The past couple of weeks I have been plowing through Literchoor Is My Beat, Ian S. MacNiven’s excellent biography of New Directions founder James Laughlin. Although Laughlin is the clear subject of this book, it also doubles of a sort of history of a certain era/school of publishing. This is a hugely inspiring, educational read, and it should be required for anyone who is involved with literary publishing.
A couple of the things I love about this book: first, all of the crazy facts that one discovers, or is reminded of, while reading it. Like, for instance, the fact the Laughlin—one of the most important readers in 20th century America—could only read out of one eye. Or, that Laughlin, and thus New Directions, has first crack at Lolita, but ultimately turned it down for fear of the legal reprisals that would have almost certainly appeared upon publication.
The second thing I love about this book is simply the opportunity to watch a generation of authors come together as part of the nexus that formed around James Laughlin. What one sees in this book are the very long and deep relationships he formed with his two principle modernists—William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound—as well as relationships with a number of authors who would appear in the following years: Tennessee Williams, Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Nicanor Parra, Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reading all of this, one gets a very strong sense of how literature is made—how the personalities coalesce into a movement, the lives of the individuals behind the iconic figures on the covers of the books, the very nuts and bolts of publishing.
This is an excellent read for anyone who cares about how our concepts of literature and literary modernism developed in the 20th century.
At Full-Stop, Ryu Spaeth has a pretty good essay on William H. Gass, jumping off from NYRB Classics’s reissue of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. The essay is a pretty good discussion of the fact that Gass inspired a lot of very passionate opinion, both good and bad, oftentimes in the same reader.
I’m decidedly one of the mixed Gassians. There’s no doubt that he’s been a sensitive reader and critic, and a person who has popularized a number of writers who might not still be read but for his critical energies. And as a novelist and a stylist he can be formidable. But there’s also a very troubling aspect to his prose . . . a tendency to show off that speaks of a deep lack of confidence, overheated anger, and (there’s no better way to put it) what seems to be an unhealthy obsession with his dick. There’s a certain adolescence to his books that a good friend of mind once insightfully (and perhaps generously) described as a very “Midwestern” aspect of his writing.
I do think that Gass forces you to reckon with his work, in the fullest sense that those words can be meant. There are many moral and aesthetic questions that his books force you to contemplate. They make you feel uncomfortable, deeply uncomfortable. And there is also much brilliance in them. As Spaeth rightly observes, “despite his reputation for being a nasty bit of work, Gass is very preoccupied with beauty.”
My favorite of his books might be On Being Blue, also recently reissued by NYRB Classics. Omensetter’s Luck is also regarded as perhaps his best book—I have yet to read it, although David Foster Wallace was a partisan of it, calling the book Gass’s “least avant-gardeish, and his best.”
Excerpt from Peter Turchi’s new book, A Muse and a Maze, at Tin House.
My wife has a fantasy, a desire she often expresses, which I feel certain she would be delighted to have me share with you.
“Let’s just float in the pool and drink gin and tonics,” she’ll say. “Let’s bake like lizards.”
We live in Arizona, where we have a pool, and where gin is sold in every grocery store, and where it is no challenge at all to bake like a lizard.
From this you might understandably presume that my wife is an aspiring alcoholic, or an idle and frivolous person. But in fact the -holic my wife is closest to becoming is a worka-; and as I am writing this, at eleven o’clock at night, she is standing in her study, playing her viola. She’ll do this for an hour, maybe longer; she does it virtually every night. My wife is not a professional musician. While she’s played violin or viola since she was eight years old, and she has played in any number of quartets and chamber groups and orchestras, the vast majority of her playing is not for other people to hear. For a while, when we lived in Asheville, North Carolina, she was a regular on the wedding circuit, making pocket money playing, as she cheerfully put it, “the same damned tunes. Pachelbel’s Canon, Handel’s Water Music, and the Mendelssohn. Most of the time people wouldn’t know if it was us playing or a radio.” She stopped playing weddings not because we became independently wealthy, not because she didn’t enjoy the other musicians, not, she assures me, because she’s become cynical about marriage, and not because “playing” had become work—but because the work had become tedious. . . .
The thing that jumps to mind when I read things like this is to wonder exactly how much more unprofitable Amazon would be if it didn’t manage to avoid paying so many taxes.
Mathias Enard’s mega-one-sentence-novel Zone is finally published in the UK, from Fitzcarraldo Editions.
While full stops are conscientiously omitted, there is no end of conventional punctuation: commas, colons, semi-colons, parentheses, hyphens, and so on. Whether this is a more authentic way of rendering thought than the use of conventionally punctuated sentences, or an unpunctuated Joycean stream of consciousness, or some other modernist method involving page layout or font or coloured ink, is arguable. Punctuation marks, according to Theodor Adorno, are guides to oral delivery, there to represent a lack of sound. One wonders what the audiobook . . . continue reading, and add your comments
David Bellos in The Guardian.
Georges Perec never made a secret of having written an unpublished early novel about Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man, but after his death in 1982, the manuscript of Le Condottière couldn’t be found. On leaving his perch in Paris’s Latin Quarter for a larger apartment in 1966, Perec had stuffed old paperwork into a suitcase for the dump, and put his manuscripts in a similar case. The wrong one got junked, and all Perec’s early writings disappeared. Or so he thought.
When I was tracking down everyone who had . . . continue reading, and add your comments
Ed Park, exit Amazon, enter Penguin. Incidentally, pretty much everything about this article puts the lie to Matt Yglesias’s insipid Vox blog post about how useless publishers are.
But now, in the latest setback for Amazon’s publishing aspirations, Mr. Park is leaving the imprint to join Penguin Press as an executive editor. His departure reflects the challenges that Amazon faces in a publishing ecosystem that largely views the online retailer as a rapacious competitor. Most bookstores — having been undercut by the giant retailer — refuse to carry books published by Amazon, a major hurdle as . . . continue reading, and add your comments
BEE on the novel John Williams wrote before Stoner, also a very good book.
Butcher’s Crossing is resolutely a western. However, when his publisher expressed a desire to state as much on the cover due to the popularity of the genre at the time, Williams said no. It may be one of the more literary westerns I’ve read, but it is a western – and a precursor to what Cormac McCarthy would do with the genre, especially in his blood-soaked and hallucinatory Blood Meridian, or what Robert Altman achieved in his frontier masterpiece McCabe & Mrs Miller. . . . continue reading, and add your comments
Interesting thoughts on how McCarthy revitalizes the 18/9th-century prose he is known for being inspired by.
Aside from his restrictive rationing of the colon, McCarthy declares his stylistic convictions with simplicity: “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” It’s a discipline he learned first in a college English class, where he worked to simplify 18th century essays for a textbook the professor was editing. Early modern English is notoriously cluttered with confounding punctuation, which did not become standardized until comparatively recently.
McCarthy, enamored of the prose style of the Neoclassical English . . . continue reading, and add your comments
Seagull is publishing 3 volumes of conversations between Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari. Volume 1 is now out.
And the NYRB has an excerpt from one of the conversations.
Osvaldo Ferrari: Many people still ask whether Borges believes in God, because at times they feel he does and at times that he doesn’t.
Jorge Luis Borges: If God means something in us that strives for good, yes. If he’s thought of as an individual being, then no, I don’t believe. I believe in an ethical proposition, perhaps not in the universe but in each one . . . continue reading, and add your comments