Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Some Books I Enjoyed in 2018

I love winters in my state (you'd hate them, so don't get any ideas).  And few things are as enjoyable as going for a long walk in the snow and returning home to a pile of good books, tea or bourbon (depending), Schubert's "Winterreise," and forgetting for a few hours the turmoil of the world.  

By the way, there's a very nice accounting of Schubert's great song cycle on a blog entitled "The Conversation" and posted by Jeanell Carrigan of the University of Sydney.  Here's a stanza from my favorite of the songs, Der Lindenbaum, one that reminds me of my own walks in the windy cold:

Die kalten Winde bliesen
mir grad ins Angesicht;
der Hut flog mir vom Kopfe,
ich wendete mich nicht.

[The cold wind blew
directly into my face; 
my hat flew from my head--
I  did not turn back]

Russell Platt, writing in the New Yorker, expresses perfectly the wonder of these simple songs:

"The seeming simplicity of 'Winterreise'—a piece that is constantly reinterpreted in performance, not held in sonic amber—is of a richer and more ambiguous type: it grows and changes over the years, just as the mind and body of the person who first encounters it. Its story, of a doomed lover who wanders aimlessly around the town where his former girlfriend lives, is both intimate and epic, literal and metaphorical. It’s a whole world, not just a neighborhood, or a village rectory."

"Not held in sonic amber:" I first heard the version of Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau in college.  As Platt understands, the songs grow on you, and with you--their melancholy, their simplicity.  Half a century later I still love D F-D's version, but have been increasingly drawn  to Ian Bostridge's interpretation. Give them a listen one of these cold nights.  


As for the books: not "the best" books of the year since my reading habits are eccentric and reflect the time I have to read (often not much), my shifting tastes and interests, and where each book leads me.  Also, most of the books I liked best weren't published this year, so as a guide to what's new this list is useless. But these ten, in no special order, were the books that meant most to me, that I thought about for the longest time.  

--Lily King: Euphoria (novel, published in 2014): Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson in an erotic tangle in New Guinea. Ms. King is smart as all get out, and inventive, and this is a really splendid book.

--Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd (novel, also 2014): A young women living in Harlem working on a translation of the (fictional) Mexican poet Geoffrey Owen; surreal, deeply literary, poetic. I'd bring up Savage Detectives, but won't. Ms. Luiselli has also written a wonderful book on the border "crisis"--Tell Me How It Ends, An Essay in Forty Questions.

Elif Bautman: The Idiot (novel, 2017): Picaresque story of young Harvard student besotted with both Dostoevsky and a young man from Hungary (whom she has never met). A completely enjoyable and witty book. Bautman's essays, collected in The Possessed are also a delight. I've handed this book to several high school students who are not ordinarily readers. And they read it!

David W. Blight: Frederick Douglass (biography, 2018): Definitive life of one of America's most important figures.  Full of interesting and previously unreported details (not all of them flattering) about Douglass's long and complex life. Blight writes like Bernard DeVoto or Richard Hofstadter--history as compelling narrative.

David Baker: Never Ending Birds (poetry, 2009): I read quite a bit of poetry this year. Baker was new to me and I spent several enjoyable days with his books (there's ten or more).  This was my favorite. 

Gerald Murnane: Barley Patch (novel?, 2011): Peter Nash has gotten me started on Murnane, the eccentric Australian unclassifiable writer of books about (among other things) not writing. How often do you find a writer who has no predecessors? I'm finishing up The Plains at the moment--it is quite extraordinarily strange.

Mathias Enard: Compass (novel, 2017): I haven't yet read Zone (a long, one sentence novel), but I loved Compass. Parts of the novel record the narrator's (he's a musicologist) attendance at a very odd international conference and reminded me of Rachel Cusk's Kudos. Central to Enard's writing is the "zone" of Europe that links West to East; much of Compass is about a European's experiences of Istanbul, Tehran, points east. Also music, opium, and obscure poets play a key role in Compass, all of which makes his book delightful. He also reminds me of Teju Cole and Open City--erudite and deeply engaging. 

Robert Kuttner: Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism (economics, politics, history, 2018): Hands down the best of many books about what threatens all of us right now. Kuttner gives us the history of a lost, mostly humane capitalism then shows how the New and Fair Deals were dismantled piece by piece beginning in the late 1960's.  This is a sad story that has been told many times, but Kuttner tells it in more detail, and more compellingly than anyone I've read. You'll want to underline the entire book.

Deborah Eisenberg: All Around Atlantis (short stories): Eisenberg came to my attention this year with the publication of Your Duck is My Duck, her most recent collection (there are seven). I started with her 1997 volume ('cause it was cheap) and loved every story.  Aside from the craftsmanship, the delicacy of feeling matched with deeply troubling undercurrents of madness and violence (think Alice Munro meets Joan Didion), I really like how Eisenberg surprises me in every story.  It's "now where is this unpromising premise going?" And go it does.  If you haven't tried this writer, please do.

Morten Stoksnes: Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean (adventure? craziness? nature? 2018): The most unlikely pleasure of the year.  Not sure why I even picked it up, but once I started, I couldn't stop. Shark-lore, unpronounceable names of fjords, colorful characters (it made me happy just to know that men do undertake adventures that don't involve Sherpas and oxygen tanks). And who doesn't love a book with sharks?

And the classics that I reread this year: The Trial, Don Quixote (in Edith Grossman's new translation), Eichmann in Jerusalem (it really is a classic), Culture and Anarchy (not as much, but the nostalgia for lost culture is heartwarming), Within a Budding Grove (it gets better and better), and George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, the book that made me first enjoy reading literary criticism. 

Books I didn't finish for various reasons: Ali Smith's Autumn; Middlemarch (again!); Jenny Epenbeck's Go, Went, Gone (a book I should have loved, but didn't); Louis Guilloux's Blood Dark (I will try again in 2019 to finish this masterpiece); David Harvey's Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic (I forget the rest; the only David Harvey I haven't penetrated).  Oh, and once again this year I failed to finish (I got to page 46) a science fiction novel (The Fifth Season).

Peace friends, and good reading in the New Year....

George Ovitt (12/18/2018)

Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Woman Alone

Stillpoint (a novel)

I apologize for this bit of self-promotion, but my excellent publishers at Fomite--Marc Estrin and Donna Bister--are among the many small literary presses that lack the resources of the corporate and amalgamated publishers.  They are Bosque Brewery (my local favorite) to MillerCoors--so I have to do a little advertising for myself.

This is my first published novel--not the first I've written, but the first that felt finished enough and decent enough to publish.  Is it any good? Honestly, I have no idea.

Like my collaborator Peter Nash, I prefer a certain type of book, one out of the mainstream of plot-driven, irony-riven, arch and hip books that largely comprise today's literary scene.  In general, just as a matter of taste, I am more likely to be spending my reading time with Gerald Murnane, Juan Jose Saer, Italo Sveno, Thomas Bernhard, Kenzaburo Oe, and Fernando Pessoa (all recent reads) than with Times bestsellers. 

I say this so that, should you try my novel, you won't be too disappointed.  It's a quiet little book that examines a single day in the life of a widowed woman in her seventies as she goes about doing the work she loves--translating the poetry of Leopardi--remembering her past, dealing with solitude, reflecting on a life well-lived. 

Here's a bit of it, and thanks for your patience:

“I am unyielding,” Elle spoke to the ravens mingled with crows that were coaxing sunflower seeds from the feeder she’d put up for the finches. Fra poco in me quell’ultimo/Dolore anco fu spento.  Elle smiles at this idea. No, the pain never dies, but dolore is so lovely, dolorosa, she can’t resist jotting this on the paper as well. The thought of Simon offering to carry the cross made her weep even now. Can you imagine it? No one holds a chair for you any longer, but this man took the cross. She had stood once in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, walked the Via Dolorosa, imagined the procession to Golgotha, or tried to—at certain times the mind simply shuts down, focuses on the trivial rather than on what is, in truth, too momentous to imagine. At Auschwitz it was the same thing; standing in Birkenau she had closed her eyes with the secular reverence required—no tears would come, though she had wanted, upon entering beneath the notorious gate—“Arbeit macht frei”—to summon tears, to faint under the weight of history’s cruelty, instead she couldn’t shake the chilling lines from Dante, “Through me you pass into the City of woe/Through me you pass into eternal pain,” nor could she resist imagining the Florentine poet and his guide crossing to Dis, even while silently reciting the verses to herself, intoning them like a prayer. Elle felt guilty and somehow unhinged—how could she let herself be so distracted? Must she be dithering with poems even here? And then, within the walls of the crematorium, she offered a prayer for the dead, Kaddish, but it was no good, the images of gas and fire, the smell of death, the cries of the dying, all leaked away in the dusty light that struck the floor, the odor of dirt and cement, the weight of her living body on a blazing hot day. Sufficient reverence, Elle thought, was impossible. All she had at her disposal were gestures. She crossed herself—when had she last done that—and hoped that would suffice. Dolorosa.
George Ovitt (12/16/2018)


Hiding Out in Lisbon

Like a Fading Shadow (a novel), Antonio Munoz Molina 

Munoz Molina read Hampton Sides Hellhound on His Trail--the history of James Earl Ray's pursuit and murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, after conducting a great deal more research, he produced a remarkable novel, Like a Fading Shadow.  Molina uses the fact of Ray's brief stay in Lisbon to create a detailed documentary account of Ray's life from 1967, when he first began to track King across the United States, until his capture in London in June, 1968, two months after the assassination.

James Earl Ray lived in a fantasy world.  To say he was paranoid is to understate the case--his daily life both before and after the assassination of Dr. King followed a pattern familiar to us from reading the life stories of his peers--Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Jr.--men who belonged to nothing but their fantasies, loners and losers, men who fixated on individuals whose existence either undermined or justified their own. Chapman thought he was Holden Caulfield, Hinckley lived (still does apparently) to impress Jodie Foster, Oswald developed an obsessive hatred for the racist ex-general Edwin Walker. None of these men, and certainly none of their deeds, were "banal." Hannah Arendt's point in developing the concept of the "banality of evil" in her book on the Eichmann trial was not to diminish the horror of murder or the evil of murderers but to remind us that evil is committed by men who are, in most respects, not unlike ourselves, ordinary persons whose lives are anonymous, even boring, up until the moment they commit their crimes. I remember how surprised I was when I read about Mark David Chapman--a nobody--and how Hinckley's psychotic fixation on a young movie actress reprised what was normal in American culture--love of celebrity and admiration for fame. 

Molina brilliantly captures the banality of James Earl Ray's inner life and the ceaseless turmoil of his outer life.  The nondescript man in black glasses and a musty suit wanders the streets of Lisbon, lies in bed in his cheap room, rehearses his lines and tries out new identities, watches his meager cash supplies dwindle, thinks of everything except the murder that propelled his escape from the United State. Molina is utterly convincing as Ray's voice, almost as his alter ego.

Molina approaches Ray's story obliquely, through the device of a fictional memoir.  The author--clearly Molina himself--travels to Lisbon to reinvent himself as a writer; it was in Lisbon, thirty years before, the the author found  inspiration for his first book (A Winter in Lisbon).  Molina layers his three stories--of himself in the present, of James Early Ray's brief stay in Lisbon, and of his own earlier visit to Portugal--in such a way that eerie parallels emerge.  All three strands of the story explore questions of truth-telling, of personal identity, and the cost of isolation. Most striking is the way in which Molina uses the idea of disguise, of hidden identities, in exploring both his own and Ray's story.  Ray, after all, was a pathological liar, a story-teller and shape-shifter of considerable skills, so much so that he was able, for a time, to convince the King family that he was innocent of the killing at the Lorraine Motel.  It takes little imagination to see that what Molina is doing in part is questioning the mechanisms of the novel itself, interrogating the idea of finding truth in falsehood, or perhaps asking if it is possible to create a literary form whose truth can be perceived through its disguises.

George Ovitt (12/16/2018)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Reading As Eavesdropping

                                                                                                                                                                     Gerald Murnane

In recent years I’ve come to more fully appreciate the fact that reading literature is an exercise in eavesdropping—between characters and others, between characters and themselves, a convention certainly well-known to most avid readers. Yet to my mind the literature I so love is even more so a conversation between writers themselves, from country to country, culture to culture, generation to generation, a discussion to which, if we are attentive, we can listen, as through a keyhole or a crack in a door.

                                                                                                                                    Javier Marías

In their writing, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov chatted restlessly with Shakespeare; Virginia Woolf with Leo Tolstoy; Gabriel García Marquez and Toni Morrison with William Faulkner; Marcel Proust with John Ruskin, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens; David Foster Wallace with Thomas Pynchon and Don Delillo; Jane Austen with Lord Byron and Anne Radcliffe; Haruki Murakami with Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Joan Didion with the great and inimitable Joseph Conrad. Even the case of a writer actively despising the work of another writer is part of the conversation, as when Nabokov said of Hemingway: “As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early 40’s, something about bells, balls and bulls, and I loathed it.”

Yet such conversations are not reserved for the great writers alone, but take place between all writers, every day, in every part of the world, whether their work has ever been published at all. For it is in conversation with other writers, especially with one’s favorite writers, that every writer finds her way. After many years of often dogged imitation of the work my own writer-heroes, of Proust, Woolf, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Camus, Nabokov, Gordimer, Abe, Oe, Oz, Bernhard, Sebald, Brink, Bellow, Lispector, Jelinek, Rulfo, Baldwin, Okri, Drndic, Niwa, Bolaños, Onetti, Soyinka, Benet, Krasnahorkai, Mahfouz, Saer, Énard, and Shalev, I have come to understand that my own writing is exactly and essentially that—a probing, restless conversation with other writers, a protracted, if de facto apprenticeship in language, character, subject, and form. For literally everything I have written I am indebted to the writers I love. 

                                                                                                                                                                    Nathalie Sarraute 

Presently I am at work on a novel that represents—more than anything I have written before—an explicit conversation with others writers, in this case with Gerald Murnane, Javier Marías, and Nathalie Sarraute. So intense is the conversation some days it is as if they are sitting here in the room with me, prodding me, joking, watching me work.
Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Woolf and the Great Subjective

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

No novel (aside from Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu) has had a greater, more lasting influence on my thinking and writing than Woolf’s 1927 paean to the griefs and glories of the subjective mind. Beginning just before the onset of the Great War and ending a few years after the war has ended, the novel is composed of three discrete glimpses of the Ramseys, a cultured middle class English family passing their summers in a modest house on the rugged coast of Scotland. 

At the heart of the novel is the bright, maternal Mrs. Ramsey whose acute, nearly omnipotent perspective defines the first and longest section of the book, setting the mold and tone for everything to come. As Eudora Welty writes in her introduction: “From its beginning, the novel never departs from the subjective… The interior of its characters’ lives is where we experience everything.”

Whereas in most novels the internal, subjective world of its characters is balanced (if not checked) by the evidence of an objective, material world, in To the Lighthouse the realm of wars and cities and trains is all but effaced, overwhelmed, by the force and primacy of the characters’ thoughts and impressions, that is, by the essential modernist problem of seeing. Writes Welty: “Inside, in this novel’s multiple, time-affected view, is ever more boundless and more mysterious than Outside.”

Part of the brilliance and challenge of this novel is the way that the narrative perspective switches without warning, often without the aid of conventional cues, so that the reader is swept along on the turbid current of the various characters' feelings. It is just one of the ways that Woolf blurs the boundaries of the world we know (or thought we knew) in a manner that reminds me of those traditional Japanese houses designed with moveable walls to create the illusion that inside and outside are one. She strove, in writing this novel, and after hours of tracking her own restless thoughts, to simulate the way an individual actually thinks and sees, the way ‘reality’ itself is constructed—a billion times a day—in the depths of every human brain. 

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cheer Up!

Good Books for Hard Times

Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Volume I (Thinking)

Lester J. Cappon (editor) The Adams-Jefferson Letters

Jim Crace, Being Dead

Don't despair.  Soon it will all be over.

Meanwhile, here is a book for the soul, a book for the mind, one to feed your nostalgia for bygone days, and one to cheer you up--at least you're not a corpse. I've been reading or rereading these books lately--an antidote to the news.

I can't think of a better book to feed one's soul than Huxley's classic collection of quotations, with extensive commentary, from the world's spiritual literature.  Published right after World War II, when, if anything, things were worse than they are now, Huxley's judicious anthology organizes the wisdom of the ages by topic from "That Thou Art" to "Contemplation."  All of the great figures are here, from William Law and Thomas Trahane to St. Catherine of Siena.  The best parts are those that Huxley writes himself, the links that make sense of the quotations, the reflections of a secular man on the world's religious traditions. Huxley, who saw so many things before anyone else (Soma! Mass Stupidity!), finds in the denominational squabbles of religion a great unifying message, the simple truth that if we will  let down our guard we can find meaning in the world. Huxley makes palpable for those of us who are routinely secular a spiritual sensibility that is comforting and non-dogmatic. His own modesty and life-long search for truth, the courage he displayed in looking inward, make Huxley the perfect guide to a philosophy that transcends the turbulence of the moment. Way better than self-help or "mindfulness" [when there's an app for it, it's phony] is the wisdom of genuine seekers and mystics and thinkers.

I have been reading Hannah Arendt steadily, with great pleasure, since the spring. Her prose is lucid (in her third or fifth language, depending on whether or not you count her Latin and Greek), her ideas stimulating, her boldness as a thinker deeply in contrast to the timidity typical of today's "thought leaders." The fact that she read everything and somehow worked into a view of the world that was intensely political while at the same time profoundly philosophical make Arendt the perfect antidote to the mendacious times in which we live.  The Life of the Mind is my favorite of her books. It's informed by her studies with and of Heidegger, Jaspers, and others--Merleau-Ponty, Buber, Husserl--but also by her abiding interest in politics. Arendt's biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, informs us that Arendt, though trained in philosophy, preferred thinking and writing about the vita activa

Reading Arendt, enjoying her seriousness, the clarity of her thought, is like swimming in cool, clear water--revitalizing for the mind and the body.

Though they served on the committee of five that produced the Declaration of Independence and though both were patriots determined to sever America's ties with England, Adams and Jefferson were bitter political rivals for nearly two decades. After the War of 1812 they once again became colleagues (if not exactly friends: their temperaments were too different), and commenced a remarkable correspondence that ended only with their deaths, which famously occurred on the same day, July 4th, 1826.  Adams was a prickly gentleman, prone to express  his New England rectitude with a forcefulness that contrasted with Jefferson's more courtly manners. Adams was pro-British, a republican but not a democrat.  Jefferson, the paradoxical radical and egalitarian, the slave owner who believed passionately in the rights of man, seemed to Adams to be a dangerous leveler, a tool of French extremism and an enemy of rational (that is, Federalist) politics.  They attacked on another mercilessly; when Jefferson became Adams' Vice-President in 1796 he actively plotted an invasion of England with his French colleagues and founded, with James Madison, a newspaper whose specific purpose was the undermining of Federalist policies.  Partisan politics!  

Yet, with their gradual reconciliation--traceable in these remarkable letters--one  finds that the two men had more in common than they supposed, especially during the period after 1814 when America was nominally a one-party nation but, in fact, bitterly divided in terms of both domestic and foreign policy.  While in the 1790's the two quarrelled over the writings of Thomas Paine, in the eighteen-teens they exchange notes on their readings in history, philosophy, and science in the spirit of retired college professors. 

Listen to this: pious John Adams writing to Deist Thomas Jefferson (Nov. 4, 1816): "We now have, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe Asia, Africa, and America?"

This thick volume, beautifully produced by The University of North Carolina Press, is full of such gems: "I cannot contemplate human Affairs, with laughing or crying. I choose to laugh. When people talk of the freedom of Writing Speaking, or Thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed." (John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, July 15, 1817).  Reading these letters takes one back, not necessarily to a better time in our history, but to a time when statesmen existed, when enemies could correspond with a sense of common purpose, and when those who led the country actually knew something beyond the limits of their own egos. 

The English author Jim Crace writes poetic novels that aren't like anything else you've ever read. The Gift of Stones, set in the neolithic age,  nonetheless manages to be a novel about storytelling and modernity.  In Quarantine, Crace recasts the story of Jesus's time in the wilderness as a fable about how ordinary life can cross paths with the miraculous and not even blink. And that's what Crace does in Being Dead as well.  Two corpses, husband and wife zoologists, occupy the center of this macabre but moving story of death and bereavement.  Crace works the details of Joseph's and Celice's life into what is primarily a story about being a corpse, a feast for insects and worms. I've read over some of the more forensic scenes several times both to get the willies and also to appreciate Crace's mastery of tone and style. His descriptions of the murdered pair--a long-married couple who go off to have sex in the dunes and are murdered for no good reason--decaying in the sun over the course of an interminable week, are medieval in their intense evocation of our dewy flesh. That writing about something so disturbing could bring so much pleasure proves once again that style and technique and talent can make beauty from any subject, however unlikely.

George Ovitt (10/3/2018)


Friday, September 28, 2018

Reading the World

New Selected Poems by Les Murray

I tend to read in fits. I find a novel I like written by an author from Spain, for example, and for the next six months I read exclusively Spanish novels, from those of Javier Marías,  Camilo José Cela, Juan Benet, José Luis Olaizola, Quim Monzó, and Carmen Martín Gaite, to those of Juan Goytisolo, Ana Mariá Matute, Max Aub, Manuel Rivas, Mercé Rodoreda, Belén Gopegui, and Enrique Vila-Matas. This is not suggest that I am an expert on the literature of this or any country, far from it, only that I have found this method an intense and engrossing way to read.

Of late, having chanced upon the keenly oblique novels of Gerald Murnane (novels that have redefined the way I think of the form), I have steeped myself in Australian fiction, particularly in the novels of Patrick White, Eleanor Dark, Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan, and Georgia Blain. In the course of this reading I have also delved into the poetry of some of the country’s better known poets, most recently that of the doyen, Les Murray, by way of his New Selected Poems, a collection that provides a generous sampling of the work of a poet described by Meghan O’Rourke in The New York Times as “A sui generis autodidact (he now suspects he has Asperger’s syndrome)  equipped with a fierce moral vision and sensuous musicality, he writes subtly about postcolonialism, urban sprawl and poverty and, in his most intimate poems, reminds us of the power of literature to transubstantiate grievance into insight.”

Here is a poem of his called “The Sleepout”:

Childhood sleeps in a verandah room
in an iron bed close to the wall
where the winter over the railing
swelled the blind on its timber boom

and splinters picked lint off warm linen
and the stars were out over the hill;
then one wall of the room was forest
and all things in there were to come.

Breathings climbed up on the verandah
when dark cattle rubbed at a corner
and sometimes dim towering rain stood
for forest, and the dry cave hunched woolen.

Inside the forest was lamplit
along tracks to a starry creek bed
and beyond lay the never-fenced country,
its full billabongs all surrounded

by animals and birds, in loud crustings,
and something leaping up amongst them.
And out there, to kindle whenever
dark found it, hung the daylight moon.

This poem, a favorite of mine for its wonderful strangeness, is called “The Images Alone”:

Scarlet as the cloth draped over a sword,
white as steaming rice, blue as leschenaultia,
old curried towns, the frog in its green human skin;
a ploughman walking his furrow as if in irons, but
as at a whoop of young men running loose
in brick passages, there occurred the thought
like instant stitches through crumpled silk:

as if he’d had to leap to catch the bullet.

A stench like hands out of the ground.
The willows had like beads in their hair, and
Peenemünde, grunted the dentist’s drill, Peenemünde!
Fowls went on typing on every corn key, green
kept crowding the pinks of peach trees into the sky
but used speech balloons were tacky in the river
and waterbirds had liftoff as at a repeal of gravity.

Finally, his poem “Antarctica”:

Beyond the human flat earths
which, policed by warm language, wreathed
in the fog the limits of the world,
far out in space you can breathe

the planet revolves in a cold book.
It turns one numb white page a year.
Round this in shattering billions spread
ruins of a Ptolemaic sphere,

and brittle-beard reciters bore
out time in adamant hoar rods
to freight where it’s growing short,
childless absolutes shrieking the odds.

Most modern of the Great South Lands,
her storm-blown powder whited wigs
as wit of the New Contempt chilled her.
The first spacefarers worked her rope rigs

in horizontal liftoff, when to climb
the high Pole was officer class.
Total prehuman pavement, extending
beyond every roof-brink of crevasse:

Sterility Park, ringed by sheathed animals.
Singing spiritoso their tongueless keens
musselled carolers fly under the world.
Deeper out, out star’s gale folds and greens.

Blue miles above the first flowered hills
towers the true Flood, as it was,
as it is, at the crux of global lattice,
and long-shod humans, risking diamond there,
propitiate with known laws and our wickedness.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Life Alone

The Wall (a novel), Marlen Haushofer

It isn't my intention to put you off this remarkable novel, but it is, hands down, the most depressing book I have ever read.  Depressing in a good way.  Haushofer set out to write a novel depicting the end of the world, the effects of debilitating solitude, and the hopelessness of the individual in the face of total meaninglessness--and she did. And what's worse (better) is how effectively Haushofer evoked not so much screaming-banshee terror but quiet despair. What has killed off everyone, and why?  We have as little idea as the nameless narrator.

There's lots of apocalyptic literature around these days.  The little of it that I have read feels either sensationalized and, frankly, disgusting (Cormac McCarthy's The Road), or preposterous (N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season).  The problem isn't plausibility--the world is ending after all. No, the problem with post-disaster books is that they don't take seriously the existential and psychological cost of living in the end-times. The characters in most of these books are victims whose lives are unimaginable struggles for survival. There's no provision made for reflection: around every corner is a cannibal, a carnivorous alien, or a another human who is (naturally) one's enemy.  In Eden there was scope for cooperation; when the Seventh Seal has been broken it's every woman for herself. 

I won't be forgetting The Wall anytime soon.  What happens when one wakes up to a world devoid of other human beings, with a transparent glass wall enclosing one in a valley whose outward prospect suggests that you are the only surviving human being?

Haushofer examines with painstaking care the claustrophobic daily life of an ordinary woman--she has no name--who has survived some kind of global disaster. Haushofer never lets on what has happened--where is everyone? Who built the Wall, and why? Like the woman, we operate wholly in the dark, and if we allow ourselves to fall into the conceit of the Wall a nightmare is opened to us: how does one cope with loneliness, with the daily grinding routine of survival?  The woman has a few companions--a dog, a cat, a cow--and in her ingenuity and sheer will to survive she reminds one of Robinson Crusoe, but without the human companionship of Friday.  There are no voices in the novel but that of the solitary woman, and her voice has the dull cadence and flatness of the dead.

Reading this novel requires one to think about solitude in a way that no other novel does. Hell may be other people, but there surely is a version of hell that is no one, not a human voice anywhere. Our woman survivor is incapable of reading--what's the point of information or art?--or of amusing herself in any way but with Tarot cards (a chilling idea), or of doing anything except sleeping and trying to stay alive. The state of nature so attractive to admirers of Ayn Rand and Rand Paul--well, here it is. Lusty independence, no government regulations, no one else's annoying needs to get in the way of the satisfaction of your own. Madness. I kept thinking of prison, but even in prison someone shoves food in the slot or tries to stab you with a toothbrush--horrible, but better than nothing.  

This is a deeply political book, a feminist meditation.  For what does our protagonist do but rebuild  civilization, remake a tiny world out of remnants of what has been lost. She creates order and routine, does chores, cares for the injured, buries the dead, in just the way that women have always done.  She's so depressed she can barely rise up from her bed, and yet she does so because otherwise the whole rickety edifice of her solitary civilization will fall to pieces.

And men? You'll need to read The Wall to find out about them. 

I understand there's a film. I can't imagine it. If ever there were an unfilmable book, it's this one.

George Ovitt (9/17/2018)

The Wall was published in German in 1968 and released by Cleis Press of Berkeley in 2012. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

New Books!

Hello. I am happy to announce the publication of two new books.

The first, What Happens Next, is the latest collection of poems by my friend and fellow writer, George Ovitt.  Here’s the link:


The second book is a novel of mine called The Perfection of Things. Here is the link for it:

As ever, thank you for reading our blog.

George Ovitt & Peter Nash

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Devil’s Biographer

One Life by David Lida

In Mexico there is a program called The Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program that helps train, pay, and advise U.S. lawyers in handling the cases of Mexicans nationals facing possible execution in the United States. Specifically, as described on The Marshall Project website: “One of the program’s chief purposes is to help defense attorneys construct a biography of the accused—to humanize them. Poverty, family dysfunction, and developmental disability are frequent themes in their clients’ lives. When presented as  part of a defense, such themes can encourage mercy among jurors and dissuade them from handing down a death sentence.”
This, essentially, is the background of David Lida’s remarkable novel, One Life. Lida, himself a mitigation specialist dealing with precisely such cases, tells the bracing, often eloquent story of a disaffected American named Richard, whose job it is to travel to Mexico, to remote, often desolate towns, to uncover the fractured life stories of his clients in the always desperate effort to complicate, if not actually temper, the judgment of prospective American jurors. Of course, humanizing Mexican immigrants—according them the basic dignity of a past, a family, a conscience, a dream—flies directly in the face of much American rhetoric today, a rhetoric fueled daily by our increasingly punitive immigration policies and practices, and by the racist vitriol of the president of himself.    

At the heart of this poignant, complexly wrought novel, is the case of a young woman, a Mexican national named Esperanza, who is due to stand trial in Louisiana for allegedly murdering her baby. Richard, an ex-novelist recovering from a recently failed marriage, has been hired by her lawyers to travel to Mexico to assemble, as best he can, the scattered pieces of her past as a means of rendering her anew—as a human being, as a woman of flesh and blood. This proves no easy task, as the people he meets are not only wary of him, a gringo, but often so taciturn, so beleaguered, so fatalistic in their view of life, that it is everything he can do to get them to speak to him at all. What unfolds is a story as harrowing, as trenchant, as it is hopeful, compassionate, humane. Writes novelist Daniel Alarcón, “David Lida’s One Life is simply revelatory. It’s Juan Rulfo meets Raymond Chandler, Roberto Bolaño meets Chester Himes. It’s the American justice system, exposed, and the inside story of the frenetic, cruel push and pull that lures Mexican migrants from their homes to the U.S.. I’ve never read a book quite like this, and neither have you.”

David Lida has also written a collection of short stories called Travel Advisory and a smart, street-level guide to Mexico City called First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, The Capital of the 21st Century, a city in which he now lives, writes, practices mitigation, and leads tailor-made tours of the various neighborhoods, markets, parks, gardens, restaurants, and museums. If you have never been to Mexico City it’s time to plan a trip there now. 


Check out his website:

Peter Adam Nash