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.