that his horse training is worthless, especially as one in three of his fellow graduates have died in Korea; making the Olympic team is of value only in keeping him from being deployed. Similarly, the horsy set is a doomed way of life: legalization of the Pill and The Feminine Mystique would radically change the role of women. Brenda finds herself in a $500 brothel on the Upper East Side; Harvard students are given a $400 discount. The numbers are absurd, but women are clearly a commodity to be bought and sold. Even the names of women are controlled by men: born Betsy Baroczy, she becomes Brenda Stilwall when her mother marries up and needs a name less redolent of immigration for her daughter; Brenda considers taking her boyfriend’s name if they marry.
But what stands out most about The Horsy Set is the unrelenting darkness it presents; in its depiction of depression, it prefigures The Bell Jar, which would be published the next year. Mud is never far from Brenda’s mind; she sees herself sinking further into a despoiled adult world where nothing can save her. This risks falling into existential cliché, but Moore’s heroine is interestingly anti-literary: she’s not going to college (“Mother says I’m not college material and would only clutter up the campus and there’s a professor shortage in this country.”). High school was uninteresting to her, aside from her senior term paper, “Training the Horse Trains the Rider”; but what she learns in the stable is the bestiality of those around her. An escape route is presented in Lieutenant Kar, who botches his Olympic trial so that he can be deployed by Germany, taking Brenda with him. The novel ends on this note of hope of salvation, but it’s clearly false: to escape, Kar has thrown himself into the mud.
A 1997 essay from The Baffler by Robert Nedelkoff presents a good overview of Moore’s life and work; her son, Kevin Kanarek, has put together a website on his mother’s work, as well as a biographical essay in the new Chocolates for Breakfast which goes some way to explaining the neglect that her writing fell into. An essay on the different editions of Chocolates for Breakfast is also illuminating: in the preface to the French edition of the book, which contained content expurgated from the American version, Moore explains the self-censorship she’d employed there:
It is difficult for us to offer each reader the unvarnished truth, especially when it concerns the essential conflict that exists between the principles of our way of life and the demands of the human condition. This conflict lies latent in all the hearts in our country and torments many of us. We turn away from this terrifying truth with what I would term a kind of collective bad faith. This is what led me to express myself with some reticence in the course of my initial work. But after having reflected on it, I felt obliged to try to arrive at the causes of this moral crisis that so afflicts the youth whom I describe in this book.
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.
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)
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.
Nobody reads George Egerton (born Mary Chavelita Dunne, 1859-1945). Born in Melbourne, and raised there, in New Zealand and Chile, she later claimed Ireland as her spiritual home. Early plans to become an artist were halted by the death of her mother: instead she trained as a nurse, and then eloped to Norway with a violently alcoholic bigamist, living there until he wisely died two years later. But it was in Scandinavia that her writing began to blossom—she was fascinated by Strindberg and Ibsen, and became both the lover and the first English-language translator of Knut Hamsun.
Egerton was an early contributor to The Yellow Book, and her first story collection, Keynotes, was a scandalous success. Punch lampooned her as “Borgia Smudgiton.” A leading and active exponent of the ‘New Woman’ lifestyle, Egerton (“Chav” to her friends, numerous lovers and various husbands) was especially good at rich, vivid and sometimes purple prose.
Ironically enough it was domesticity that ruined her talent. When she settled down as a wife and mother, her prose and popularity collapsed. Though she wrote plays to the end of her life, Egerton never recaptured the successes of her first two short books of stories.
From “Virgin Soil,” in her second collection, Discords, a new bride is being told the facts of life by her mother:
The bridegroom is waiting in the hall; with a trifle of impatience he is tracing the pattern of the linoleum with the point of his umbrella. He curbs it and laughs, showing his strong white teeth at the remark of his best man; then compares the time by his hunter with the clock on the stairs. He is florid, bright-eyed, loose-lipped, inclined to stoutness, but kept in good condition; his hair is crisp, curly, slightly grey; his ears peculiar, pointed at their tops like a faun’s. He looks very big and well-dressed, and, when he smiles, affable enough.
Upstairs a young girl, with the suns of seventeen summers on her brown head, is lying with her face hidden on her mother’s shoulder; she is sobbing with great childish sobs, regardless of reddened eyes and the tears that have splashed on the silk of her grey, going-away gown.
(photo via NYPL)
No one reads German polymath Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915). Yet during his prolific career his eccentric fiction, art, and poetry influenced a range of intellects, from architect Bruno Taut to writer Walter Benjamin. It’s a testament to Scheerbart’s prophetic vision that his fiction has attracted such lasting attention: he wrote mostly outer-space novels and utopian stories about things like glass architecture.
Beyond the quirky concepts, however, Scheerbart’s work has a revolutionary, philosophical zeal and the image of him that arises is that of a steampunk Ralph Waldo Emerson with imaginative powers equal to those of Thomas Edison and Jules Verne.
Some major university presses have published a handful of Scheerbart’s work in English. MIT Press brought out his glass architecture novella, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel, and University of Chicago Press published The Light Club (the full title is The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette), about an underground utopia created by a group of wealthy humanists. These are enjoyable books, optimistic, ironic, and, as the titles indicate, pro-feminist for their time.
The most recent Scheerbart in translation is Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel, and kudos to Wakefield Press (in Cambridge) for creating a wonderful illustrated edition of Scheerbart’s short novel about brainy humanoid worm-aliens, dreamers who float around and consider their place in the cosmos. Using the basic tropes of sci-fi, Scheerbart creates a sharp social satire of European salon culture, industrial ambition, and the groupthink of his day, including offhand musings like this about quantum mechanics and string theory that are startlingly accurate:
Lesabendio fell asleep. He dreamed of an enormous solar system—and it appeared to him like a system of millions of rubber bands that were continuously being stretched apart and then rebounding back together again.
My favorite Scheerbart in English so far is The Perpetual Motion Machine (Wakefield Press). The central question seems to be—is success or failure better for the imagination? Translator Andrew Joron did great work capturing Scheerbart’s wonderful range of raw emotion as he struggles to tell “The Story of an Invention,” as the book is subtitled. The diary of intense frustration hits innumerable highs and lows as Scheerbart tries, fails, and fails again to invent a real perpetual-motion machine (he and his wife needed the money). “I’m getting nowhere with my prototype,” he says. “This has not in the least hindered the outpouring of my imagination.”
(The book also shows off Scheerbart’s impressive skills as a draughtsman: it includes 26 schematic diagrams of prototypes for a real perpetual motion machine, which will prove humorous for anyone familiar with, say, gravity, or the concept of friction.)
Eventually, Scheerbart uses failure as a route to revelation, and revelation as an engine for belief in infinite creativity. The diary gives way to several short stories, including “The Astral Direction,” in which Scheerbart mentions “the significance of the Earthstar.” His failures have yielded a vision that “The Earth itself is a perpetual motion machine” and if his “perpet” (his nickname for a perpetual motion machine) could actually harness gravity’s power it would cause a “sublime revolution,” bringing about the “obsolescence of labor,” freeing humanity from “nation-states” and “militarism.” He imagines great changes ahead. “We are standing, then, before a cultural earthquake. A great many old arrangements will be undone.”
He was right, but unfortunately wrong about the nature of the impending earthquake—World War I would soon break out. The mass death would reveal how earnest Scheerbart was about his dreams for utopia and peace: Joron states in his introduction to The Perpetual Motion Machine that Scheerbart is said to have killed himself in a hunger strike protesting the war.
No one outside Australia reads Peter Kocan, and even in Australia his past often overshadows his literary achievements. In 1966, when Kocan was a 19-year-old factory worker, his history of mental illness came to a head with a determination to be remembered for murdering someone important. He chose Arthur Calwell, leader of Labor, the more left-leaning of Australia’s two main political parties, who was campaigning in the run-up to a federal election.
Calwell had just finished addressing a Sydney rally against conscription for the war in Vietnam, and was leaving in his car. When Kocan approached him Calwell began to wind down his window, assuming the young man was a well-wisher. Instead, Kocan produced a gun and pulled the trigger.
Australian politics and crime novelist Shane Maloney writes:
The bullet, fired from a sawn-off rifle, shatters the window of [Calwell’s] car, spattering him with broken glass and bullet fragments. His would-be assassin drops the gun and runs away. He is chased, caught and overpowered without further incident. […] The Opposition leader, in shock and bleeding from the face, has narrowly escaped death. Deflected on impact with the window, the bullet has lodged in the lapel of his coat. The gunman is declared criminally insane, sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated in a psychiatric prison. His victim sends him a letter of forgiveness and returns to the election campaign, in which national security is a major issue. When Labor is thrashed at the polls, he is compelled to cede the leadership to his younger, charismatic deputy. […]In the asylum, a fellow inmate introduced [Kocan] to the works of Rupert Brooke. He began to study literature, philosophy and history, and to write poetry. Two of his collections were published while he was still locked up, and his subsequent work draws on his experience of psychosis and imprisonment. [via]
"The shooting logic was in the air at the time," Kocan has explained, referring to the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem, John F. Kennedy, Hendrik Verwoerd and Malcolm X. "Unfortunately, we are creatures who pick up on what’s around. If it had been a different era, my actions may have been different. Insofar as I had any thoughts about what would happen after the shooting,I assumed I’d be cut down in a hail of bullets."
Released in 1976, Kocan continued to write poetry, and also began writing a fictionalised version of his life in the brilliant novellas The Treatment (1980), The Cure (1983) and the novel Fresh Fields (2004). These books have earned him numerous awards, including two from the News South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and one from the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards—all premiers who belonged to Calwell’s Labor Party.
The Social Workers (a poem by Peter Kocan)
Hyenas will encourage a stampede
To see which ailing zebra falls behind.
They’re nature’s social workers, and inclined
To feel most altruistic when they feed.
A guest post from Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise:
No one reads Charles Montagu Doughty. I first came across the man in Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination, still one of the best pointers to underappreciated writers and artists around. In “The Symbol of the Archaic,” he writes:
… the great unknown of English letters, Charles Montagu Doughty, who suspected all writers after Chaucer of whoring after strange dictionaries, who went into the Arabian desert (or “Garden of God”)—the most archaic act of modern literature—to save, as he said, the English language.
That salvation is still one of the best of books, the Travels in Arabia Deserta, though we have neglected his masterpiece, The Dawn in Britain, with its archaic theme and its archaic English. (p. 23)
Davenport’s précis is surprisingly accurate. Doughty’s best-known work is a 600,000 word account of his largely solitary travels in the Arabian peninsula starting in 1872. Ostensibly taken with an interest in archaeology, Doughty discovered very little. Dead set in the correctness of his Christianity and the falseness of Islam, he refused both to proselytize and to pretend to be Muslim. His prose reads like nothing else in English:
I wondered with a secret horror at the fiend-like malice of these fanatical Beduins, with whom no keeping touch nor truth of honourable life, no performance of good offices, might win the least favour from the dreary, inhuman, and for our sins, inveterate dotage of their blood-guilty religion. But I had eaten of their cheer, and might sleep among wolves. The fortune of the morrow was dark as death, all ways were shut before me. There came in a W. Aly sheykh and principal of that tribe’s exiles, he was a hereditary arbiter or lawyer among them, in the custom of the desert: the arbiter sitting by and fixing upon me his implacable eyes, asked the sheykhs of the Moahîb in an under-voice ‘Why brought they the Nasrâny?’ They said, ‘Khalîl was come of himself.’ (p. 551)
This did not go over immensely well with the reading public in 1884, but T. E. Lawrence was a fan of the book and brought about its republication in 1921. Andrew Taylor’s biography God’s Fugitive (1999) traces the life of this supremely prickly man who called himself Khalîl, focusing largely on Doughty’s trip to Arabia. Dover put out a two-volume edition of Travels in Arabia Deserta in 1980 which reproduces his illustrations nicely; a version abridged by Edward Garnett (sometimes called Wanderings in Arabia) can also be found.
Doughty’s later books are no less strange, though much harder to find, as none of them seem to have been reprinted. The Dawn in Britain (1906) is a six-volume epic poem presenting a new mythology of the founding of Britain. I have a copy of The Cliffs (1909), a chamber drama about the imminent danger of a German attack on Britain – Arabia made Doughty a patriot. The dramatis personae includes, among others:
SIRION, divine shining One from heaven; one of the Mighty Powers of the Universe.
YAMÎN and SHEMÔL; two strong heavenly Spirits, with Sirion.
TRUTH, (sunborn eternally on the Earth;) and a company of LIGHT ELVES with him.
JOHN HOBBE, Crimean veteran, now a shepherd on the Cliff.
TWO FOREIGN AERONAUTS, with their MACHINIST; that are Spies.
A LITTLE DEFORMED MAIDEN, (a ladys daughter, living abroad.)
MAKEPEACE, John Hobbes wife, (who does not speak.)
SOULS OF BRITAINS SLEEPERS.
GHOSTS OF ENGLANDS HERO-DEAD.
FOREIGN GHOSTS; (BUONAPARTE and THE MAID OF ORLEANS.)
One can’t imagine that this was ever performed. The text, in blank verse, sends one scrambling for the Oxford English Dictionary from Hobbe’s first speech:
Now in my once young veins, begins to creep
Dull age, rheums too. I moun, these lambing nights,
Lie out, in wind and wet, amongst the ewes,
In fold; that now I’ve pitched gin the heath-croft.
I feed them there of rapes, to give them strength.
I may not rest, as I wor wont of sleep;
So a wimble bores my brain, of busy thought:
Wherefore, what though ’t be chill for an old wight,
I’ve left them ruckling mother sheep; to pace
Awhile here to and forth, longs the sea-cliff. (p. 3)
And so it goes for another 250 pages. With Doughty, there’s always the threat of crackpottery. But his English is like that of no one else, and he should not be forgotten.
[This is a guest post from Dan Visel of With Hidden Noise]