Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Madness Immortal

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

This extraordinary novel is worth buying for the introduction alone. No kidding: you could read it and feel sated; you could read it and feel redeemed—so fine, so telling is the prose. The introduction (some thirty-seven pages short) offers not just a trenchant glimpse of the novel itself, outlining and extolling the story, as it does, in some of the freshest, most surprising language I’ve read in years, but represents a salient example of the deft, demiurgical criticism for which the poet, Randall Jarrell (see photo below), was well if less commonly known.

While titled The Man Who Loved Children, a facetious reference to the man of the house, the vain, happy, puritanical, self-glorious father, ‘Mr. Big-Me,’ Sam Pollit, it is unquestionably around his wife, the neurotic, brilliant, suicidal martyr of a mother, the ‘Great I Am,’ Henrietta Pollit née Collyer, that this astonishing novel turns. As Jarrell himself remarks in his introduction, “…the book’s center of gravity, of tragic weight, is Henny.” Indeed, remarkable as Sam and his daughter Louise are as full-blown eccentrics in their own stupendous rights, they pale in comparison to the “dirty cracked plate” of a woman and mother, the deeply, darkly, monstrously empathetic Henny who haunts Tohoga House:

She was an old fashioned woman. She had the calm of frequentation; she belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it: every fold in the curtains had a meaning (perhaps they were so folded to hide a darn or stain); every room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs, for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

To read of Henny’s life, to follow (with an eye to form and coherence) her useless existential flailing is to feel the fate of women and mothers everywhere, if in extremis ad infinitum—the smothered frustrations; the bleak, inchoate rage; the grinding daily theft of autonomy, of self. She is “one of those women who secretly sympathize with all women against all men; life,” she knows in her bones, is “a rotten deal, with men holding all the aces.” She—clam-and-oyster Baltimore belle, now wretched wife and mother—“shares helplessly ‘the natural outlawry of womankind.’” It is through the sieve of her experience, through the fractured lens of her madness, that the entire story is pulled. Yet to feel sorry for her, to reduce her to an object of pity, is simply not possible. “There is something grand and final, indifferent to our pity about Henny,” reflects Jarrell, at one point in his introduction, “one of those immortal beings in whom the tragedy of existence is embodied, she looks unseeingly past her mortal readers.”
Strange feeling, that.  
Set in “Tohoga House” in 1940’s Georgetown, D.C., an overgrown zoo of a place with its teeming Pollit family and their menagerie of rescued creatures, the ramshackle house and garden is an American Eden run riot and abandoned by God—Sam, with his gluttonous naming (or re-naming of everything and everyone) its exasperating Adam, the heart-scarred Henny, its remote and bitter Eve. 

The Man Who Loved Children is one those rare novels that seem to come out of nowhere—starkly original, immaculately, miraculously conceived. You will never read anything like it.  

(Title page of David Foster Wallace’s copy of The Man Who Loved Children.)

Christina Stead, a lifelong Marxist, was the author of over a dozen works of fiction and the recipient of the prestigious Patrick White Prize. She was born in Sydney Australia in 1902, lived in France and Spain and the United States, only to return to Australia where she died in 1983.

*The lead image is a study by Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti.

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Geoff Dyer is a Very Strange Person

Three by Dyer:

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence

The Ongoing Moment

Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It

I always laugh when I think of Eric Idle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying (of the Frenchman who is taunting King Arthur) "What a strange person!"  Though he's extremely smart and one of the most engaging writers around, when I read Dyer I feel that either he is a very strange person (and wouldn't be offended to hear you say it and would be great fun to get drunk with) or he has perfected a literary persona who could be a member of the cast of Fawlty Towers.  In my favorite of his books, Out of Sheer Rage, a memoir/biography/travelogue circling around the subject of how Dyer manages to avoid writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, Dyer channels a strange brew of Thomas Bernhard and Rodney Dangerfield--an intellectual malcontent who travels compulsively, is misanthropic and self-absorbed, hedonistic (Dyer often smokes weed and, despite his minutely categorized physical deformities, is never without a beautiful woman with whom to have lots of sex), untrustworthy, opinionated, and, come to think of it, not all that different from David Herbert himself.  It didn't occur to me until late in the book that Dyer was channeling Lawrence--a writer so self-absorbed, priapistic, and clueless about other people as to invite exactly the sort of parody served up by the witty Dyer. But even more than Lawrence--a writer I have never been able to warm up to, and whose books I read only for the sake of some grad school course--the presiding genius of Out of Sheer Rage is Bernhard, as here, in Dyer's send up of academic literary criticism:

"I burned it [the book of lit-crit essays about Lawrence] in self-defense.  It was the book or me because writing like that kills everything it touches.  That is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches.  Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch."

That's Bernhard: no complaint is worth making that can't be made three times.  And no grievance is ever anything less than fatal--compare Dyer here to Bernhard's Concrete or Gargoyles for the origin of a style that recognizes life as neither comic nor tragic but farcical. Dyer's riffs on where to live, on why he hates eating fish, on bathing at a nude beach in Mexico, on not speaking foreign languages, on his long-suffering girlfriend Laura, are funny in the sense of not servicing that annoying ironic urge of educated people to laugh at everything, but in the sense of Dyer's being willing to focus on how foolish we are when we can't control our contrary desires.  

Dyer is likely to make you laugh out loud.  As when he confesses he honestly can't even read Lawrence except for one or two of the most obscure of his travel books; Dyer would rather read Rilke than Lawrence any day, and much of the time the observations about Lawrence and on literature that Dyer makes draw on a sensibility that is Germanic and Rilkian rather than English and Lawrencian.  That is, a sensibility that is Apollonian rather than Dionysian, or formal rather than felt.  Dyer's ambivalence toward DHL extends to England itself: away from home on some distant "research trip" in New or Old Mexico, Dyer waxes nostalgic about England but can't think of anything he misses but the telly.  One of the best bits comes when Dyer leaves Paris and agonizes over where to live--he hates children so he's footloose and could live anywhere--he tries Rome but ends up, of all places, in Dullford, Oxford, land of academics and bores. But of course Lawrence loathed England, left early and didn't return, but remained an Englishman all his (brief) life.  Dyer's play with these facts of Lawerence's bizarre, restless existence (how did DHL ever get any work done?) are really quite brilliant: I'm rather surprised Dyer didn't perish of TB by book's end.  But then, the ending of Out of Sheer Rage is extraordinary, not to be given away here.

The most obvious influence on Dyer's work isn't Lawrence or Rilke or even Bernhard but John Berger (right), the remarkable novelist, art critic, travel writer,  and cultural critic.  Dyer edited Berger's Selected Essays and contributed an admiring essay to the volume (which I have been enjoying, an essay a day, for a month now).  Other evidence of Berger's influence on Dyer is the latter's The Ongoing Moment, a smart and incisive book-length essay on the photography of Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, André Kertész, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and William Eggleston.  Dyer looks at clusters of related photographs, including portraits of the photographers by their peers. His insights into the art of the photograph are impressive for an amateur--the book contains so many interesting ideas that I couldn't make up my mind which quotation to include here.  How about this:

"In Stieglitz, the will to power was both highly and insufficiently developed.  Highly developed in that he had to overcome others; inadequately developed because he was powerless to achieve the ultimate Nietzschean project of self-overcoming."

As someone who knows very little about the history of photography, I profited from Dyer's close readings of particular artists and their styles--for example how Dorothea Lang approached the composition of thematic scenes--her sequence of blind beggars, for instance.  Dyer also sent me back to books on Kertész and Walker Evans, photographers whose images of New York evoke a beautiful city that is now gone.

As for Yoga: well, the reviewers claim to have loved this collection of essays about Dyer's vertigo-inducing travels; I've renounced travel myself, so a vicarious adventure in Thailand isn't unwelcome.  But I didn't care for this book.  I made it through three or four of the "essays" (actually, loose bits of memoir) but quickly tired of the book.  My Dyer problem began when he tried to outdo Bruce Chatwin: What's the weirdest thing you've ever done in a foreign country?  How gross were the poor people?  How vile were the accommodations?  I do have sympathy for the traveler who hates everything about going places; when I used to travel I would find everything about my journey insufferable aside from the memories of the journey once I was safely at home.  While I enjoy Dyer as a travel writer, that isn't his strength--he's best when he's at home (wherever that might be) just being himself, thinking, paying attention, looking at pictures or people, complaining.  Anyway, my all-time favorite gonzo travel writer (who I want to plug here) is Redmond O'Hanlon (see if you can lay hands on In Trouble Again) who is, if anything, crazier than Dyer.  

If you haven't read Dyer, pick up one of his books. There's plenty of them.  I'm just starting on his fiction now and am looking forward to his book on jazz, But Beautiful.  Here's Dyer's workroom.  The red walls seem right: manic color for a manic writer.


 George Ovitt (May 21, 2014)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Little Nothings

The Waitress Is New by Dominique Fabre

Oh yes! I hated Sundays,
Because that’s the day when I think
And count the days past and to come

Pierre Morhange

The desire to live in Paris for an extended period of time—a month, a season—has been growing steadily in me for years. I don’t want to live there and work, I don’t want to make myself useful, I don’t want to make my mark on the city at all. What I want is to live there and do nothing but live—that is, wander the city on foot each day, haunt the museums and bookshops, and sit for untold hours in humble cafes, sipping coffee and wine, reading eccentrically, and merely (merely!) watching the people go by. I have a hunch I’d be good at it.

Of course, who wouldn’t like to spend their time like that? Parisians themselves have been doing it for hundreds of years, in the course of which they’ve created a café culture unlike anything else in the world. “You start at a café table,” writes Irwin Shaw, “because everything in Paris starts at a café table.” Indeed one can hardly think of Paris without thinking of this distinctly French institution—of Café de Flore, Le Cépage, and Les Deux Magots, of such illustrious café-goers as Picasso, Beckett, Sartre, and de Beauvoir, of Baldwin, Hemingway, and Joyce. For the café tradition runs deep: the first café in Paris, Le Procope, was founded by a Sicilian in 1702. By the time of the Revolution, just eighty-seven years later, Paris had some 3,000 cafes, 4,500 in the late 1840’s, 22,000 in 1870, 42,000 in the mid-1880’s, and around 30,000 from the late 1880’s to the start of World War I. Even today, in this age of smartphones, the Internet, and flat screen TVs, the café culture of Paris is alive and—thankfully—quite well.

The Waitress Is New is in many ways a story of French café life as one might find it on the outskirts of Paris today. Set in a modest café called Le Cercle, far from the city center, this spare novel follows the moods and musings of a lonely veteran bartender named Pierre who spends his days observing his customers, wondering idly about himself, and gazing out the window at the dreary winter streets. When he learns one day that the café must close its doors for good, his life is suddenly thrown into stark relief, a change that triggers in him a fresh accounting of his wan and lonely days. 

At a time when even American literary fiction is increasingly hostage to glibness, sensationalism, and plot, to the Pyrrhic dictates of popular culture and rampant corporate greed, it is refreshing indeed to discover that there is still room—still a publisher, still an audience, still a need—for such fiction as this. One more reason to love small presses like Archipelago Books. One more reason to love the French.

Dominique Fabre has published nine works of fiction. The Waitress Is New, translated by Jordan Stump, is his first novel to appear in English. 

Note: I (and my fellow writer, George Ovitt) like this press so much I have just ordered five new titles from their list, which I hope to write about in coming posts. See it for yourself: .

Peter Adam Nash