Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Vampires, Curlicues, Lumps, and Insula Dei

I was already dyspeptic, feverish, out of sorts this morning when I came upon Michiko Kakutani's review of Karen Russell's new book, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Knopf).  I said to my dogs--"Guys, why does the lead book-chat person of the New York Times--arguably the most influential critic in America--devote her column to yet another book about the undead?"

"A vampire couple who live in an Italian lemon grove, a pack of girls sent away by their werewolf parent to be educated by nuns, a minotaur and his [sic] human family joining the great westward American migration . . . "

Not that I dislike vampires--not when the greatest actor of all time, Klaus Kinski, gave life (so to speak) to the dead in the 1979 Werner Herzog remake of my all-time favorite horror film, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, the genuinely freaky 1922 German Expressionist version of Bram Stoker's Dracula directed by F.W. Murnau, starring the positively blood-curdling Max Schreck as Count Orlok (I thought, a great name for a pug).  But these guys--Kinski (above right) and Schreck (below) were real vampires--they weren't pretty boys and nubile starlets with a dribble of fake blood on their chins--these two were the stuff of nightmares, all those odd-ball Herzog close-ups, and that limbic shadowland Murnau used to evoke the Freudian netherworlds of human fears come to life.  Kinski gave me the creeps in everything he was in--he looked like a demented David Bowie--and in make-up, hell, he was my id come to life. 

So: it's bad enough that even vampires have to be metrosexuals now, but then Ms. Kakutani goes on to criticize Russell's style--style?  I said to the dogs: "This is a book about vampires and we're worrying about style?"

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove shows Ms. Russell more in control of her craft than ever: the occasional curlicues of language that distracted the reader's attention [!] in her earlier books have been tamed in these pages, and the structural lumps in 'Swamplandia' have given way here to finely hammered stories that have an organic shape and speed." [my emphasis]

Organic speed? Hammered stories? I liked Karen Russell's Swamplandia! and even enjoyed the "curlicues of language"--that is, the style and voice--in which the book was written. (I like Karen Russell, okay?)  I mentioned to Rosie, our heeler, that language and "lumps" are the whole point--"What's this woman want," I said to Rosie, "who doesn't like a lumpy story?" What would Ms. Kakutani make of any random sentence from Kertesz or Bernhard or Robert Walser--talk about lumpiness!  I remember when MK trashed David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest for being too long, self-indulgent, inorganic. Why do we read if not to be scared out of our wits by great prose, by style and language that clots up like the blessed little formless doughballs in our oatmeal?  Do we want our vampires well-groomed, with two-hundred dollar haircuts? Boys and girls out of Vogue and GQ?  No: I want creepy Klaus, drooling out of the deformed hole that was his mouth, sniffing around his victims like a rabid dog--talk about lumps!

So I put the paper down, went to work, and as soon as I could, I reread a story by the great Dutch writer Nescio (Jan Frederik Grönloh, 1882-1961) called "Insula Dei."  This story is collected, with a handful of Nescio's other writings, in Amsterdam Stories, published by New York Review Books.  No vampires are to be found in this little gem of a tale about finding God in war time and trying to find meaning in memory:

 "You want to do something, make a difference. But these aren't the first eventful times I've lived through and if I'm granted even more years then with God's help I will most likely get to my third war. The silent course of things takes its silent, implacable course, the little man who is a hero today will tomorrow, when peace comes, be scolded in his stupid little job or maybe won't have a job at all and will turn back into the useless piece of clockwork he used to be." 

  Not all sentences go straight, not all writers eschew lumps, not all readers want their prose forged....Not all of the undead are vampires.  

Grönloh was born in Amsterdam, was director of a trading company, had four daughters, and wrote just a handful of short tales in what is considered, by those who know Dutch, to be the finest modern examples of that language.  The NYRB has a nice introduction by Joseph O'Neill whose Netherland (2008) is splendid--a great novel about New York City and cricket.         http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/amsterdam-stories/ 

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