Thursday, March 3, 2011

Melville House Announces Ingenious New Award

It's not hard to put this award into perspective. Independent booksellers of all sizes and interests voting on their favorite independently published books of the last year is exactly the perfect kind of alternative to the big-top infused/conglomerate publishing dominated world of literary awards.

Owners and staff alike will be able to vote side-by-side to determine what book will win the first honor. This is the kind of dialog that has not existed in this country for, well, ever.

That's not hyperbole. Way back in time, when I read Jason Epstein's somewhat Munchausenesque memoir, Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future one particular aspect struck a younger DA (who was then just beginning to dream of opening a bookstore). Epstein talks about editors at Random House calling local bookstores to see what's selling. Not how their books were doing. Not to market a new book. They called to see what trends they were missing or what writing was making its mark. Perhaps that's a little romantic, but I can tell you honestly that such a call would have been equivalent to actual sustenance when I was sitting behind the desk at Wolfgang Books.

So this is a legitimate opportunity for booksellers not only to deliver substantial feedback but also take back a lot of their say in the critical process.

Here's a selection from the press release from MobyLives:

We’re proud to announce the 2011 Independent Booksellers Choice awards — the first award for indie publishers judged by indie booksellers.

Wait you say… another book award? Why?

Because indie booksellers know books best. They are the people who guide readers past the flavor-of-the-moment titles to the hidden gems. No Amazon algorithm recommendation or Oprah book club pick can compete with your local bookseller when he or she says, “You might not have heard of it, but this book is going to blow your mind.”

There are so many independent books that simply wouldn’t survive without the passion, hard work, and erudition of the independent bookstores. It’s not a glamorous or financially rewarding profession, but when it comes to finding brilliant and surprising literature, no one does it better.

There are enough book awards judged by critics, columnists and random faceless committees. Booksellers are the ultimate readers—it’s time for their voice to be heard.

Important things to note about the award.

Melville House titles are not eligible, as they are the hosts.

The voting is done via email, right here.

While a brainchild of Melville House, and funded by MHP in its inaugural year, the Indie Bookseller's Choice Award is destined to be handed off to, well, booksellers at a later date.

So this is not Melville House's award, but rather one given by Indie booksellers. The good folks in Brooklyn are just footing the bill.

The reality behind the award is this: Melville House is championed by indie booksellers and so they wanted to come up with something that will be uniquely theirs (booksellers). The fact is anything good for indie stores is good for Melville House and so do not think for one second that there isn't reciprocity here. It's just of that warmer, fuzzier kind.

So, all you booksellers out there ought to get voting. Early and often and other cliches.

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best "Book" Of 2010: The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights translated by Malcolm C. Lyons & Ursula Lyons

The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights. In Three-Volumes. Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons. Introduced and Annotated by Robert Irwin. Fiction. Trade paperback. Penguin Classics. Specific edition information for each volume are listed at the bottom of this post.

Illustration below from the Edmond Dulac edition.

Shahrazad and Her Captors

This, your majesty, is an example of the wiles of women.

-from the 602nd night.

In his essay “When Fiction Lives in Fiction” Jorge Luis Borges describes what is perhaps the most miraculous moment in all of storydom. He writes that on the six-hundred and second night of her perilous marriage, Princess Shahrazad begins to tell a story that so eerily mirrors her own that she soon recognizes it to be precisely that: the tale of her life and predicament as wife of the vindictive King Sharyar. Just as she must tell a story every night to entertain her cruel king so too does the princess in her story have to entertain her own homicidal lord. In fact the fictional princess is telling the exact same stories Shahrazad has already told.

The horror invoking implication is of course that the fictional princess of Shahrazad’s story will at some point arrive at a six-hundred and second night of her own and begin to tell a story of yet another princess, who in turn will craft another equivalent tale ad infinitum.

Borges goes on to explain that Shahrazad realizes the eternal nature of this particular night’s story and quickly changes the tale to escape the infinitely repeating narrative. It is a whimsical notion, this endless story, born of the freely romping nature of the work Borges is referring to. The Thousand And One Nights aka The Arabian Nights is perhaps the only work of literature where such an incident could occur.

Alas, it does not occur. Borges made the whole thing up. A reading of multiple translations will quickly inform you of Borges’ sleight of hand. Out of all one-thousand and one nights the six-hundred and second is easily among the most ordinary.

The Arabian Nights is a massive work of literature comprised of Egyptian, Persian and to some extent also Greek and Roman stories. The sources it draws upon are as diverse as the Buddhist Jataka Tales, Aesop’s Fables, and in particular two works of classical Indian literature: the fables of the Panchatantra and the extremely ponderous Ocean Of The Streams Of Stories. The latter is perhaps the most similar as it was composed in 11th century Kashmir to entertain a queen every evening and maintains a similar frame-story style of one narrative leading to another.

In a sense there is no definitive edition of the Nights in any language. Some of the tales date well over a thousand years in age and others seem to have been supplemented as time went on, with some of the stories arriving as late as the nineteenth century. Despite all these variations and esoteric influences most of us have at some point encountered a version of the Nights. The names Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Baba have enjoyed a lasting appeal in popular culture. Shahrazad, via one spelling or another, has lent her name to things as diverse as a species of lily and a Rimsky-Korsakov symphony. In other words: they’ve left their mark. What of the actual tale that constitutes the framework of the Arabian Nights? It isn’t nearly as well known.

A cuckolded and thus now vindictive Arab King by the name of Sharyar has set about the practice of marrying a different girl every day, deflowering her in the evening and then executing her by first light. This is the only way he believes he can avoid the shame of infidelity. As the King’s country is slowly depleted of nubile women the King’s vizier is having an increasingly difficult time hiding his beloved eldest daughter, the very learned Shahrazad. Much to the chagrin of the vizier, Shahrazad not only marries the King but does so quite willingly. She believes that through the power of knowledge and story she can change the newly wicked King back into the wise ruler he once was.

The bold Shahrazad does this by every night telling a tale that amazes and delights her King. At daybreak she avoids execution by leaving the story she is telling unfinished and in turn the enraptured King spares her life so he can hear the completion of the story the next night. Much to his eternal surprise he finds yet another story emerging from within the previous and yet another night required for its completion. And so on and so on. It is because of this framework of story leading to story, all of them filled with magical beings, fantastical palaces and the occasional flying carpet that the Borgesian version of the six-hundred and second night seems an appropriate invention.

Italo Calvino once characterized Borges’ invention (lie) as being something that, “he did well, because it represents the natural enchassement of the tales.” Calvino’s point is not to excuse the offense of the lie but rather praise the Argentine’s imagination and to imply some form of inherent malleability within the Arabian Nights narrative.

The idea to inventively quote from a classic of world literature is perhaps something more than imaginative. It is technically also reprehensible. In the case of the Arabian Nights it is just another event on the timeline and par for the course. Shahrazad may have been clever enough to spin one-thousand and one nights worth of stories to free a kingdom, but her stories have only proven fodder for a litany of literary cons. Borges being the least.

Throughout its history the Arabian Nights have been coaxed, hoaxed and flat out manipulated by translators for various personal reasons. The earliest “complete” translation was the very liberal rendering made by the Frenchman Antoine Galland in the early eighteenth century. Galland’s translation sought to moralize and adapt the Nights to correspond with the attitudes and morosophy of the Sun King’s court. Essentially Galland borrowed from the Arabic classic to fashion a series of edifying fables meant to affirm the convictions of the courtly matrons who sponsored his writing. The gallant court of Louis the XIV was a lucrative one for fabulists like Galland, Charles Perrault and Jean de La Fontaine. In Galland’s inventive hands the untapped resource of the Arabian Nights became a goldmine.

The first English-language translations followed Galland’s closely but again were altered to fit the readership of a different time and place. These works typically took on more prudish storylines and contained a clearly defined Christian moral to complete each tale. In some cases, as in James Ridley’s 1764 collection Tales Of The Genii, the works were not even translations so much as fully realized Christian fables dressed up in exotic oriental costume. Under the pens of these “translators” the sages of the Orient parroted Christian doctrine and the foibles of the unlucky heathen became mere proofs of the pitfalls of improper living.

In the mid-nineteenth century a somewhat full-scale English translation was rendered by Edward Lane. Lane’s translation emphasized a didactic approach to the Orient of the Nights, with footnotes and appendices that sought to bolster the reputation of Lane as an Orientalist as much as it sought to edify its readers. Because of this purpose, Lane’s translation is loaded with somewhat pedantically inflated language meant to serve as educational (impressive) to lay (gullible) audiences.

Brief aside: Lane went on to marry the eight-year old Egyptian slave that he had procured, though some say she was gifted to him, under the auspices of guiding her education.

Self-gratifying motives poorly hidden on his sleeves, Lane’s translation was yet heavily expurgated along lines of Christian propriety. The practice of bowdlerizing the Nights would continue for some time.

That is until the most famous translation of the Nights arrived at the end of the nineteenth century. Infamous, perhaps would be more apropos. Sir Richard Burton’s 1885 unexpurgated translation is titled The Book Of the Thousand Nights and One Night and it is one of the most controversial translations of any kind. It is also largely considered the standard literary edition of the Nights in English. That is until now.

There is a key word in the last statement. The Burton translation is a literary one. Read: Inventive. Like his predecessors Lane and Galland, Burton utilized the Nights as a springboard for his already grand reputation. In Burton’s case it was an infamous rep, replete with accusations of murder, deceit and sexual deviance. Unlike Lane, Burton had no pretense of hiding these illicit deeds and even relished them to some extend. Burton also never sought to soften the sexuality of the Nights. In fact Burton, who once proudly announced to a priest that he had committed every sin in the Decalogue, took his greatest liberties with the text by expanding on these scenes. He was after all a self-styled expert on all things sexual, represented by his work translating the Kama Sutra and the Islamic love manual, The Perfumed Garden.

The image most have of Burton is influenced by the many hobbies and supposed areas of expertise the great Victorian possessed. Orientalist, soldier, traveler, hypnotist and translator of secret manuals of lovemaking seem a hyperbolic recipe for a Will Ferell movie and yet all were subjects Burton at least dabbled in. The eastern influenced aesthetics of Victorian England coupled with Burton’s larger than life adventures create a seemingly ideal translator for the bawdy mysticism of the Arabian Nights. This last notion, that of the Burton Nights being an ideal marriage of translator and text is one that has persisted for over a century.

Truthfully, that notion needs to be laid to rest and thanks to a brand new translation by Malcolm C. Lyons it can be. Published by Penguin Classics, Lyons impressive three-volume (nearly three thousand pages) edition of The Arabian Nights is a landmark achievement and solves many of the difficulties readers have faced with previous translations. In a sense, the Nights have been treated honestly for the first time.

Gone are the self-serving footnotes of Burton and Lane meant to impress the reader with their knowledge of obscure Oriental traditions. So too have the Christianized endings been avoided, not to mention the courtly fashions of Galland’s Sun King. Thankfully absent from the Lyons translation is anything resembling Burton’s bizarre epigrams and footnotes. In order to foster an academic impression of his translation Burton included some of the oddest footnotes and tedious variants of song lyrics piled one atop the other.

Of Burton’s footnotes perhaps none is more bizarre than the one explaining why debauched women prefer taking moors as lovers because of the size of their members. While that may seem like a very entertaining footnote, it is yet a racist non sequitur and goes on for a good page and a half. Just to be clear on something, debauched and moor are Burton’s words. Not to mention the use of the awkward word “fuddle,” which Burton uses for all instances of sexual intercourse. Used in a sentence? After fuddling the Queen the King went to sleep. He quickly fuddled the Princess while the Genii slept. Snicker if you will, but after two-thousand pages of this you will long for something a little more direct.

I’m not even going to touch the twenty-odd page discussion of pederasty in Arab cultures with which Burton concludes his translation.

The Lyons translation is everything that its forebears are not. It is earnest, professional and devoid of self-aggrandizing pedantry. Not to mention that it is also a joy to read. This is especially the case when you consider that both the Lane and Burton translations can seem overwrought if not purposefully confounding. The adventure and romance of the Arabian Nights is finally all its own. No longer is Shahrazad a parrot of a translator’s motives or their patron’s fashions.

Worth mentioning is the fact that the Lyons translation is a “full” rendering of the same source manuscript from which Burton created his edition. Also worth noting is the fact that it contains many of the supplemental stories that have enjoyed lasting fame in Western cultures of which the tales concerning Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba are among. These stories are not actually a part of any primary source editions of the Nights but instead first appear collected in the Galland edition. Most of them are derived entirely from other works. The inclusion of these reader favorites is important to note as some critics of the Lyons translation have deemed it overly academic.

There is even one criticism of the Lyons translation that cites the weird spelling of Shahrazad used by Lyons throughout his translation as a chief turnoff. They go on to say that they prefer the spelling Burton uses, not to mention how perfectly paired Burton and the Nights are for each other.

Interestingly enough both Burton and Lyons use the same spelling, which brings it all full circle and once again poor Shaharazad lives at the mercy of ill intentions. It would seem that the Arabian Nights are fated to suffer at the hands of charlatans, hucksters and that most ruthless brand of reciprocity found in the more soiled alcoves of the academe. Perhaps it is the immensity of the work that makes it susceptible. They’re betting that you won’t ever actually read the massive work because, well, they themselves have not.

Hopefully this too will come to an end with Lyons’ translation. The Arabian Nights is a collection of tales that are at once sublime and risqué, bawdy yet profound. The fantasy world Shaharazad creates for her King is one that needs no embellishments and truthfully suffers under any would-be attempts to do so. It has taken many more than one-thousand and one nights to happen, but at last Shahrazad's brilliant wiles are now free. Not just from the whims of her mad King but also the ill-intentions of her translators.

Oh, and the six-hundred and second night as translated by Lyons? Boring as ever. The version by Borges is still the best.

The Lyons Translation Of The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights. Volume 1. Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons. Introduced and Annotated by Robert Irwin. Fiction. Trade paperback. Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780140449389. 982 pps. $20.

The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights. Volume 2. Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons. Introduced and Annotated by Robert Irwin. Fiction. Trade paperback. Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780140449396. 878 pps. $20.

The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights. Volume 3. Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons, with Ursula Lyons. Introduced and Annotated by Robert Irwin. Fiction. Trade paperback. Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780140449402. 855 pps. $20.

Additional thoughts and background information can be found in the comments section.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Ten Best Books of 2010: Six Novels In Woodcuts by Lynd Ward

Lynd Ward's wordless novels take the stage just before the final post of the year, which will be Friday morning when I offer up my opinions about what I believe was the landmark literary event of 2010. I know... You simply can't wait.

The piece I've written for the final and best work of 2010 will be delivered without introduction. I will probably take January off to get a good start on the exciting projects I'm working on for MHP, so Friday's post may have to ride for a while. I will of course welcome conversation and discussion in the comments section. Hopefully the piece will foster some. Personally I've been extremely upset (no really, I'm actually kind of mad) at the total lack of attention surrounding its publication. So we can all get fired up together in the comments section and talk all January long.


Basically this is the last of my smarmy introductions for 2010. Please take a second to try and savor it. Good? Good. Now let's talk about graphic novels.

Six Novels In Woodcuts by Lynd Ward. Edited with an Introduction by Art Spiegel. Graphic Novels. Two-Volume Hardcover in slipcase. Library Of America. 1526 pps. ISBN: 9781598530827. $70.

I always try to open with a quote from the work I'm going to talk about. Not to exclude the graphic arts from this proud (if inconsistent) tradition I will include an opening quote from Ward's first novel:

Lynd Ward is the father of the American graphic novel and one a handful of illustrating pioneers that forever changed the perception of the form. As if that was not enough, the six individual wordless books that comprise Six Novels In Woodcuts have had a lasting effect on the American literary and cultural landscapes. That's right. I said literary.

All one need do is identify the austere, alienated man in Lynd's artwork to realize this. Aesthetics as diverse as Disney's and Allen Ginsberg's took note and borrowed from Lynd's iconic imagery. It is largely due to Ward that we associate darkly colored deco illustration with the alienation of man and the jeopardy of his "soul" in the modern world. The city is a terrifying place for the innocent or naively pious. Yet beyond it's concrete enclosure lies a wilderness capable of either suckling man at its teat or preying upon his frailty. It is an indiscriminate process and one at least worthy of respect, if not fear.

That is not to say that Ward is some overly sober realist. The illustrations shown throughout this post are taken from God's Man, the first of Ward's wordless novels. It is a Faustian tale of a starving artist who struggles to find even small success, let alone basic human needs. The arrival of a magic paintbrush lifts his career and spirits, albeit temporarily. After looking over these images I can't help but wonder if they might not have proven somewhat influential to Thomas Wolfe when he crafted his own darkly stirring essay on "God's Lonely Man."

Yes, as in Travis Bickle's soliloquy in Taxi Driver.

Think of any illustration you've seen accompanying the writings of Franz Kafka. Now look to those of Ward and you'll have to admit the comparisons. One of the books Ward is most famous for illustrating is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (to the left) and really, deco and Gothic are nearly perfect interchangable aesthetics, at least when it comes to book illustration. This is evidenced in the illustration set below this paragraph, which was made by Fritz Eichenberg for Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

Ward's influence on the likes of Eichenberg is obvious. So too is it obvious in the likes of Alan Moore, whose writing for graphic novels often echoes the tragic world rendered in Ward's stark illustrations.

The format for the Six Novels is a big part of their success. By placing a single image per page Ward forces the reader to spend quality time with each. This is reinforced by the large scale of his images. Not to mention the evocative plot unfolding.

This contemplative style is something that can be lost in the more common graphic novel format of the comic strip. Even other wordless gems like Andy Runton's Owly series still utilizes the strip format (most of the time at least). By placing a single image, large and evocative, upon a page Ward nearly shoves the reader into a contemplative state. We behold the image and scan it at least twice, regardless of how little detail there might be at times. With Ward, like any great storyteller, it is often as much about what is not being shown as what is.

Inconsistently in print and never available together at once, the Library Of America has done culture a great service by bringing these treasures back, together and in a wonderful format. Don't let the seventy bucks intimidate you. You want this in your brain and on your shelf. And in any case, how else would you package an American pioneer of the graphic arts?

I thought so too.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Ten Best Books Of 2010: Descartes' Devil by Durs Grunbein

A pause for the holidays, of course, and I hope you've excused me. To make it up I've assembled the first of a trio of book reviews that have not appeared on the DA to date. The first of which is of the charmingly brilliant study of Descartes by German poet, Durs Grunbein.

Grunbein, in my humble estimation, is one of the best living writers. It is rare to find a writer in any era, but especially these times, that so effortlessly moves from poetry to philosophy. I should rather say his writings live in the legitimate nexus of those supposedly different forms.

Earlier this year I reviewed Grunbein's other publication from 2010, The Bars Of Atlantis and paired that Front List title with his only other English language work, Ashes For Breakfast. The latter is the first (hopefully of many) collections of Grunbein's poetry. At long last Grunbein is making his way into English and we should all be the better for it. A sort of more earnest than postmodern version of Leopardi, Grunbein ranks in my estimation among the truly rare living minds.

Imagine an being composed of Italo Calvino, Joseph Brodsky and, well, Renes Descartes. If you can picture that then you can understand why this exemplary book lands itself on my top 10 list.

So... Let's have at it.

Descartes’ Devil: Three Meditations by Durs Grunbein. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc. Philosophy. Hardcover. 136 pps. ISBN: 9780979582943. $22.95.

What if not only the world and what we know of it were the work of a genius malignus, a divine deceiver, but our perception of it as well? Such an assumption would take one to the brink of madness, Descartes feared, like the madness of those who claim that they have heads made of clay or pumpkins or glass. But does this in itself make it false? Thus speaks radical skepticism – a blast of doubt of such explosive force that it blows the distinction between body and mind to smithereens.

-Descartes’ Devil, pg. 98-99

This idea of a reality administered by some powerful trickster is clearly more than just a Cartesian nightmare. Durs Grunbein is somewhat generous in his above estimations. A world of violent bad faith, manipulation and relentless cunning would be quotidian for the alcolytes of this cruel entity that Grubein dubs the genius malignus. Please, no mention of the concept of the corporate entity, advertising and politics. No, I’m actually begging. Please, I don’t want a head made of glass or pumpkin.

Sad jokes dispensed with, it is precisely this malicious entity that provides Grunbein with the material to create not just one but two poetic metaphors for Descartes’ legacy, the restoration of which is the driving point of this book. One is a foe and the other a brilliant ally and yet they appear on one coin bearing the same old name. The Devil in Grunbein’s ingenious book becomes both an indomitably personal Platonic daemon – the relentlessly assertive spirit of “I” – and in turn also the malevolent intelligence manifest in a legion of superstitious doubts.

In Grunbein’s estimation “cogito, ergo sum” becomes a sort of archangelic sword and shield bequeathed to us by Descartes and with which man can battle effectively the demons of doubt. The championing of our internal “I think” is obviously something Descartes is famous for but Grunbein goes forth from this firm ground and preaches a lurid but detailed (perhaps akin to the Dutch masters contemporaneous to Descartes himself) portrait of the man himself. He invests in Descartes’ achievements a grandeur that at first seems outlandish or extreme. Descartes the father of science. Descartes the father of poetry. Descartes the father of modern man. Descartes the liberator. These are tall orders for any gospel, let alone a secular one.

No one is more aware of this difficulty than Grunbein himslef. He writes:

Attempting to understand Descartes is like diving into a sunken emblematic world. It contains the ground plan of our modern technological intelligence. But who was the man himself in whom this world congealed and crystallized into living allegory?

-Descartes’ Devil, pg. 35

The title of Atlantean is among Grunbein's highest praises. In his collection of essays, The Bars Of Atlantis the sunken world provides him with a sort of ideal place towards which to travel and in turn here, with Renes Descartes, he conjures the notion of Atlantis to inform you of a concept of Descartes as ideal human.

One gets the sense that this great German poet was nearly moved to tears at several points throughout the process of his slender philosophical biography of Descartes. His frustration with Descartes' detractors is obvious and provides him with an unstoppable sense of purpose throughout the three meditations. At times Grunbein seems on the verge of hyperbole and yet in his singular way he grounds his arguments with solid conceptualization made along poetical and philosophical lines. Something, Grunbein argues, that is exactly as the great Frenchman did himself. He goes so far as to even dub Descartes the father of modern poetry.

Descartes, perhaps more so than any other Enlightenment philosopher, has a host of modern day opposition. In some circles he is made out to be a paragon of all that is wrong with science, a Descartes-as-Devil if you will. Like Aristotle, perhaps even more whimsically (thus more charming?), Descartes was slightly prone to filling in the grey areas of a theory in an offhand sort of way. Okay, so he would just flat-out make up the stuff of fables to close loops and tie off ends. More so than this unforgivable whimsy, it is the supposed austerity of Descartes that motivates Grunbein the most.

In Descartes, modern science has a figure that can be easily pointed at and scorned. His rigid Catholicism coupled with his icy love of anatomy and dissection, not to mention his unnerving devotion to experimentation (Descartes is supposed to have engendered his lone child, using the convenience of a servant woman, in order to study the gestation processes). All of these create a sort of ideal monster of science, a sort of inhuman marriage of dogma and cold analytics. One look at a portrait of the great philosopher and this notion becomes even more perverted as we see a certain cunning mirth playing on his pointed visage.

Durs Grunbein sees it differently though. In the Descartes' fine features he sees the man who charmed women and delighted in their company. In the supposedly smug smile he sees the cocksure grin of Descartes the accomplished swordsman and soldier. In the story of his daughter and the servant woman he spies a lone moment of fragility in the otherwise rock-solid existence, where the death of his beloved child at five-years-old derails the supposedly machine-like Frenchman.

Instead of scorn, Grunbein would have us owe Descartes for the creation of modernity itself. Taken to its ends we find Cartesian philosophy laying stolid groundwork for modern neural science, or perhaps more accurately it provides a stolid foil for the new wave of theory. Beyond such lofty science we find an even more solid and somewhat shocking extrapolation from Cartesian philosophy, namely that of the body as expression of the mind. Spinoza may have slain Cartesianism as it was but in an even more profound way it lives on in the cause and effect of Sartesian existentialism. The French existentialist's notion of life within the ensemble of choice suddenly seems a mere addendum to "I think, therefore I am." Scandalous, I know.

Finally this wonderful book is about Descates himself. At no point is Grunbein more clever than when he evokes the physical component to the book's ingenious title. The "Cartesian Devil", or "Diver", is an invention attributed to or in celebration of Renes Descartes. Here, allow Wikipedia to explain the experiment.

The Cartesian diver experiment is set up by placing a "diver"—a small, rigid tube, open at one end, such as an eyedropper—in a much larger container with some flexible component; for example, a two litre soft drink bottle. The larger container is filled with water, and must be airtight when closed. The "diver" is partially filled with a small amount of water, but contains enough air so that it is nearly neutrally buoyant, but still buoyant enough that it floats at the top while being almost completely submerged.

The "diving" occurs when the flexible part of the larger container is pressed inward, causing the "diver" to sink to the bottom until the pressure is released, when it rises back to the surface.

Grunbein takes this dynamic experiment, which becomes a celebrated toy for children, and turns it into the avatar of the beneficent "devil" of Grunbein's somewhat Manichean metaphor. In his brilliant way, Grunbein has doubled yet again this metaphorical spirit as both the unstoppable assertiveness of the individual "I think" and saddles it upon the notion of Renes Descartes as tireless experimenter, thinker and champion of mankind. Like the little glass "devil" who always returns to the surface, so too does "I think" remain constant in its push towards the surface - a way toward sanity despite how lost that concept might seem under the pressure of the external world.

This is where Grunbein hits his stride.

Tiger-like, it leaps across space and time, forging ahead with space programs, tracking down viruses and genes, and belaying itself down the ropes of airy terminology ever deeper into the various spheres of knowledge. Its strength consists in its capacity to imitate nature, to overhear nature’s little, well-guarded secrets. But while, as if with playful ease, it has been able to uncover chemical structures and synthesize plastics, it has never succeeded in doing one thing: synthesizing pure self-awareness on the basis of strict logic.

- Descartes’ Devil, pg. 86

Durs Grunbein is of that rare order himself. A brilliant poet-philosopher who is as concerned with his interlocutors as anyone has ever been. In his writings logic and fable walk hand-in-hand and with a poet's eyes and ears Grunbein renders their intimate conversation as though it were a cooking recipe. From what I've written and quoted Descartes' Devil seems to be extremely lofty but the reality is that one, perhaps, might not need to even have read Descartes to enjoy and understand this amazing book. This book is as much a biography as it is an intellectual investigation and perhaps above all that, Descartes' Devil is a praising "thank you" sent forward and backward through time. This is easily seen in the trio of poems Grunbein crafted to close each meditation. These celebratory poems speak to Grunbein's earnest, open approach. He, like his hero Descartes, simply does not care what the rules say or how his work will be perceived.

He is only concerned with your understanding.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Ten Best Books of 2010: Microscripts by Robert Walser

I won't lie to you. The pedant in me has pushed me to include Robert Walser's Microscripts on this list. A book this handsome and carefully composed is extremely important to note as things like Google's bookstore grow in popularity, purveying free editions of classic works that are rife with typographical errors, sloppy formatting and a total lack of editorial guidance.

The eBook may be on the rise but it is still the realm of the physical book where the bookman's trade is being honestly and deftly plied.

Do I actually believe that? No. But there are some great indie firms like Melville House (I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't cite them) and celebrated historical institutions like New Directions deserve such praise. In fact every press on this list is worthy, even the massive world-devouring ones. Well... Maybe we shouldn't get too heavy on their praise.

All that said, I would be failing readers if I did not mention that Walser's Microscripts were fascinating in their own right, whether or not they are beautifully housed. That said, I offer up my original review of this formerly lost book. As with the other posts I formerly reviewed I have revised the original slightly and added a few additional images of the book's interior illustrations, all of which are facsimiles of Walser original microscripts.

Microscripts by Robert Walser. Translated from the German and with an Introduction by Susan Bernofsky. Afterword by Walter Benjamin. Fiction. Hardcover. New Directions. 159 pps. ISBN: 9780811218801. $24.95.

A person can be swinish in matters of love and might even succeed in justifying himself to a certain extent. In my opinion, various possibilities would appear to exist with regard to swinishness, etc. Someone might happen to look like a person who appears to be a swine, and all the while he is at bottom perhaps fairly upstanding. One can say with a rather large degree of certainty that men seem to possess a greater predisposition and talent for swinishness than women, who of course are now and then capable of achieving excellence in this regard.

-from "Swine" by Robert Walser.

First let's get the pedantry out of the way: This book is gorgeous. For one it is illustrated with color facsimiles of Walser's original microscripts placed both on the front and back of a single page to fully render the unique nature of this writing endeavor. For two there is the pastedown label on the front cover, heavy paper stock and matte finish jacket that all hearken to better times in the field of book production, or at least to European formats and standards. Like I said before: The book is gorgeous. That said, let's now get to Walser.

On scraps of paper, sometimes postcards that had already been written on or small advertisements containing their own information, Walser wrote what was long believed to be strange coded missives that were formerly believed to be physically illegible. Walser was institutionalized at the time of the composition of these tiny works and this status called into question the intelligibility of the writings, let alone whether they could actually be transcribed or translated.

Sample images from Microscripts.

Time and patience won out however, and Walser's tiny handwriting eventually revealed itself to be a modified and extremely tiny version of the medieval German script known as Kurrent. Kurrent is a simplified script that involves utilizing a more vertical, angular alphabet that makes it highly compressible. Apparently with Walser's obsessive intensity it can become extremely compressible. Like coal into diamonds.

The translator of Microscripts describes the process as educated guesswork. By determining a handful of Walser's tiny letters a single word can be formulated from tendencies and previous words. This makes the translation one of the most difficult ever, ranking among some of the translations of Oulipo authors like Georges Perec and Raymond Queaneau.

At first it just looks small, but after a few seconds for your eyes to finally take in and realize how extremely cramped Walser's microscript writing is.

The reason for Walser's strange style is not one of conservation. Unlike Hans Fallada's vertical and horizontal approach (front and back of a page mind you) to books like The Drinker, Walser's reasoning was not born of a shortage of materials. Oddly enough it has more to do with the aforementioned Oulipo approach to literature than it does an infirm mind or penury.

Walser had encountered an immense writer's block. It became almost offensive to the effortless writer, who delighted in the rapidity with which he could write down his thoughts, not to mention the aesthetic beauty of his handwriting. Walser delighted in the process and look of actual writing almost as much as the stories he created. Thus a block was particularly horrible for the sensitive Walser. So like the Oulipo tenants would do later on, he set himself a limitation in order to forcefully direct his efforts.

Postcard with Walser's writing moving horizontally to the postcard's.

The cramped writing style proved therapeutic and forced a physical constraint on his body as well as mind. Plotting more or less had to be thrown out and in its stead there is a certain rhythm and tidal flow. The people who briefly inhabit these writings are rational (as far as people are rational) and their movements are logical. They exist however only as props, demonstrations and at times can even seem ghostlike. The stories and sketches in Microscripts exist more as impression and humorously implied situation as they do linear narrative. The wry humor, sometimes darkly sarcastic, is the only thing that speaks of Walser's troubled mind.

That last part, about the sarcasm and wit found in Microscripts is important to note because for decades the tiny scraps of writing had been considered the work of a frail mind. Frailty cannot compress black coal into shining diamonds.

Apologies for the hyperbolic sign-off. As a personal limit I try to work at least ten over-the-top statements into every post. Keeps me sane.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Ten Best Books of 2010: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Hoately ran his eye up and down the midway, sizing up the crowd. He turned back to Stan. "Well, he does this for a week and you see to it that he gets his bottle regular and a place to sleep it off in. He likes this fine. This is what he thinks is heaven. So after a week you say to him like this, you say, 'Well, I got to get me a real geek. You're through.' He scares up at this because nothing scares a real rummy like the chance of a dry spell and getting the horrors. He says, 'What's the matter? Ain't I doing okay?; So you say, 'Like hell you're doing okay. You can't draw no crowd faking a geek. Turn in your outfit. You're through.' Then you walk away. He comes following you, begging for another chance and you say, 'Okay. But after tonight out you go.' But you give him his bottle.

"That night you drag out the lecture and lay it on him thick. All the while you're talking he's thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling Shakes. You give him time to think it over while you're talking. Then throw in the chicken. He'll geek."

-from Nightmare Alley

Picking a NYRB book as a best book of a given year is a sort of cheating. They are by definition the best books from previous, if often lost, years and thus are by definition some of the best books.

I don't care though. Nightmare Alley is a classic of noir prose and in many regards it is also a classic of American fiction. It is perhaps the best novel written about the secretive, transient lives of carnival workers and more important yet it was written contemporaneous to the height of the American carnival.

The term "geek" or "to geek" are derived from Gresham's dark tale. The geek was a wild man act, usually run by a caller and a certifiable drunkard. The drunk was paid in booze and square meals and all he was expected to do in turn was bite the heads off chickens and fondle reptiles. It takes a lot for a man to end up a geek, evidenced to some extent in the foreshadowing quote above. It takes a lot for man to become that kind of drunkard.

It takes a lot but certainly isn't impossible. Here it is, a slightly updated version of my original review of Gresham's amazingly dark tale.

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Introduction by Nick Tosches. Fiction. New York Review Of Books. Trade Paperback. 275 pps. ISBN: 9781590173480. $14.95.

Dust when it was dry. Mud whet it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way. It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns - lights and noise and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the Ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been.

-from Nightmare Alley

Terrible to realize, wonderful behold. That's what I'll say about this book. Whatever Nightmare Alley lacks in profundity it more than makes up with a eerily realistic plot that turns a complex sequence of events into page turning bliss. If Chandler and Hammett are considered masters then so must Gresham be.

Though it must be noted that Gresham's twisted majesty has more in common with that of Jim Thompson or James Cain. It has to do with the psychological differences between hard-boiled and noir crime fiction. There is one. It is an important distinction too. The hard-boiled writer deals in the wares of pyrotechnic jargon, cant and typically masculine violence, while the noir writer plumbs the psyche to go deep into the cause rather than the effect. Gresham, like the aforementioned Thompson, was something of a lay student of Freudian psychology and this is evident in the depth of his characters.

Also like Thompson, Gresham was a tragically doomed drunk. Gresham's biography reads like a textbook diagnosis of the symptoms of alcoholism. He wrestled mightily with the disease, seeking out assistance via explorations into Freudian psychology, Christianity, Alcoholics Anonymous and Rinzai Buddhism. All were employed and none laid to rest his sodden demons. His supposedly abusive marriage to poet Joy Davidman ended when she left him for C.S. Lewis. It was not long after this occurrence that Gresham committed suicide.

When Gresham was found in his empty apartment he had a suit on and in his pocket he carried business cards that at the four corners read: NO ADDRESS, NO PHONE, NO BUSINESS, NO MONEY and then in the center the grimly humorous: RETIRED. It was September of 1962. Nightmare Alley, Gresham's biggest critical and monetary success, was utterly out-of-print.

Nightmare Alley is about crime and dilemma, guilt and madness, and pulls you in like the mark that you are. It is a novel about the fast-talking, quick misdirection of carnivals. It is about sexual obsession, murder and above all else, alcoholism.

It has also lived a largely underground existence. When Gresham died, no paper carried the story except the New York Post. The bridge columnist mentioned his passing. It seems the cards at least honored the man they apparently condemned.

The label of cult classic was seemingly the novel's fate. That is until 2010 when New York Review Of Books did what they do and brought it back to life, replete with insightful Foreword by Nick Tosches. It's a good ting too because this is not a book that should be underground. This is one for the 20th century's "best" lists.

The novel is organized into chapters that are themed and named for what is known as the major arcana of the tarot card deck. These are the most important cards in the tarot deck and possess the weightiest meanings. They are often unchangeable fates and when aligned in a negative manner have dreadful implications. In Gresham's novel the demigods of the tarot are always leading one further down that bad road the title refers to.

Stan Carlisle is our hero, if you will, and we are privileged to watch him grow up "in the carny." That is, as a worker in a traveling carnival. Published in 1946 and set around that time period, the novel is rich with "old-timey" dialog and the particularly colorful language of the carnival worker. You learn about marks, palming, dabbing cards and above all about the frailties of human perception. Carnies are realists and skeptics, having dissected every magic trick and hustled poor men out of their last few red cents.

Being a work of crime fiction it is always polite for a reviewer to avoid revealing too much of the book. It has very unique twists and turns and they are very much worth experiencing first hand. This is a tale of fate and the constraints the author placed upon it using the tarot card as a framework lend it a somewhat occult feeling. It is a sinister book, which perhaps another distinction between noir and hard-boiled. With noir the evil can be implied or hidden, even if in plain view. In this case the evil is hidden right on center stage, making for an almost Chekhovian implication.

Anton Chekhov observed that a gun mentioned in the first chapter must be used at some point in the story. It must fire.

In the case of Gresham's Nightmare Alley the gun is replaced with a bottle of booze.

Some outro music seemed necessarily.