Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges

The Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) has been a perennial favorite of mine since I discovered the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Labyrinths in the late 1970’s, sometime after another fantastic and comforting book, the Bhagavad Gita, came into my youthful possession.  Among my most cherished and frequently consulted books are my first editions of the three large volumes of Borges’s selected fiction, non-fiction, and poetry published by Viking in 1998 and 1999.  While these are somewhat comprehensive, and collect all the most essential writings (although The Book of Imaginary Beings, alas, is missing), I still have a number of volumes of his works that predate this admirable effort.  In addition, I have other rather ancillary works by and about Borges.  This collection of talks given by Borges over seven consecutive nights in 1977 is one of these, and covers most of the author’s deepest preoccupations, from Dante’s Divina Commedia to the 1001 Nights, the Kabbalah, Buddhism, Nightmares, Poetry and Blindness.  It’s a short volume, and I have picked it up a few times over the years to read one of the lectures, only to find myself reading the whole thing through again.  My edition is the Faber and Faber edition of 1984; New Directions has an edition currently in print.

The metaphysics of these topics preoccupied Borges, and each is in some way a mask of infinity, as are mirrors, labyrinths, and libraries, three other preoccupations that he had failed to exhaust in his other writings but did not address here (at least not directly, though references to them are scattered about within these pages).  The fascinating thing about Borges was his ability to seamlessly meld the true and the fantastical in his writing, and more than once I’ve tried to run down a reference made in one of his pieces only to find that the source doesn’t exist, or (to give the author the benefit of the doubt) is maddeningly elusive.  I’m not sure there is much of that in these lectures, but you never know. 

Some of his assertions are charmingly antiquated, and there is no topic that Borges could discuss that did not redefine the topic through his lens – that is to say, Borges did not necessarily write of the Kabbalah as it exists in the scholarly world (despite obligatory reference to Gershom Scholem), but of the Borgesian Kabbalah.  While one can certainly say this about any author, Borges had created such a comprehensive and idiosyncratic metaphysical world view that each of his preoccupations informed and redefined the others in a holistic sense.  For his readers, Borges is as much defined by his literary worldview as Kafka is of his.  It is as if his blindness, which – according to the lecture here – progressed by degrees from birth, served to spur the creation and growth of an interior universe, defined by the simultaneously pedantic and imaginative mind of its creator.  In his lectures and writings, Borges gave us glimpses into that universe.  For the uninitiated, this would be a good introduction, and a springboard to his other works.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

If, as Dr. Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then HST had it in spades, for he stands to late 20th century America as Baudelaire stood to the Church – a depraved lover, but a lover just the same.  The excesses in this novelization of Raoul Duke’s wacky Vegas road trip are Rabelaisian in their scope, and that surely must have been the point of it all: to exceed by a wide margin the “extremes” of a Sin City born as an inevitable product of the unique and soul-confining American Protestant ethic, and to shine the light back upon the hypocrisies of the American Dream at the waning of the 1960’s.

It must be admitted that Thompson loved his country and despaired of it – doing so until that despair attained terminal velocity under the catastrophic administration of Bush the Lesser.  I remember reading a piece from one of Thompson’s later collections, and tasting that humorless hopelessness permeating the pages.  It was clear that the good Doctor was not long for this world that he saw lunging headlong into a shallow grave, a vision that the ascension of our newest (and most dangerous yet) demagogue to power would appear to confirm.

We still have, however, this early and shining testament to the man, his humor and his appetites, his keen insights made even through a drug-addled lens.  His was an expansive awareness, which I believe was innate and not dependent upon any of his numerous choices of artificial stimulation.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a rough and tumble read, with something to offend almost everyone.    It is, as I said, a Rabelaisian work, and if you get that (or even if you don’t), you can settle in and read it cover to cover multiple times with no diminishment of the sheer gonzo glory of it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin

Encompassing a missing-person mystery that isn’t much of a mystery, this 1995 novel is nonetheless an entertaining and intelligent work set amongst the surrealists of 1930’s London and Paris just before the Nazi deluge. Irwin is as at ease in this milieu as he was in the world of medieval Islam in The Arabian Nightmare (1983).

The protagonist is a minor painter with a Buster Keaton profile who, in the course of a Dadaist prank, makes the acquaintance of a conventionally attractive young English typist.  Our hero, Caspar, has a rather obscure (if not fictitious) background, littered with innuendos of an extraordinary youth under the wing of a mysterious guardian, and he seems to find young Caroline exotic in her ordinariness.  The other members of Caspar’s surrealist group, the Serapion Brotherhood (an Irwinesque name if there ever was one, harkening back to E.T.A. Hoffmann and referencing a similarly named Russian writers fraternity of the 20’s), are enjoying an extended adolescence, playing games with irrationality as they play peek-a-boo with their individual insecurities within the context of their grand surrealist gestures.

As the movement unwinds in the shadow of the approaching Nazi darkness, the Brotherhood scatters to the wind following a very short and dismally conceived orgy.  Caroline herself has suddenly disappeared, and in his search for her, Caspar’s obsession grows.  With the world tilting on its axis, he desperately seeks the “normalcy” of a quiet dull life as a painter of railway posters and Caroline, to his mind, is the key to this state of existence that he now desperately craves.

Robert Irwin is a talented author who blends historical personages (Dali, Breton, Paul Eluard, and a special appearance by Aleister Crowley) into the narrative quite effectively and with good humor.  Caroline’s disappearance isn’t much of a mystery for even a half-attentive reader, although a red herring early on suggesting that Caspar has somehow caused her demise has, by novel’s end, vanished without a trace.   While Caspar seems to bumble through the story like a little lamb lost (the Keaton reference seems to be an apt one), his adventures, acquaintances and sensations are quite enough to make this an enjoyable read.

Illustration:  Exquisite Corpse (1928) by Man Ray, Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, and Mas Morise

Friday, November 11, 2016


It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.

It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we'll be making love again.
We'll be going down so deep
the river's going to weep,
and the mountain's going to shout Amen!
It's coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on ...

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Library / Malvern Books

When my family relocated from Phoenix back to Austin in the spring of 2014, the unbelievably competitive real estate market compelled us to lease a home and put the vast majority of my library into storage.  The plan was to rent for one year, but that turned into almost two.  As a lifelong bibliophile, the absence of a library in the home was something I hadn’t experienced for decades, and it would be mild to say that I didn’t take it well.  I had downscaled my collection by a few hundred books before the move, and so I had something just approaching 9000 volumes in storage.  I found room for a small shelf in our temporary home, and here I kept a carefully selected collection of items consisting mainly of my old Quartet Encounters softcovers, New York Review Books editions, some of the more recent Penguin Classics, and a variety of smallish volumes from Pushkin Press, Wakefield Press, and the like. 

While these books did keep me occupied in the rare quiet moments as our family adjusted to new jobs, schools, etc., I would have to confess that a mild depression set in, occasioned mainly by the absence of the surrounding womb of books that I had grown to know and take comfort in.  I devised some strategies to boost my mood whenever I got too low.  I could visit some of the used bookstores in town, one of which was fairly close to our home,  I browsed Amazon for new titles, I read from the wonderful volumes with which I had stocked the small shelf, and, most therapeutic of all, I’d drive the short distance to the storage unit, that sad monument to lives in transit, roll up the metal door, and sit perched on a stepstool amidst the hundreds of cardboard boxes wherein my library was held in suspended animation.   I’d rummage through a box at random, pick up some interesting and somewhat forgotten book and spend an hour or two with it before the light grew dim and the heat of the shed became too overwhelming. 

It didn’t take long to unpack a few boxes onto the bookshelves that were (obviously) also in storage.  So now I had something to look at besides the stacks of light brown boxes, even though I barely had room to place that little stepstool.  I kept a wary eye for vermin (apart from the occasional black widow and some random crickets, my light treatment of the space for insects seemed to work adequately) and any sign of moisture.  Although my trips to the unit were far between, they did have a pleasant effect on my mood, and if by chance whatever item I picked up was engaging enough (and most, frankly, were – I’m a bibliophile, as I said) it came home with me for further perusal.  This led to another, small bookcase in the house where these refugees sat, along with the random new purchase. 

I did gradually come to realize that, yes, I could exist in a home without an overwhelming supply of books close at hand, although whether I actually wanted to was another question.  Still, finally the day came:  after looking at and falling in love with a succession of new homes, which we made generous offers on only to have them shot down, sometimes in the most insulting manner (is there a lower form of human being than a greedy homeseller in a ultra-hot market?), the right place came our way in March, with an actual, honest to god human being willing to sell it for a generous - rather than an obscene - profit.  There were two handsome rooms at the front of the house that would do nicely for a library, even though a remarkable number of books would, by necessity, have to remain, as they had in Phoenix, boxed in the garage.  Shelves were ordered, along with some decadent leather club chairs, a nice rug, and a lovely copper hanging lamp.  The shelves were built over a long weekend while my family was travelling, books began to be unpacked and sorted and, gradually, a library took shape – the kind of place where you could soften the lighting, pour a nice glass of wine (or better, Jameson’s), and spend an hour at the end of the day in a quiet house.  As Nero famously said: “Now I can live like a human being!”

I mentioned above my Wakefield Press volumes.  These are one of my more recent book enthusiasms, a selection of surrealist, Dadaist, and decadent rarities long out of print – or never before published – in English.  During my book exile, I scoured Amazon for these, greedily looking at forthcoming publication dates.  These are not the sort of thing you will find in Barnes and Noble, and even Austin’s most prestigious and eclectic independent bookstore, BookPeople, didn’t typically keep a generous supply on hand.   That changed a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I visited Malvern Books on 28th Street in Austin.  A clean, well-ordered shop, it stocks just about every small press that I’m interested in – even Green Integer, the worthy successor to Sun and Moon Press.  If you are a resident, or one of those tourists who love to visit Austin for the humidity and the traffic, you should do yourself a favor and stop by, say hello*, and buy something.

*The staff is actually friendly – at least they were on the day I visited.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun

Recently read, there is little I can add to 50 Watts’ enthusiasm (here) for Goose of Hermogenes,  one of those discards found in the dollar bin of my local bookstore, landing there because the casual browser failed to see its worth, a diamond in the dung. Steeped in surreal and occult imagery which seems to have come to Colquhoun as easily as breathing, it is a deceptively short text which calls for re-readings, a characteristic it shares with Gracq’s Chateau d’Argol and Kubin’s The Other Side (another work by a predominantly visual artist).

This is the relation of a young woman's trip to a dreamy and forbidding coastal island, a transitional space between the worlds, ruled by the narrator’s uncle. The uncle being an elusive but omniscient presence, an occult Prospero, the narrator is left to explore the secluded mansion and its environs.  There is a true sense of isolation and menace, broken by visions (a sea-Amazon arising, with an ancient underwater kingdom, from the waves; an arboreal bordello where her enslaved sisters service spirits of the netherworld), a tableaux of Tarot imagery, wherein her uncle has collected the symbols of the minor arcana, the “Museum of the Mosaico-Hermetic Science of Things Above and Things Below”, and the occasional presence of a mysterious anchorite who acts as her keeper and protector.

If your tastes run to the occult or surreal, watch the dollar bins for this little masterpiece, or order your own from a semi-reputable dealer.

Recently Read

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber.  A 1903 first person account of schizophrenia by a institutionalized German jurist, fascinating (if tiresomely repetitive) in its description of paranoia and hallucinatory obsession as Schreber describes the psychic assaults of supernatural beings that are transforming him into a woman. The oppression by both his imaginings and the asylum staff are palpable, giving a certain poignancy to the writing.  This memoir was influential on Freud’s thinking, misguided as it was (Freud never bothered to meet with the author in person, although such a meeting would not likely have been too difficult to arrange). The New York Review Books edition includes introductions, appendices and notes relating to Schreber’s case.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. A volume in the Millenium/Gollancz “Fantasy Masterworks” series, a novel of Faerie written in 1926 the protagonist of which, Nathaniel Chanticleer, may well put you in mind of another who puts comfort aside for the necessity of adventure, Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. One may also be put in mind of John Crowley’s enchanting 1981 iteration of the theme, Little, Big.

Currently on the Nightstand:  The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosch

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danielo Kis

The Serbian author Danielo Kis, in contrast to most of us, died too soon, in October 1989, of lung cancer.

The tales in The Encyclopedia of the Dead reexamine the relevance of  mystical legends ("Simon Magus", "The Legend of the Sleepers") and offer fantastical takes on 20th century realities in metaphysical imaginings on the theme of death, in Kis's estimation "one of the obsessive themes of literature."  His debt to Kafka, Borges and Nabokov (that trinity of the astonishing in modern literature) are clear, but his stories stand on their own merit.  The story "The Encyclopedia of the Dead" is a remarkable elegy for the life of everyman, an acknowledgement of the narrative significance in the lives of even the least of us.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Accumulated Wisdom

The last step that Reason takes is to recognize that there is an infinity of things that lie beyond it. Reason is a poor thing indeed if it does not succeed in knowing that.


Monday, September 10, 2012

The Shipwrecked Men by Cabeza de Vaca

A volume in Penguin's "Great Journeys" series, this is an abridgment of the Chronicle of the Navarez Expedition, which relates Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's nine year ordeal (beginning in 1530) among the natives of the Northern Coast of the Gulf of Mexico and what would become the American Southwest and Gulf of California.  Of the six hundred men setting out on the expedition in five ships, only three others were accompanying de Vaca when, sun baked and emaciated, he finally made contact with fellow Spaniards in Mexico.

In addition to being an anthropological document, there are also glimpses into the conquistador mindset, motivated by a brutal greed (it is a lust for rumored gold that leads the expedition astray in the first place).  He doesn't spare the details of the misery of the survivors, stalked by native archers and beaten mercilessly while on the verge of death, although the episodes of cannibalism brought on by the maddening pangs of starvation are passed over somewhat quickly.

While the narrative of travel is frustratingly vague regarding de Vaca's route, it is filled with details and observations regarding the native Americans he encountered, and must count as the earliest description of these people and their harsh lifestyle.  The Spanish suffered many depredations along the journey: de Vaca survived due to his adaptability and no small amount of luck.  He found a useful function as a trader among the various tribes, and eventually he and his companions acquired reputations as great healers. His sense of compassion - rare among soldiers of fortune- must also have served him well in his darker moments.

Along the journey, de Vaca formed a sympathetic respect for the natives he encountered, and, in addition to the more horrifying aspects of native life, he recorded their tenderness as well.  By the end of the journey, we see him surrounded by great flocks of followers, like some first century eastern Mediterranean wonder worker.  When he finally encounters his countrymen, he is shocked by their brutality and duplicity. Assured  by his rescuers that his followers will be better treated, they are enslaved and assaulted as soon as he is out of view.  He ultimately gains a victory of sorts when imploring that the King would be better served by the conversion, rather than the destruction of the natives.  It is a tender mercy that, in some instances at least, the cross triumphed over the lance.

Cabeza de Vaca's narrative is a testament of human endurance and adaptability under extreme circumstances.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner

Stranger Magic is a long and erudite meditation on the meaning and influence of The Thousand and One Nights in the West. Two significant touchstones for this work are Borges’ essay “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights” (in which Borges notes that “one of the chief events in the history of the West was the discovery of the East”), and Edward Said’s “cult bible” (Warner’s words) Orientalism, a critique of the false romanticism of the East by the West.

In tracing the influence of the Nights from its first Occidental appearance in Antoine Galland’s French translation (1704-1717) and through the iterations of Edward Lane and Richard Burton, among others, Warner harvests fertile ground. Within five separate sections, she explores significant themes interspersed with retellings of fifteen stories from the Nights. As the title of Warner’s book reminds us, The Thousand and One Nights is a book of magic, although for us in the Occident, much of its magic may come from the interpretive powers of its translators (the eroticism of Burton springs most immediately to mind, although we must bear in mind that much of the spice in his retelling is contained in the voluminous footnotes). Still, as a collection of tales, it is impressive, deriving from Persian, Turkish, Chinese, Arabic, Egyptian, Indian, and God knows what other sources, and with the influence of some of the tales reaching as far as Chaucer’s England. But what is at least as impressive as the tales is the ingenious frame story: it hardly needs repeating how Sharazad saves herself from beheading by the Sultan Shariyar by entertaining her sister (and, silently, the Sultan) with stories within stories, extending through the night, through days of silence, to be resumed the next night. The doom that hovers over Sharazad is due to womanly treachery suffered by the Sultan and his brother, treachery for which all women must pay as each night the Sultan takes a virgin bride only to have her beheaded with the morning light. It is Sharazad’s accomplishment not only to save herself, but to also bend the Sultan’s distrust of women. Surely, the early stories contain their share of female treachery, but over time, Sharazad subtly introduces the theme of the pure and noble woman, capable of great love and sacrifice, and in this manner softens the Sultan’s heart (the Sultan also discovers, at the end of his thousand and one nights, that Sharazad has borne him two children!).

(As a sidenote, I must relate the curious fact that two of the most popular tales of the Nights, those of Aladdin and of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, do not actually appear in the original texts of the Nights, but were added by Galland, based upon oral tales related by an informant, a Christian Arab from Aleppo, after his original translations proved so successful that a series of sequels was warranted.)

It would be exhausting to relate the themes that Warner examines in 436 pages (not counting another hundred or so pages of glossary, notes, bibliography, and index). She touches on the medieval legend of Solomon the Wise King, a large figure in the mythology of three religions, and inspiration for countless tales of magians and alchemists; flying carpets and other enchanted objects; the description and use of talismans; the supernatural djinn; Voltaire’s Orientalist tales; Goethe’s East-West Divan; Beckford’s sublime and underknown gothic novel Vathek; flying machines; Lotte Reiniger’s silent film The Adventures of Prince Achmed; Aladdin as holiday pantomime; and the Persian carpet which adorned Freud’s couch, and upon which his patients explored their own subconscious as the tales of the Nights awaken our own.

Stranger Magic is an intense book, and one demanding of attention. Obviously, some of the themes Warner flits off after will hold more fascination than others, but the possibilities of the Nights seem endless, and one can’t fault the author for taking her thoughts wherever they lead. Keep this one on the shelf next to Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion, and Penguin’s superb and exhaustive recent three volume edition of The Arabian Nights in the Malcolm C. Lyons translation.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The House of the Vampire by George Sylvester Viereck

The vampire in this 1907 novel is of the psychic variety, a successful and remarkably arrogant author named Reginald Clarke, who steals the best thoughts from the most talented souls around him by a kind of mind invasion technique. He makes women blush and men swoon, especially young Ernest Fielding, his current victim. Poor Ernest finds that this man whom he worships has somehow extracted from his very soul a masterpiece of literature, which he passes as his own. While the narrator asserts that "all genuine art is autobiography", this doesn't stop this psychic leech from exploiting the talents of those around him, leaving them empty, wasted shells. Ernest joins with his new lover, Ethel Brandenbourg, in a brave attempt to rescue what is rightly his from Clarke, but he will have to contend with Clarke's almost superhuman force of personality and well-developed sense of contempt for lesser mortals. Despite the turn of the century philosophizing on the nature of creativity, and a genuinely chilling denoument, I'd have to rank this entertaining novel as only a touch above middling.

Available free for Kindle for Amazon Prime members.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison

John Soane House, London
I have picked at this book for years, finally deciding to read it straight through back in 2010. I keep my edition with my architecture books, but it is just as much a work of aesthetics and literary analysis. Harbison's themes are imagination and artifice in the human environment. He begins - as does man's mythic history - in the garden, where man seeks paradoxically to replicate and control the wildness of nature. He moves through various literary environments, such as Holmes' Baker Street sanctum (and what it says about the peculiar English concept of home, and the British comfort of living ensconced in a "pre-Freudian past"), the architectural oddities of Walpole's Strawberry Hill and the John Soane house, the Italian scene from ancient Rome down through Ruskin's Venice, Hawthorne's Marble Faun, Corvo's grotesque Don Renato and Radcliffe's gothic Mysteries of Udolpho. There is a masterful extended summary of Colonna's bizarre Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Harbison looks at the deliberate alienness of Flaubert’s Salammbo and the strange inertia of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, which makes reference to one of Pater’s tweedy descendants:

It is a book of not doing and not being various things most people do and are, and is set in a remote time as a way of saying I cannot hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you, or I could not heed you so finally I can no longer hear you. The book shows nothing as pronounced as renunciation, but makes a drama of abstention, the things one has not done are more memorable, life lies in deliberately unused possibility which is a preserved youth. Pater resembles in this his descendant C.S. Lewis, another cloistered child-scholar, who creates even more emphatically than Marius a life based on a dreamed recollection of generalized childhood.

The concluding essays address the world in miniature, our attempts to circumscribe, and, in a sense, immobilize the human landscape and artifacts through maps, museums, and catalogues.

Plan of William Beckford's Fonthill Abbey
Harbison’s book is, in part, a thoughtful commentary on semi-obscure literature such as Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, Huysman’s La Cathedrale (“Like all converts, Huysmans supposes he does the faith a favor by becoming interested in it…”), and the aforementioned works of Colonna and Corvo. He also works in the obvious candidates, such as Kafka, Joyce and James. I have largely neglected to mention his no less impressive commentary on art and architecture, particularly that of Renaissance and 16th century Italy. Although Harbison’s arguments can induce some brow-wrinkling as one attempts to puzzle out his perspectives, as a whole, Eccentric Spaces is a remarkably engaging intellectual experience.