from denis johnson’s jesus’ son

"These tales are told with apparent carelesness, a kind of grinding realism which would suggest that these events are as purposeless as they seem. But at heart Johnson is a metaphysician, and through the luminous windows that startlingly open in the deadpan prose. . .we are bystanders to an act of testimony."

Madison Smartt Bell, USA Today

CAR CRASH WHILE HITCHHIKING

 

A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping… A Cherokee filled with bourbon … A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student . . .

 

And a family from Marshalltown who head-onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri . . .

 

… I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious, thanks to the first three of the people I’ve already named—the salesman and the Indian and the student—all of whom had given me drugs. At the head of the entrance ramp I waited without hope of a ride. What was the point, even, of rolling up my sleeping bag when I was too wet to be let into anybody’s car? I draped it around me like a cape. The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.

 

I didn’t care. They said they’d take me all the way.

 

The man and the wife put the little girl up front with them and left the baby in back with me and my dripping bedroll. "I’m not taking you anywhere very fast," the man said. "I’ve got my wife and babies here, that’s why."

 

You are the ones, I thought. And I piled my sleeping bag against the left-hand door and slept across it, not caring whether I lived or died. The baby slept free on the seat beside me. He was about nine months old.

 

. . . But before any of this, that afternoon, the salesman and I had swept down into Kansas City in his luxury car. We’d developed a dangerous cynical camaraderie beginning in Texas, where he’d taken me on. We ate up his bottle of amphetamines, and every so often we pulled off the Interstate and bought another pint of Canadian

Club and a sack of ice. His car had cylindrical glass holders attached to either door and a white, leathery interior. He said he’d take me home to stay overnight with his family, but first he wanted to stop and see a woman he knew.

 

Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City‘s rush hour with a sensation of running aground. As soon as we slowed down, all the magic of travelling together burned away. He went on and on about his girlfriend. "I like this girl, I think I love this girl—but I’ve got two kids and a wife, and there’s certain obligations there. And on top of everything else, I love my wife. I’m gifted with love. I love my kids. I love all my relatives." As he kept on, I felt jilted and sad: "I have a boat, a little sixteen-footer. I have two cars. There’s room in the back yard for a swimming pool." He found his girlfriend at work. She ran a furniture store, and I lost him there.

 

The clouds stayed the same until night. Then, in the dark, I didn’t see the storm gathering. The driver of the Volkswagen, a college man, the one who stoked my head with all the hashish, let me out beyond the city limits just as it began to rain. Never mind the speed I’d been taking, I was too overcome to stand up. I lay out in the grass off the exit ramp and woke in the middle of a puddle that had filled up around me.

 

And later, as I’ve said, I slept in the back seat while the Oldsmobile—the family fromMarshalltown—splashed along through the rain. And yet I dreamed I was looking right through my eyelids, and my pulse marked off the seconds of time. The Interstate through western Missouri was, in that era, nothing more than a two-way road, most of it. When a semi truck came toward us and passed going the other way, we were lost in a blinding spray and a warfare of noises such as you get being towed through an automatic car wash. The wipers stood up and lay down across the windshield without much effect. I was exhausted, and after an hour I slept more deeply. I’d known all along exactly what was going to happen. But the man and his wife woke me up later, denying it viciously. "Oh—no!"

 

"NO!"

 

I was thrown against the back of their seat so hard that it broke. 1 commenced bouncing back and forth. A liquid which I knew right away was human blood flew around the car and rained down on my head. When it was over I was in the back seat again, just as I had been. I rose up and looked around. Our headlights had gone out. The radiator was hissing steadily. Beyond that, I didn’t hear a thing. As far as I could tell, I was the only one conscious. As my eyes adjusted I saw that the baby was lying on its back beside me as if nothing had happened. Its eyes were open and it was feeling its cheeks with its little hands.

 

In a minute the driver, who’d been slumped over the wheel, sat up and peered at us. His face was smashed and dark with blood’. It made my teeth hurt to look at him—but when he spoke, it didn’t sound as if any of his teeth were broken.

 

"What happened?"

 

"We had a wreck," he said.

 

"The baby’s okay," I said, although I had no idea how the baby was.

 

He turned to his wife.

 

"Janice," he said. "Janice, Janice!"

 

"Is she okay?"

 

"She’s dead!" he said, shaking her angrily.

 

"No, she’s not." I was ready to deny everything myself now.

 

whimpered in her sleep. But the man went on shaking his wife.

 

"Janice!"he hollered.

 

His wife moaned.

 

"She’s not dead," I said, clambering from the car and running away.

 

"She won’t wake up," I heard him say.

 

I was standing out here in the night, with the baby, for some reason, in my arms. It must have still been raining, but I remember nothing about the weather. We’d collided with another car on what I now perceived was a two-lane bridge. The water beneath us was invisible in the dark.

 

Moving toward the other car I began to hear rasping, metallic snores. Somebody was flung halfway out the passenger door, which was open, in the posture of one hanging from a trapeze by his ankles. The car had been broadsided, smashed so flat that no room was left inside it even for this person’s legs, to say nothing of a driver or any other passengers. I just walked right on past.

 

Headlights were coming from far off. I made for the head of the bridge, waving them to a stop with one arm and clutching the baby to my shoulder with the other.

 

It was a big semi, grinding its gears as it decelerated. The driver rolled down his window and I shouted up at him, "There’s a wreck. Go for help."

 

"I can’t turn around here," he said.

 

He let me and the baby up on the passenger side, and we just sat there in the cab, looking at the wreckage in his headlights.

 

"Is everybody dead?" he asked.

 

"I can’t tell who is and who isn’t," I admitted.

 

He poured himself a cup of coffee from a thermos and switched off all but his parking lights.

 

"What time is it?"

 

"Oh, it’s around quarter after three," he said.

 

By his manner he seemed to endorse the idea of not doing anything about this. I was relieved and tearful. I’d thought something was required of me, but I hadn’t wanted to find out what it was.

 

When another car showed coming in the opposite direction, I thought I should talk to them. "Can you keep the baby?" I asked the truck driver.

 

"You’d better hang on to him," the driver said. "It’s a boy, isn’t it?"

 

"Well, I think so," I said.

 

The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

 

Before too long there were cars backed up for a ways at either end of the bridge, and headlights giving a night-game atmosphere to the steaming rubble, and ambulances and cop cars nudging through so that the air pulsed with color. I didn’t talk to anyone. My secret was that in this short while I had gone from being the president of this tragedy to being a faceless onlooker at a gory wreck. At some point an officer learned that I was one of the passengers, and took my statement. ‘I don’t remember any of this, except that he told me, "Put out your cigarette." We paused in our conversation to watch the dying man being loaded into the ambulance. He was still alive, still dreaming obscenely. The blood ran off him in strings. His knees jerked and his head rattled.

 

There was nothing wrong with me, and I hadn’t seen anything, but the policeman had to question me and take me to the hospital anyway. The word came over his car radio that the man was now dead, just as we came under the awning of the emergency-room entrance.

 

I stood in a tiled corridor with my wet sleeping bag bunched against the wall beside me, talking to a man from the local funeral home.

 

The doctor stopped to tell me I’d better have an X-ray.

 

"No."

 

"Now would be the time. If something turns up later …"

 

"There’s nothing wrong with me."

 

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

 

"There’s nothing wrong with me"—I’m surprised I let those words out. But it’s always been my tendency to lie to doctors, as if good health consisted only of the ability to fool them.

 

Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the Detox at SeattleGeneralHospital, I took the same tack.

 

"Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?" the doctor asked.

 

"Help us, oh God, it hurts," the boxes of cotton screamed.

 

"Not exactly," I said.

 

"Not exactly," he said. "Now, what does that mean."

 

"I’m not ready to go into all that," I said. A yellow bird fluttered close to my face, and my muscles grabbed. Now I was flopping like a fish. When I squeezed shut my eyes, hot tears exploded from the sockets. When I opened them, I was on my stomach.

 

"How did the room get so white?" I asked.

 

A beautiful nurse was touching my skin. "These are vitamins," she said, and drove the needle in.

 

It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.


 

poem by tennesse williams

HOW LOVELY WETNESS
MAKES THE FLESH

By Tennessee Williams, in the fall issue of

Southwest
Review.
Written on the stationery of the Hotel
Woodstock, the poem dates from 1939, when
Williams visited New York City to attend the
World’s Fair.

How lovely wetness makes the flesh
our bodies will declare
when we step from this shining pool
into the shining air

How lovely passion makes the lips
our kiss will testify
when we step from this brilliant earth
into the brilliant sky

from alisdair gray’s lanark

book cover of 

Lanark 

A Life in Four Books 

by

Alasdair Gray

CHAPTER 1.

The Elite

The Elite Café was entered by a staircase from the foyer of a cinema. A landing two thirds of the way up had a door into the cinema itself, but people going to the Elite climbed farther and came to a large dingy-looking room full of chairs and low coffee tables. The room seemed dingy, not because it was unclean but because of the lighting. A crimson carpet covered the floor, the chairs were upholstered in scarlet, the low ceiling was patterned with whorled pink plaster, but dim green wall lights turned these colours into varieties of brown and made the skins of the customers look greyish and dead. The entrance was in a corner of the room, and the opposite corner held a curved chromium and plastic counter where a bald fat smiling man stood behind the glittering handles of a coffee machine. He wore black trousers, white shirt and black bow tie and was either dumb or unusually reticent. He never spoke; the customers only addressed him to order coffee or cigarettes, and when not serving these he stood so still that the counter seemed an extension of him, like the ring round Saturn. A door by the bar opened onto a narrow outdoor balcony above the cinema entrance. This had room for three crowded-together metal-topped tables with parasols through the middle. Coffee was not drunk here because the sky was often dark with strong wind and frequent rain. The tabletops had little puddles on them, the collapsed cloth of the parasols flapped soddenly against the poles, the seats were dank, yet a man of about twenty-four usually sat here, huddled in a black raincoat with the collar turned up. Sometimes he gazed in a puzzled way at the black sky, sometimes he bit thoughtfully on the knuckle of his thumb. Nobody else used the balcony.

When the Elite was full most languages and dialects could be heard there. The customers were under thirty and sat in cliques of five or six. There were political cliques, religious cliques, artistic cliques, homosexual cliques and criminal cliques. Some cliques talked about athletics, others about motor cars, others about jazz. Some cliques were centred on particular people, the biggest being dominated by Sludden. His clique usually occupied a sofa by the balcony door. An adjacent clique contained people who had belonged to Sludden’s clique but grown tired of it (as they claimed) or been expelled from it (as Sludden claimed). The cliques disliked each other and none liked the café much. It was common for a customer to put down his coffee cup and say, “The Elite is a hellish place. I don’t know why we come here. The coffee’s bad, the lighting’s bad, the whole dump teems with poofs and wogs and Jews. Let’s start a fashion for going somewhere else.” And someone would answer, “There is nowhere else. Galloway’s Tearoom is too bourgeois, all businessmen and umbrella stands and stuffed stags’ heads. The Shangri-la has a jukebox that half deafens you, and anyway it’s full of hardmen. Armstrong had his face slashed there. There are pubs, of course, but we can’t always be drinking. No, this may be a hellish place but it’s all we have. It’s central,it’s handy for the cinema and at least it’s a change from home.”

The café was often crowded and never completely empty, but on one occasion it nearly emptied. The man in the black raincoat came in from the balcony and saw nobody but the waiter and Sludden, who sat on his usual sofa. The man hung his coat on a hook and ordered a coffee. When he left the counter he saw Sludden watching him with amusement.

Sludden said, “Did you find it, Lanark?”

“Find what? What do you mean?”

“Find what you were looking for on the balcony? Or do you go there to avoid us? I’d like to know. You interest me.”

“How do you know my name?”

“Oh, we all know your name. One of us is usually in the queue when they shout it at the security place. Sit down.” Sludden patted the sofa beside him. Lanark hesitated, then put his cup on the table and sat. Sludden said, “Tell me why you use the balcony.”

“I’m looking for daylight.”

Sludden pursed his mouth as if tasting sourness. “This is hardly a season for daylight.”

“You’re wrong. I saw some not long ago and it lasted while I counted over four hundred, and it used to last longer. Do you mind my talking about this?”

“Go on! You couldn’t discuss it with many people, but I’ve thought things out. Now you are trying to think things out and that interests me. Say what you like.”

Lanark was pleased and annoyed. He was lonely enough to feel flattered when people spoke to him but he disliked condescension. He said coldly, “There’s not much to say.”

“But why do you like daylight? We’re well lit by the usual means.”

“I can measure time with it. I’ve counted thirty days since coming here, maybe I’ve missed a few by sleeping or drinking coffee, but when I remember something I can say,’ It happened two days ago,’ or ten, or twenty. This gives my life a feeling of order.”

“And how do you spend your… days?”

“I walk and visit libraries and cinemas. When short of money I go to the security place. But most of the time I watch the sky from the balcony.”

“And are you happy?”

“No, but I’m content. There are nastier ways of living.”

Sludden laughed. “No wonder you’ve a morbid obsession with daylight. Instead of visiting ten parties since you came here, laying ten women and getting drunk ten times, you’ve watched thirty days go by. Instead of making life a continual feast you chop it into days and swallow them regularly, like pills.”

Lanark looked sideways at Sludden. “Is your life a continual feast?”

“I enjoy myself. Do you?”

“No. But I’m content.”

“Why are you content with so little?”

“What else can I have?”

Customers had been arriving and the café was nearly full. Sludden was more casual than when the conversation started. He said carelessly, “Moments of vivid excitement are what make life worth living, moments when a man feels exalted and masterful. We can get them from drugs, crime and gambling, but the price is rather high. We can get them from a special interest, like sports, music or religion. Have you a special interest?”

“No.”

“And we getthem from work and love. By work I don’t mean shovelling coal or teaching children, I mean work which gives you a conspicuous place in the world. And by love I don’t mean marriage or friendship, I mean independent love which stops when the excitement stops. Perhaps I’ve surprised you by putting work and love in the same category, but both are ways of mastering other people.”

Lanark brooded on this. It seemed logical. He said abruptly,

“What work could I do?”

“Have you visited Galloway’s Tearoom?”

“Yes.”

“Did you speak to anyone there?”

“No.”

“Then you can’t be a businessman. I’m afraid you’ll have to take up art. Art is the only work open to people who can’t get along with others and still want to be special.”

“I could never be an artist. I’ve nothing to tell people.”

Sludden started laughing. “You haven’t understood a word I’ve spoken.”

Lanark had an inner restraint which stopped him displaying much resentment or anger. He pressed his lips together and frowned at the coffee cup. Sludden said, “An artist doesn’t tell people things, he expresses himself. If the self is unusual his work shocks or excites people. Anyway, it forces his personality on them. Here comes Gay at last. Would you mind making room for her?”

A thin, tired-looking, pretty girl approached them between the crowded tables. She smiled shyly at Lanark and sat beside Sludden, saying anxiously, “Am I late? I came as soon as—” He said coldly, “You kept me waiting.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I really am sorry. I came as fast as I could. I didn’t mean to—”

“Get me cigarettes.”

Lanark looked embarrassedly at the tabletop. When Gay had gone to the counter he said, “What do you do?”

“Eh?”

“Are you a businessman? Or an artist?”

“Oh, I do nothing, with fantastic ability.”

Lanark looked hard at Sludden’s face for some trace of a smile. Sludden said, “Occupations are ways of imposing yourself on others. I can impose myself without doing a thing. I’m not boasting. It just happens to be the truth.”

“It’s modest of you to say so,” said Lanark, “but you’re wrong to say you do nothing. You talk very well.”

Sludden smiled and received a cigarette from Gay, who had returned meekly to his side. He said, “I don’t often talk as frankly as this; my ideas would be wasted on most people. But I think I can help you. Do you know any women here?”

“None.”

“I’ll introduce you to some.”

Sludden turned to Gay and lightly pinched the lobe of her ear, asking amiably, “Who will we give to him? Frankie?”

Gay laughed and at once looked happy. She said, “Oh no Sludden, Frankie’s noisy and vulgar and Lanark’s the thoughtful type. Not Frankie.”

“What about Nan, then? She’s quiet, in a will-’oo-be-my-daddy sort of way.”

“But Nan’s crazy about you!”

“I know, and it’s a nuisance. I’m tired of seeing her weep in the corner whenever you touch my knee. Let’s give her to Lanark. No. I’ve a better idea. I’ll take Nan and Lanark can have you. How would you like that?”

Gay leaned toward Sludden and kissed him daintily on the cheek. He said, “No. We’ll give him Rima.”

Gay frowned and said, “I don’t like Rima. She’s sly.”

“Not sly. Self-contained.”

“But Toal is keen on her. They go around together.”

“That means nothing. He has a sister fixation on her and she has a brother fixation on him. Their relationship is purely incestuous. Anyway, she despises him. We’ll give her to Lanark.”

Lanark smiled and said, “You’re very kind.”

He had heard somewhere that Gay and Sludden were engaged. A fur gauntlet on Gay’s left hand stopped him seeing if she wore a ring, but she and Sludden exhibited the sort of public intimacy proper to an engaged couple. Lanark had been impressed unwillingly by Sludden but now Gay had come he felt comfortable with him. In spite of the talk about “independent love” he seemed to practise a firmer sort than was usual in the Elite.

Sludden’s clique arrived from the cinema. Frankie was plump and vivacious and wore a tight pale-blue skirt and had pale-blue hair bunched round her head. Nan was a small shy uncombed blonde of about sixteen. Rima had an interesting, not pretty face with black hair drawn smoothly from her brow and fixed in a ponytail at the back. Toal was small, haggard, and pleasant, with a young pointed red beard, and there was a large stout pale boy called McPake in the uniform of a first lieutenant. Sludden, an arm round Gay’s waist, neither paused nor glanced at his friends but continued talking to Lanark as they sat down on each side of him. Frankie was the only one who paid Lanark special attention. She stood staring at him with feet apart and hands on hips and when Sludden stopped talking she said loudly, “It’s the mystery man! We’ve been joined by the mystery man!” She stuck her stomach forward and said, “What do you think of my belly, mystery man?”

“It probably does its work,” said Lanark.

Sludden smiled slightly and the others looked amused.

“Oh! He makes little jokes!” said Frankie. “Good. I’ll sit beside him and make McPake jealous.”

She sat beside Lanark and rested her hand on his thigh. He tried not to look embarrassed and managed to look confused. Frankie said, “God! He’s gone as tense as … hm. I’d better not say. Relax, son, can’t you? No, he can’t relax. Rima, I’ll change seats with you. I want to sit with McPake after all.

He’s fat, but he responds.”

She changed seats with Rima. Lanark felt relieved and insulted.

Two or three conversations began around him but he lacked the confidence to join one. Rima offered a cigarette. He said, “Thank you. Is your friend drunk?”

“Frankie? No, she’s usually like that. She’s not really my friend. Did she upset you?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll get used to her. She’s amusing if you don’t take her seriously.”

Rima spoke in an odd, mewing, monotonous voice, as if no words were worth emphasis. Lanark looked sideways at her profile. He saw black glossy hair drawn back from a white brow, a large perfect eye slightly emphasized by mascara, a big straightish nose, a small straight mouth without lipstick, a small firm chin, a neat little bust under a black sweater. If she felt his glance she pretended not to but tilted her head back to breathe smoke from her nostrils. This so reminded him of a little girl trying to smoke like a woman that he felt an ache of unexpected tenderness. He said, “What was the film about?”

“It was about people who undressed soon after the beginning and then did everything they could think of in the circumstances.”

“Do you enjoy those films?”

“No, but they don’t bore me. Do they bore you?”

“I’ve never seen one.”

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid of enjoying them.”

“I enjoy them,” said Sludden. “I get genuine pleasure from imagining how the actors would look wearing flannel underwear and thick tweed skirts.”

Nan said, “I enjoy them too. Except the best bits. I can’t help closing my eyes during those, aren’t I silly?”

Frankie said, “I find them all very disappointing. I keep hoping to see a really surprising perversion but there don’t seem to be any.”

A discussion began about the forms a surprising perversion might take. Frankie, Toal and McPake made suggestions. Gay and Nan punctuated these with little screaming protests of horror and amusement. Sludden sometimes contributed a remark, and Lanark and Rima remained silent. Lanark was embarrassed by the conversation and thought Rima disliked it too. This made him feel nearer her.

Later Sludden whispered to Gay and stood up. He said, “Gay and I are leaving. We’ll see you all later.”

Nan, who had been watching him anxiously, suddenly folded her arms upon her knees and hid her face in them. Toal, who was seated beside her, put a comforting arm around her shoulders and smiled at the company in a humorous mournful way. Sludden looked at Lanark and said casually, “You’ll consider what I said?”

“Oh, yes. You gave me a lot to think about.”

“We’ll discuss it later. Come on, Gay.”

They went out between the crowded tables. Frankie said mockingly, “The mystery man seems to be replacing you as court favourite, Toal. I hope not, for your sake. You’d have to take up your old job of court jester. Rima never sleeps with the court jester.”

Without taking his arm from Nan’s trembling shoulders Toal grinned and said, “Shut up, Frankie. You’re the court jester and always will be.” He said apologetically to Lanark, “Pay no attention to what she says.”

Rima took her handbag from the seat beside her and said,

“I’m going.”

Lanark said, “Wait a bit, so am I.”

He edged round the table to where his coat hung and put it on. The others said they would see him later and as he and Rima went out Frankie shouted after them, “Have fun!”

harold bloom on literary genius and the self

 

Where does the self begin? The Freudian answer is that the ego makes an investment in itself, which thus centers a self. Shakespeare calls our sense of identity the "selfsame"; when did Jack Falstaff become Falstaff? When did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? … Our recognition of genius is always retroactive, but how does genius first recognize itself?

 


Cover Image

 

What Is Genius?

Harold Bloom

 

In employing a Kabbalistic grid or paradigm in the arrangement of this book, I rely upon Gershom Scholem’s conviction that Kabbalah is the genius of religion in the Jewish tradition. My one hundred figures, from Shakespeare through the late Ralph Ellison, represent perhaps a hundred different stances towards spirituality, covering the full range from Saint Paul and Saint Augustine to the secularism of Proust and Calvino. But Kabbalah, in my view, provides an anatomy of genius, both of women and of men; as also of their merging in Ein Sof, the endlessness of God. Here I want to use Kabbalah as a starting-point in my own personal vision of the name and nature of genius.

 

Scholem remarked that the work of Franz Kafka constituted a secular Kabbalah, and so he concluded that Kafka’s writings possess "something of the strong light of the canonical, of that perfection which destroys." Against this, Moshe Idel has argued that the canonical, both scriptural and Kabbalistic, is "the perfection which absorbs." To confront the plenitude of Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah is to work at "absorbing perfections."

 

What Idel calls "the absorbing quality of the Torah" is akin to the absorbing quality of all authentic genius, which always has the capacity to absorb us. In American English, to "absorb" means several related processes: to take something in as through the pores, or to engross one’s full interest or attention, or to assimilate fully.

I am aware that I transfer to genius what Scholem and Idel follow Kabbalah in attributing to God, but I merely extend the ancient Roman tradition that first established the ideas of genius and of authority. In Plutarch, Mark Antony’s genius is the god Bacchus or Dionysus. Shakespeare, in his Antony and Cleopatra, has the god Hercules, as Antony’s genius, abandon him. The emperor Augustus, who defeated Antony, proclaimed that the god Apollo was his genius, according to Suetonius. The cult of the emperor’s genius thus became Roman ritual, displacing the two earlier meanings, of the family’s fathering force and of each individual’s alter ego.

 

Authority, another crucial Roman concept, may be more relevant for the study of genius than "genius," with its contradictory meanings, still can hope to be. Authority, which has vanished from Western culture, was convincingly traced by Hannah Arendt to Roman rather than Greek or Hebrew origins. In ancient Rome, the concept of authority was foundational. Auctoritas derived from the verb augere, "to augment," and authority always depended upon augmenting the foundation, thus carrying the past alive into the present.

 

Homer fought a concealed contest with the poetry of the past, and I suspect that the Redactor of the Hebrew Bible, putting together his Genesis through Kings structure in Babylon, struggled to truncate the earliest author that he wove into the text, in order to hold off the strangeness and uncanny power of the Yahwist or J writer. The Yahwist could not be excluded, because his (or her) stories possessed authority, but the disconcerting Yahweh, human-all-too-human, could be muted by other voices of the divine. What is the relationship of fresh genius to a founded authority? At this time, starting the twenty-first century, I would say: "Why, none, none at all." Our confusions about canonical standards for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media, and obey cultural politics and its vagaries.

 

Since my book, by presenting a mosaic of a hundred authentic geniuses, attempts to provide criteria for judgment, I will venture here upon a purely personal definition of genius, one that hopes to be useful for the early years of this new century. Whether charisma necessarily attends genius seems to me problematic. Of my hundred figures in this book, I had met three—Iris Murdoch, Octavio Paz, Ralph Ellison—who died relatively recently. Farther back, I recall brief meetings with Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. All of them impressive, in different ways, they lacked the flamboyance and authority of Gershom Scholem, whose genius attended him palpably, despite his irony and high good humor.

 

William Hazlitt wrote an essay on persons one would wish to have known. I stare at my Kabbalistic table of contents, and wonder which I would choose. The critic Sainte-Beuve advised us to ask ourselves: what would this author I read have thought of me? My particular hero among these hundred is Dr. Samuel Johnson, the god of literary criticism, but I do not have the courage to face his judgment.

 

Genius asserts authority over me, when I recognize powers greater than my own. Emerson, the sage I attempt to follow, would disapprove of my pragmatic surrender, but Emerson’s own geniuswas so large that he plausibly could preach Self-Reliance. I myself have taught continuously for forty-six years, and wish I could urge an Emersonian self-reliance upon my students, but I can’t and don’t, for the most part. I hope to nurture genius in them, but can impart only a genius for appreciation. That is the prime purpose of this book: to activate the genius of appreciation in my readers, if I can.

 

These pages are written a week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist triumph in destroying the World Trade Center and the people trapped within it. During the last week I have taught scheduled classes on Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, on Shakespeare’s early comedies, and on the Odyssey. I cannot know whether I helped my students at all, but I momentarily held off my own trauma, by freshly appreciating genius.

 

What is it that I, and many others, appreciate in genius? An entry in Emerson’s Journals (October 27, 1831) always hovers in my memory:

 

Is it not all in us, how strangely! Look at this congregation of men;—the words might be spoken,—though now there be none here to speak them,—but the words might be said that would make them stagger and reel like a drunken man. Who doubts it? Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? Remember then, were not the words that made your blood run cold, that brought the blood to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delighted you,-did they not sound to you as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before, or do you ever expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth? Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words trembling on the lips of another.

It still burns into me: "did they not sound to you as old as yourself?" The ancient critic Longinus called literary genius the Sublime, and saw its operation as a transfer of power from author to reader:

 

Touched by the true sublime your soul is naturally lifted up, she rises to a proud height, is filled with joy and vaunting, as if she had herself created this thing that she has heard.

 

Literary genius, difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its verification. The reader learns to identify with what she or he feels is a greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self’s integrity. "Greatness" may be out of fashion, as is the transcendental, but it is hard to go on living without some hope of encountering the extraordinary.

 

Meeting the extraordinary in another person is likely to be deceptive or delusionary. We call it "falling in love," and the verb is a warning. To confront the extraordinary in a book—be it the Bible, Plato, Shakespeare, Dante, Proust—is to benefit almost without cost. Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life.

 

James Joyce, when asked, "Which one book on a desert island?", replied, "I would like to answer Dante, but I would have to take the Englishman, because he is richer." The Joycean Irish edge against the English is given adequate expression, but the choice of Shakespeare is just, which is why he leads off the hundred figures in this book. Though there are a few literary geniuses who approach Shakespeare—the Yahwist, Homer, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Moliére, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dickens, Proust, Joyce—even those dozen masters of representation do not match Shakespeare’s miraculous rendering of reality. Because of Shakespeare we see what otherwise we could not see, since we are made different. Dante, the nearest rival, persuades us of the terrible reality of his Inferno and his Purgatorio, and almost induces us to accept his Paradiso. Yet even the fullest of the Divine Comedy’s persons, Dante the Poet-Pilgrim, does not cross over from the Comedy’s pages into the world we inhabit, as do Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth, Lear, Cleopatra.

 

The invasion of our reality by Shakespeare’s prime personages is evidence for the vitality of literary characters, when created by genius. We all know the empty sensation we experience when we read popular fiction and find that there are only names upon the page, but no persons. In time, however overpraised, such fictions become period pieces, and finally rub down into rubbish. It is worth knowing that our word "character" still possesses, as a primary meaning, a graphic sign such as a letter of the alphabet, reflecting the word’s likely origin in the ancient Greek character, a sharp stylus or the mark of the stylus’s incisions. Our modern word "character" also means ethos, a habitual stance towards life.

 

It was fashionable, quite recently, to talk about "the death of the author," but this too has become rubbish. The dead genius is more alive than we are, just as Falstaff and Hamlet are considerably livelier than many people I know. Vitality is the measure of literary genius. We read in search of more life, and only genius can make that available to use.

 

What makes genius possible? There always is a Spirit of the Age, and we like to delude ourselves that what matters most about any memorable figure is what he or she shared with a particular era. In this delusion, which is both academic and popular, everyone is regarded as being determined by societal factors. Individual imagination yields to social anthropology or to mass psychology, and thus can be explained away.

 

I base this book, Genius, upon my belief that appreciation is a better mode for the understanding of achievement than are all the analytical kinds of accounting for the emergence of exceptional individuals. Appreciation may judge, but always with gratitude, and frequently with awe and wonder.

 

By "appreciation" I mean something more than "adequate esteem." Need also enters into it, in the particular sense of turning to the genius of others in order to redress a lack in oneself, or finding in genius a stimulus to one’s own powers, whatever these may emerge as being.

 

Appreciation may modulate into love, even as your consciousness of a dead genius augments consciousness itself. Your solitary self’s deepest desire is for survival, whether in the here and now, or transcendentally elsewhere. To be augmented by the genius of others is to enhance the possibilities of survival, at least in the present and the near future.

 

We do not know how and/or why genius is possible, only that—to our massive enrichment—it has existed, and perhaps (waningly) continues to appear. Though our academic institutions abound in impostors who proclaim that genius is a capitalistic myth, I am content to cite Leon Trotsky, who urged Communist writers to read and study Dante. If genius is a mystery of the capacious consciousness, what is least mysterious about it is an intimate connection with personality rather than with character. Dante’s personality is forbidding, Shakespeare’s elusive, while Jesus’ (like the fictive Hamlet’s) seems to reveal itself differently to every reader or auditor.

What is personality? Alas, we use it now as a popular synonym for celebrity, but I would argue that we cannot give the word up to the realm of buzz. When we know enough about the biography of a particular genius, then we understand what is meant by the personality of Goethe or Byron or Freud or Oscar Wilde. Conversely, when we lack biographical inwardness, then we all agree that we are uncertain as to Shakespeare’s personality, an enormous paradox since his plays may have invented personality as we now mostreadily comprehend it. If challenged, I could write a book on the personality of Hamlet, Falstaff, or Cleopatra, but I would not attempt a book upon the personality of Shakespeare or of Jesus.

 

Benjamin Disraeli’s father, the man of letters Isaac D’Israeli, wrote an amiable volume called The Literary Character of Men of Genius, one of the precursors to this book, Genius, together with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Emerson’s Representative Men, and Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship. Isaac D’Israeli remarks that "many men of genius must arise before a particular man of genius can appear." Every genius has forerunners, though far enough back in time we may not know who they are. Dr. Johnson considered Homer to have been the first and most original of poets; we tend to see Homer as a relative latecomer, enriching himself with the phrases and formulas of his predecessors. Emerson, in his essay "Quotation and Originality," slyly observed, "Only an inventor knows how to borrow."

 

The great inventions of genius influence that genius itself in ways we are slow to appreciate. We speak of the man or woman in the work; we might better speak of the work in the person. And yet we scarcely know how to discuss the influence of a work upon its author, or of a mind upon itself. I take that to be the principal enterprise of this book. With all of the figures I depict in this mosaic, my emphasis will be on the contest they conducted with themselves.

 

That agon with the self can mask itself as something else, including the inspiration of idealized forerunners: Plato’s Socrates, Confucius’s the Duke of Chou, the Buddha’s earlier incarnations. Particularly the inventor of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, the Redactor of the sequence from Genesis through Kings, relies upon his own genius at reimagining the Covenant even as he honors the virtues (and failings) of the fathers. And yet, as Donald Harmon Akenson argues, the inventor-redactor or writer-editor achieved a "surpassing wonder," utterly his own. This exile in Babylon could not have thought that he was creating Scripture; as the first historian he perhaps believed only that he was forwarding the lost cause of the Kingdom of Judah. And yet he seems too cunning not to have seen that his invention of a continuity and so of a tradition was largely his own.

 

With the Redactor, as with Confucius or with Plato, we can sense an anxiety in the work that must have communicated itself to the man. How can one be worthy of the fathers with whom Yahweh spoke, face-to-face, or of the great Duke of Chou, who gave order to the people without imposing it upon themby violence? Is it possible to be the authentic disciple of Socrates, who suffered martyrdom without complaint, in order to affirm his truth? The ultimate anxiety of influence always may be, not that one’s proper space has been usurped already, but that greatness may be unable to renew itself, that one’s inspiration may be larger than one’s own powers of realization.

 

Genius is no longer a term much favored by scholars, so many of whom have become cultural levelers quite immune from awe. Yet, with the public, the idea of genius maintains its prestige, even though the word itself can seem somewhat tarnished. We need genius, however envious or uncomfortable it makes many among us. It is not necessary that we aspire after genius for ourselves, and yet, in our recesses, we remember that we had, or have, a genius. Our desire for the transcendental and extraordinary seems part of our common heritage, and abandons us slowly, and never completely.

 

To say that the work is in the writer, or the religious idea is in the charismatic leader, is not a paradox. Shakespeare, we happen to know, was a usurer. So was Shylock, but did that help to keep The Merchant of Venice a comedy? We don’t know. But to look for the work in the writer is to look for the influence and effect of the play upon Shakespeare’s development from comedy to tragicomedy to tragedy. It is to see Shylock darkening Shakespeare. To examine the effects of his own parables upon the figure of Jesus is to conduct a parallel exploration.

 

There are two ancient (Roman) meanings of the word "genius," which are rather different in emphasis. One is to beget, cause to be born, that is to be a paterfamilias. The other is to be an attendant spirit for each person or place: to be either a good or evil genius, and so to be someone who, for better or for worse, strongly influences someone else. This second meaning has been more important than the first; our genius is thus our inclination or natural gift, our inborn intellectual or imaginative power, not our power to beget power in others.

 

We all learn to distinguish, firmly and definitively, between genius and talent. A "talent" classically was a weight or sum of money, and as such, however large, was necessarily limited. But "genius," even in its linguistic origins, has no limits.


We tend now to regard genius as the creative capacity, as opposed to talent. The Victorian historian Froude observed that genius "is a spring in which there is always more behind than flows from it." The largest instances of genius that we know, aesthetically, would include Shakespeare and Dante, Bach and Mozart, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Donatello and Rodin, Alberti and Brunelleschi. A greater complexity ensues when we attempt to confront religious genius, particularly in a religion-obsessed country like the United States. To regard Jesus and Muhammad as religious geniuses (whatever else they were) makes them, in that regard only, akin not only to one another but to Zoroaster and the Buddha, and to such secular figures of ethical genius as Confucius and Socrates.

 

Defining genius more precisely than has yet been done is one of my objectives in this book. Another is to defend the idea of genius, currently abused by detractors and reductionists, from sociobiologists through the materialists of the genome school, and on to various historicizers. But my primary aim is both to enhance our appreciation of genius, and to show how invariably it is engendered by the stimulus of prior genius, to a much greater degree than it is by cultural and political contexts. The influence of genius upon itself, already mentioned, will be one of the book’s major emphases.

 

My subject is universal, not so much because world-altering geniuses have existed, and will come again, but because genius, however repressed, exists in so many readers. Emerson thought that all Americans were potential poets and mystics. Genius does not teach how to read or whom to read, but rather how to think about exemplary human lives at their most creative.

 

It will be noted in the table of contents that I have excluded any living instances of genius, and have dealt with only three recently dead. In this book I am compelled to be brief and summary in my account of individual genius, because I believe that much is to be learned by juxtaposing many figures from varied cultures and contrasting eras. The differences between a hundred men and women, drawn from a span of twenty-five centuries, overwhelm the analogies or similarities, and to present them within a single volume may seem the enterprise of an overreacher. And yet there are common characteristics to genius, since vivid individuality of speculation, spirituality, and creativity must rely upon originality, audacity, and self-reliance.

Emerson, in his Representative Men, begins with a heartening paragraph:

 

It is natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it will not surprise us. All mythology opens with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of Gautama, the first men ate the earth, and found it deliciously sweet.

 

Gautama, the Buddha, quests for and attains freedom, as though he were one of the first men. Emerson’s twice-told tale is a touch more American than Buddhist; his first men seem American Adams, and not reincarnations of previous enlightenments. Perhaps I too can only Americanize, but that may be the paramount use of past geniuses; we have to adapt them to our place and our time, if we are to be enlightened or inspired by them.

 

Emerson had six great or representative men: Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Four of these are in this book; Swedenborg is replaced by Blake, and Napoleon I have discarded with all other generals and politicians. Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Goethe remain essential, as do the others I sketch. Essential for what? To know ourselves, in relation to others, for these mighty dead are among the otherness that we can know, as Emerson tells us in Representative Men:

 

We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the great.

 

And yet this is the conclusion of his book:

 

The world is young: the former great men call to us affectionately. We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know.

 

To realize all that we know, fictions included, is too large an enterprise for us, a wounded century and a half after Emerson. The world no longer seems young, and I do not always hear the accents of affection when the voices of genius call out to me. But then I have the disadvantage, and the advantage, of coming after Emerson. The genius of influence transcends its constituent anxieties, provided we become aware of them and then surmise where we stand in relation to their continuing prevalence.

Thomas Carlyle, a Victorian Scottish genius now out of fashion, wrote an admirable study that almost nobody reads anymore, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. It contains the best remark on Shakespeare that I know:

 

If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of intellect, and think I had included all under that.

 

Adumbrating the observation, Carlyle characteristically exploded into a very useful warning against dividing any genius into its illusory components:

 

What indeed are faculties? We talk of faculties as if they were distinct, things separable; as if a man had intellect, imagination, fancy, etc. as he had hands, feet and arms.

 

"Power of Insight," Carlyle continued, was the vital force in any one of us. How do we recognize that insight or force in genius? We have the works of genius, and we have the memory of their personalities. I use that last word with high deliberation, following Walter Pater, another Victorian genius, but one who defies fashion, because he is akin to Emerson and to Nietzsche. These three subtle thinkers prophesied much of the intellectual future of our century that has just passed, and are unlikely to fade as influences during the new century. Pater’s preface to his major book, The Renaissance, emphasizes that the "aesthetic critic" ("aesthetic" meaning "perceptive") identifies genius in every era:

 

In all ages there have been some excellent workmen, and some excellent work done. The question he asks is always:-In whom did it stir, the genius, the sentiment of the period find itself? Where was the receptacle of his refinement, its elevation, its taste?

 

"The ages are all equal," says William Blake, "but genius is always above its age." Blake, a visionary genius almost without peer, is a superb guide to the relative independence that genius manifests in regard to time: it "is always above its age."

 

We cannot confront the twenty-first century without expecting that it too will give us a Stravinsky or Louis Armstrong, a Picasso or Matisse, a Proust or James Joyce. To hope for a Dante or Shakespeare, a J. S. Bach or Mozart, a Michelangelo or Leonardo, is to ask for too much, since gifts that enormous are very rare. Yet we want and need what will rise above the twenty-first century, whatever that turns out to be.

 

The use of my mosaic is that it ought to help prepare us for this new century, by summoning up aspects of the personality and achievements of many of the most creative who have come before us. The ancient Roman made an offering to his genius on his birthday, dedicating that day to "the god of human nature," as the poet Horace called each person’s tutelary spirit. Our custom of a birthday cake is in direct descent from that offering. We light the candles and might do well to remember what it is that we are celebrating.

 

I have avoided all living geniuses in this book, partly so as to evade the distractions of mere provocation. I can identify for myself certain writers of palpable genius now among us: the Portuguese novelist José Saramago, the Canadian poet Anne Carson, the English poet Geoffrey Hill, and at least a half-dozen North and Latin American novelists and poets (whom I forbear naming).

 

Pondering my mosaic of one hundred exemplary creative minds, I arrive at a tentative and personal definition of literary genius. The question of genius was a perpetual concern of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is the mind of America, as Walt Whitman is its poet, and Henry James its novelist (its dramatist is yet to come). For Emerson, genius was the God within, the self of "Self-Reliance." That self, in Emerson, therefore is not constituted by history, by society, by languages. It is aboriginal. I altogether agree.

 

Shakespeare, the supreme genius, is different in kind from his contemporaries, even from Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. Cervantes stands apart from Lope de Vega, and Calderòn. Something in Shakespeare and Cervantes, as in Dante, Montaigne, Milton, and Proust (to give only a few instances), is clearly both of and above the age.

 

Fierce originality is one crucial component of literary genius, but this originality itself is always canonical, in that it recognizes and comes to terms with precursors. Even Shakespeare makes an implicit covenant with Chaucer, his essential forerunner at inventing the human.

 

If genius is the God within, I need to seek it there, in the abyss of the aboriginal self, an entity unknown to nearly all our current Explainers, in the intellectually forlorn universities and in the media’s dark Satanic mills. Emerson and ancient Gnosticism agree that what is best and oldest in each of us is no part of the Creation, no part of Nature or the Not-Me. Each of us presumably can locate what is best in herself or himself, but how do we find what is oldest?

 

Where does the self begin? The Freudian answer is that the ego makes an investment in itself, which thus centers a self. Shakespeare calls our sense of identity the "selfsame"; when did Jack Falstaff become Falstaff? When did Shakespeare become Shakespeare? The Comedy of Errors is already a work of genius, yet who could have prophesied Twelfth Night on the basis of that early farce? Our recognition of genius is always retroactive, but how does genius first recognize itself?

 

The ancient answer is that there is a god within us, and the god speaks. I think that a materialist definition of genius is impossible, which is why the idea of genius is so discredited in an age like our own, where materialist ideologies dominate. Genius, by necessity, invokes the transcendental and the extraordinary, because it is fully conscious of them. Consciousness is what defines genius: Shakespeare, like his Hamlet, exceeds us in consciousness, goes beyond the highest order of consciousness that we are capable of knowing without him.

 

Gnosticism, by definition, is a knowing rather than a believing. In Shakespeare, we have neither a knower nor a believer, but a consciousness so capacious that we cannot find its rival elsewhere: in Cervantes or Montaigne, in Freud or in Wittgenstein. Those who choose (or are chosen) by one of the world religions frequently posit a cosmic consciousness to which they assign supernatural origins. But Shakespearean consciousness, which transmutes matter into imagination, does not need to violate nature. Shakespeare’s art is itself nature, and his consciousness can seem more the product of his art than its producer.

 

There, at the end of the mind, we are stationed by Shakespearean genius: a consciousness shaped by all the consciousnesses that he imagined. He remains, presumably forever, our largest instance of the use of literature for life, which is the work of augmenting awareness.

 

Though Shakespeare’s is the largest consciousness studied in this book, all the rest of these exemplary creative minds have contributed to the consciousness of their readers and auditors. The question we need to put to any writer must be: does she or he augment our consciousness, and how is it done? I find this a rough but effectual test: however I have been entertained, has my awareness been intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If not, then I have encountered talent, not genius. What is best and oldest in myself has not been activated.

 

—from Harold Bloom, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds

the opening of platonov’s surrealist masterpiece the foundation pit

Bookseller Photo  

 


On the day when he reached the thirtieth year of his personal life Voshchev was discharged from the small machine factory where he had earned the means of his existence. The dismissal notice stated that he was being separated from his job because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work . . .

The tavernkeeper was readying his establishment, winds and grasses swayed around Voshchev in the sun when he reluctantly opened his eyes, filled with renewed moist strength. He had to live and eat again; therefore he went to see the trade union committee, to defend his unneeded labor.

The management says that you were standing and thinking in the middle of production," they told him at the trade union committee. "What were you thinking about, Comrade Voshchev?”

 

"About the plan of life."

 

"The factory works according to the plan laid down by the Trust. As for your private life, you could plan it out at the club or in the Red Reading Room."

 

"I was thinking about the general plan of life. I’m not worried about my own life, that’s no secret to me."

 

"And what could you accomplish?"

 

"I could have thought up something like happiness, and spiritual meaning would improve productivity."

 

"Happiness will come from materialism, Comrade Voshchev, and not from meaning. We cannot defend you, you are a politically ignorant man, and we don’t wish to find ourselves at the tail end of the masses.”

 

Voshchev wanted to ask for some other work, even the feeblest, just so that he would earn enough to eat; and he would do his thinking on his own time. But how can one ask for anything if there’s no respect for a man, and Voshchev saw that those people had no feeling for him.

 

"You’re scared of being at the tail end of the masses; naturally, a tail’s the hind extremity. So you’ve climbed up on their necks.”

 

"The government gave you an extra hour for your thinking, Voshchev. You used to work eight hours, and now it’s only seven. You should have lived and kept quiet! If everybody starts thinking all at once, who’ll do the acting?”

 

"Without thought, there won’t be any sense in the action,” Voshchev said reflectively.

 

He left the trade union committee without getting help. The path before him lay in the heat of summer. On either side people were building technical improvements and houses where the masses, homeless until now, would live in silence . . .

Andrey Platonovich Platonov (1899-1951) was the son of a railway worker. The eldest of eleven children, he began work at the age of thirteen, first in an office, then in a factory, and finally as an engine driver’s assistant. He began publishing poems and articles in 1918, while studying engineering. Throughout much of the 1920s he worked as a land reclamation expert. Between 1927 and 1932 he wrote his most politically controversial works, some of them first published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s. Other stories were published but subjected to vicious criticism. Stalin is reputed to have written "scum" in the margin of the story "For Future Use," and to have said to Aleksandr Fadeev (later secretary of the Writers’ Union), "Give him a good belting—for future use." During the 1930s Platonov made several public confessions of error, but went on writing stories only marginally more acceptable to the authorities. His son was sent to the Gulag in 1938, aged fifteen; he was released three years later, only to die of the tuberculosis he had contracted there. During the war Platonov worked as a war correspondent and published several volumes of stories; after the war, however, he was again almost unable to publish. He died in 1951, of tuberculosis caught from his son . . .

 

—from http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?usca_p=t&product_id=8831

haruki murakami’s another way to die


It is August of 1945, and a Japanese veterinarian is taking care of a zoo in the city of Hsin-ching in Japanese-held Manchuria. The Russians are on their way; yesterday, the Japanese killed the dangerous animals to avoid their escaping when the city is attacked . . .

ANOTHER WAY TO DIE by MURAKAMI Haruki

Last orders of a Japanese officer in Manchuria, during the final moments of the Second World War.

The Japanese veterinarian woke before 6 A.M. Most of the animals in the Hsin-ching zoo were already awake. The open window let in their cries and the breeze that carried their smells, which told him the weather without his having to look outside. This was part of his routine here in Manchuria: he would listen, then inhale the morning air, and so ready himself for each new day.

Today, however, should have been different from the day before. It had to be different. So many voices and smells had been lost! The tigers, the leopards, the wolves, the bears: all had been liquidated, eliminated, by a Japanese squad the previous afternoon to avoid the animals’ escaping as the city came under Russian attack. Now, after some hours of sleep, those events seemed to him like part of a sluggish nightmare he had had long ago. But he knew they had actually happened. His ears still felt a dull ache from the roar of the soldiers’ rifles; that could not be a dream. It was August now, the year 1945, and he was here in the city of Hsin-ching, in Japanese-held Manchuria; Soviet troops had burst across the border and were pressing closer every hour. This was reality-as real as the sink and toothbrush he saw in front of him.

The sound of the elephants’ trumpeting gave him some sense of relief. Ah, yes, the elephants had survived. Fortunately, the young lieutenant in charge of yesterday’s action had had enough normal human sensitivity to remove the elephants from the list, the veterinarian thought as he washed his face. Since coming to Manchuria, he had met any number of stiff-necked, fanatical young officers from his homeland, and the experiencealways left him shaken. Most of them were farmers’ sons who had spent their youthful years in the depressed nineteen-thirties, steeped in the tragedies of poverty while a megalomaniac nationalism was hammered into their skulls. They would follow the orders of a superior without a second thought, no matter how outlandish. If they were commanded, in the name of the Emperor, to dig a hole through the earth to Brazil, they would grab a shovel and set to work. Some people called this "purity," but the veterinarian had other words for it. As an urban doctor’s son, educated in the relatively liberal atmosphere of Japan in the twenties, the veterinarian could never understand those young officers. Shooting a couple of elephants should have been a simpler assignment than digging through the earth to Brazil, but yesterday’s lieutenant, though he spoke with a slight country accent, seemed to be a more normal human being than other officers were, better educated and more reasonable. The veterinarian could sense this from the way the young man spoke and handled himself.

In any case, the elephants had not been killed, and the veterinarian told himself that he should probably be grateful. The soldiers, too, must have been glad to be spared the task. The Chinese workers may have regretted the omission, they had missed out on a lot of meat and ivory.

The veterinarian boiled water in a kettle, soaked his beard in a hot towel, and shaved. Then he ate breakfast alone: tea, toast, and butter. The food rations in Manchuria were far from sufficient, but compared with those elsewhere they were still fairly generous. This was good news both for him and for the animals. The animals showed resentment at their reduced allotments of feed, but the situation here was better than in zoos back in the Japanese homeland, where food supplies had already bottomed out. No one could predict the future, but for now, at least, both animals and humans were spared the pain of extreme hunger.

He wondered how his wife and daughter were doing. They had left for Japan a few days earlier, and if all went according to plan their train should have reached the Korean coast by now. There they would board the transport ship that would carry them home to Japan. The doctor missed seeing them when he woke up in the morning. He missed hearing their lively voices as they prepared breakfast. A hollow quiet ruled the house. This was no longer the home he loved, the place where he belonged. And yet, at the same time, he could not help feeling a certain strange joy at being left alone in this empty official residence; now he was able to sense the implacable power of fate in his very bones and flesh.

Fate itself was the veterinarian s own fatal disease. From his youngest days, he had had a weirdly lucid awareness that "I, as an individual, am living under the control of some outside force." Most of the rime, the power of fate played on like a quiet and monotonous ground bass, coloring only the edges of his life. Rarely was he reminded of its existence. But every once in a while the balance would shift and the force would increase, plunging him into a state of near-paralytic resignation. He knew from experience that nothing he could do or think would ever change the situation. Not that he was a passive creature; indeed, he was more decisive than most, and he always saw his decisions through. In his profession, too, he was outstanding: a veterinarian of exceptional skill, a tireless educator. He was certainly no fatalist, as most people use the word. And yet never had he experienced the unshakable certainty that he had arrived at a decision entirely on his own. He alwayshad the sense that fate had forced him to decide things to suit its own convenience. On occasion, after the momentary satisfaction of having decided something of his own free will, he would see that things had been decided beforehand by an external power cleverly camouflaged as free will, mere bait thrown in his path to lure him into behaving as he was meant to. He felt like a titular head of state who did nothing more than impress the royal seal on documents at the behest of a regent who wielded all true power in the realm, like the Emperor of this puppet empire of Manchukuo.

Now, left behind in his residence at the zoo, the veterinarian was alone with his fate. And it was fate above all, the gigantic power of fate, that held sway here-not the Kwantung Army, not the Soviet Army, not the troops of the Chinese Communists or of the Kuomintang. Anyone could see that fate was the ruler here, and that individual will counted for nothing. It was fate that had spared the elephants and buried the tigers and leopards and wolves and bears the day before. What would it bury now, and what would it spare? These were questions that no one could answer.

The veterinarian left his residence to prepare for the morning feeding. He assumed that no one would show up for work anymore, but he found two Chinese boys waiting for him in his office. He did not know them. They were thirteen or fourteen years old, dark complexioned and skinny, with roving animal eyes. "They told us to help you," one boy said. The doctor nodded. He asked their names, but they made no reply. Their faces remained blank, as if they had not heard the question. These boys had obviously been sent by the Chinese people who had worked here until the day before. Those people had probably ended all contact with the Japanese now, in anticipation of a new regime, but assumed that children would not be held accountable. The boys had been sent as a sign of good will, the workers knew that he could not care for the animals alone.

The veterinarian gave each boy two cookies, then put them to work helping him feed the animals. They led a mule-drawn cart from cage to cage, providing each animal with its particular feed and changing its water. Cleaning the cages was out of the question. The best they could manage was a quick hose-down, to wash away the droppings.

They started the work at eight o’clock and finished after ten. The boys then disappeared without a word. The veterinarian felt exhausted from the hard physical labor. He went back to the office and reported to the zoo director that the animals had been fed.

Just before noon, the young lieutenant came back to the zoo leading the same eight soldiers he had brought the day before. Fully armed again, they walked with a metallic clinking that could be heard far in advance of their arrival. Their shirts were blackened with sweat. Cicadas were screaming in the trees, as they had been yesterday. Today, however, the soldiers had not come to kill animals. The lieutenant saluted the director and said, "We need to know the current status of the zoo’s usable carts and draft animals." The director informed him that the zoo had exactly one mule and one wagon. "We contributed our only truck and two horses two weeks ago," he noted. The lieutenant nodded and announced that he would immediately commandeer the mule and wagon, as per orders of Kwantung Army Headquarters.

" Wait just a minute," the veterinarian interjected. "We need those to feed the animals twice a day. All our local people have disappeared. Without that mule and wagon, our animals will starve to death. Even with them, we can barely keep up."

"We’re all just barely keeping up, sir," said the lieutenant, whose eyes were red and whose face was covered with stubble. "Our first priority is to defend the city. You can always let the animals out of their cages if need be. We’ve taken care of the dangerous carnivores. The others pose no security risk. These are military orders, sir. You’ll just have to manage as you see fit."

Cutting the discussion short, the lieutenant had his men take the mule and wagon. When they were gone, the veterinarian and the director looked at each other. The director sipped his tea, shook his head, and said nothing.

Four hours later, the soldiers were back with the mule and wagon, a filthy canvas tarpaulin covering the mounded contents of the wagon. The mule was panting, its hide foaming with the afternoon heat and the weight of the load. The eight soldiers marched four Chinese men ahead of them at bayonet point, young men, perhaps twenty years old, wearing baseball uniforms and with their hands tied behind their backs. Black-and-blue marks on their faces made it obvious that they had been severely beaten. The right eye of one man was swollen almost shut, and the bleeding lips of another had stained his baseball shirt bright red. The shirtfronts had nothing written on them, but there were small rectangles where the name patches had been torn off. The numbers on their backs were 1, 4, 7, and 9. The veterinarian could not begin to imagine why, at such a time of crisis, four young Chinese men would be wearing baseball uniforms or why they had been so badly beaten and dragged here by Japanese troops. The scene looked like something not of this world, a painting by a mental patient.

The lieutenant asked the zoo director if he had any picks and shovels he could let them use. The young officer looked even more pale and haggard than he had before. The veterinarian led him and his men to a toolshed behind the office. The lieutenant chose two picks and two shovels for his men. Then he asked the veterinarian to come with him and, leaving his men there, walked into a thicket beyond the road. The veterinarian followed. Wherever the lieutenant walked, huge grasshoppers scattered. The smell of summer grass hung in the air. Mixed in with the deafening screams of cicadas, the sharp trumpeting of elephants now and then seemed to sound a distant warning.

The lieutenant went on among the trees without speaking, until he found a kind of opening in the woods. The area had been slated for construction of a plaza for small animals that children could play with. The plan had been postponed indefinitely, however, when the worsening military situation made construction materials scarce. The trees had been cleared away to make a circle of bare ground, and the sun illuminated this one part of the woods like stage lighting. The lieutenant stood in the center of the circle and scanned the area. Then he dug at the ground with the heel of his boot.

"We’re going to bivouac here for a while," he said, kneeling down and scooping up a handful of dirt.

The veterinarian nodded in response. He had no idea why they had to bivouac in a zoo, but he decided not to ask. Here in Hsin-ching, experience had taught him never to question military men. Questions did nothing but make them angry, and they never gave you a straight answer in any case.

"First we dig a big hole here," the lieutenant said, speaking as if to himself. He stood up and took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Putting a cigarette between his lips, he offered one to the doctor, then lit both with a match. The two concentrated on their smoking to fill the silence. Again the lieutenant began digging at the ground with his boot. He drew a kind of diagram in the earth, then rubbed it out. Finally, he asked the veterinarian, "’Where were you born?"

"In Kanagawa," the doctor said. "in a town called Ofuna, near the sea, an hour or two from Tokyo."

The lieutenant nodded.

"And where were you born?" the veterinarian asked.

Instead of answering, the lieutenant narrowed his eyes and watched the smoke rising from between his fingers. No, it never pays to ask a military man questions, the veterinarian told himself again. They like to ask questions, but they’ll never give you an answer. They wouldn’t give you the time of day, literally .

"There’s a movie studio there," the lieutenant said.

It took the veterinarian a few seconds to realize the lieutenant was talking about Ofuna. "That’s right. A big studio. I’ve never been inside, though."

The lieutenant dropped what was left of his cigarette on the ground and crushed it out. "I hope you make it back there," he said. "Of course, there’s an ocean to cross between here and Japan. We’ll probably all die over here." He kept his eyes on the ground as he spoke. "Tell me, Doctor, are you afraid of death?"

"I guess it depends on how you die," the veterinarian said after a moment’s thought.

The lieutenant raised his eyes and looked at the veterinarian as if his curiosity had been aroused. He had apparently been expecting another answer. ‘You’re right," he said. "It does depend on how you die."

The two remained silent for a time. The lieutenant looked as if he might just fall asleep there standing up. He was obviously exhausted. An especially large grasshopper flew over them like a bird and disappeared into a distant clump of grass with a noisy beating of wings. The lieutenant glanced at his watch. "Time to get started," he said to no one in particular. Then he spoke to the veterinarian. "I’d like you to stay around for a while. I might have to ask you to do me a favor." The veterinarian nodded.

The soldiers led the Chinese prisoners to the opening in the woods and untied their hands. The corporal drew a large cir cl e on the ground using a baseball bat, why a soldier would have a batthe veterinarian found another mystery-and ordered the prisoners, in Japanese, to dig a deep hole the size of the circle. With the picks and shovels, the four men in baseball uniforms started digging in silence. Half the Japanese squad stood guard over them while the other half stretched out beneath the trees. They seemed to be in desperate need of sleep; no sooner had they hit the ground in fu ll gear than they began snoring. The four soldiers who remained awake kept watch over the digging nearby, rifles resting on their hips, bayonets fixed, ready for immediate use. The lieutenant and the corporal took turns overseeing the work and napping under the trees.

It took less than an hour for the four Chinese prisoners to dig a hole some twelve feet across and deep enough to come up to their necks. One of the men asked for water, speaking in Japanese. The lieutenant nodded, and a soldier brought a bucket full of water. The four Chinese took turns ladling water from the bucket and gulping it down with obvious relish. They drank almost the entire bucketful. Their uniforms were smeared black with blood, mud, and sweat.

The lieutenant had two of the soldiers pull the wagon over to the hole. The corporal yanked the tarpaulin off, to reveal four dead men piled in the wagon. They wore the same baseball uniforms as the prisoners, and they, too, were obviously Chinese. They appeared to have been shot, and their uniforms were covered with black bloodstains. Large flies were beginning to swarm over the corpses. Judging from the way the blood had dried, the doctor guessed that they had been dead for close to twenty-four hours.

The lieutenant ordered the four Chinese who had dug the hole to throw the bodies into it. Without a word, faces blank, the men took the bodies out of the wagon and threw them, one at a time, into the hole. Each corpse landed with a dull thud. The numbers on the dead men’s uniforms were 2, 5, 6, and 8. The veterinarian committed them to memory.

When the four Chinese had finished throwing the bodies into the hole, the soldiers tied each man to a nearby tree. The lieutenant held up his wrist and studied his watch with a grim expression. Then he looked up toward a spot in the sky for a while, as if searching for something there. He looked like a stationmaster standing on the platform and waiting for a hopelessly overdue train. But in fact he was looking at nothing at all. He was just allowing a certain amount of time to go by. Once he had accomplished that, he turned to the corporal and gave him curt orders to bayonet three of the four prisoners, Nos . 1, 7, and 9.

Three soldiers were chosen and took up their positions in front of the three Chinese. The soldiers looked paler than the men they were about to kill. The Chinese looked too tired to hope for anything. The corporal offered each of them a smoke, but they refused. He put his cigarettes back into his shirt pocket.

Taking the veterinarian with him, the lieutenant went to stand somewhat apart from the other soldiers. "You’d better watch this," he said. "This is another way to die."

The veterinarian nodded. The lieutenant is not saying this to me, he thought. He’s saying it to himself.

In a gentle voice, the lieutenant explained, "Shooting them would be the simplestand most efficient way to kill them, but we have orders not to waste a single bullet-and certainly not to waste bullets killing Chinese. We’re supposed to save our ammunition for the Russians. We’ll just bayonet them, I suppose, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. By the way, Doctor, did they teach you how to use a bayonet in the Army?"

The doctor explained that, as a cavalry veterinarian, he had not been trained to use a bayonet.

‘Well, the proper way to kill a man with a bayonet is this: First, you thrust it in under the ribs, here." The lieutenant pointed to his own torso just above the stomach. "Then you drag the point in a big, deep circle inside him to scramble the organs. Then you thrust upward to puncture the heart. You can’t just stick it in and expect him to die. We soldiers have this drummed into us. Hand-to-hand combat using bayonets ranks right up there along with night assaults as the pride of the Imperial Army, though mainly it’s a lot cheaper than tanks and planes and cannons, Of course, you can train all you want, but finally what you’re stabbing is a straw doll, not a live human being. It doesn’t bleed or scream or spill its guts on the ground. These soldiers have never actually killed a human being that way. And neither have I."

The lieutenant looked at the corporal and gave him a nod. The corporal barked his order to the three soldiers, who snapped to attention. Then they took a half step back and thrust out their bayonets, each man aiming his blade at his prisoner. One of the young men. (No. 7) growled something in Chinese that sounded like a curse and gave a defiant spit, which never reached the ground but dribbled down the front of his baseball uniform.

At the sound of the next order, the three soldiers thrust their bayonets into the Chinese men with tremendous force. Then, as the lieutenant had said, they twisted the blades so as to rip the men’s internal organs, and thrust the tips upward. The cries of the Chinese men were not very loud, more like deep sobs than like screams, as if they were heaving out the breath left in their bodies all at once through a single opening. The soldiers pulled out their bayonets and stepped back. The corporal barked his order again, and the men repeated the procedure exactly as before, stabbing , twisting, thrusting upward, withdrawing. The veterinarian watched in numbed silence, overtaken by the sense that he was beginning to split in two. He became simultaneously the stabber and the stabbed. He could feel both the impact of the bayonet as it entered his victim’s body and the pain of having his internal organs slashed to bits.

It took much longer than he would have imagined for the Chinese men to die. Their sliced-up bodies poured prodigious amounts of blood on the ground, but, even with their organs shredded, they went on twitching slightly for quite some time. The corporal used his own bayonet to cut the ropes that bound the men to the trees, and then he had the soldiers who had not participated in the killing help drag the fallen bodies to the hole and throw them in. These corpses also made a dull thud on impact, but the doctor couldn’t help feeling that the sound was different from that made by the earlier corpses ? probably because these were not entirely dead yet.

Now only the young Chinese prisoner with the number 4 on his shirt was left. The three pale-faced soldiers tore broad leaves from plants at their feet and proceeded to wipe their bloody bayonets.Not only blood but strange-colored body fluids and chunks of flesh adhered to the blades. The men had to use many leaves to return the bayonets to their original bare-metal shine.

The veterinarian wondered why only the one man, No. 4, had been left alive, but he was not going to ask questions. The lieutenant took out another cigarette and lit up. He then offered a smoke to the veterinarian, who accepted it in silence and, after putting it between his lips, struck his own match. His hand did not tremble, but it seemed to have lost all feeling, as if he were wearing thick gloves.

"These men were cadets in the Manchukuo Army Officer Candidate School," the lieutenant said. "They refused to participate in the defense of Hsin-ching. They killed two of their Japanese instructors last night and tried to run away. We caught them during night patrol, killed four of them on the spot, and captured the other four. Two more escaped in the dark" The lieutenant rubbed his beard with the palm of his hand. "They were trying to make their getaway in baseball uniforms. I guess they figured they’d be arrested as deserters if they wore their military uniforms. Or maybe they were afraid of what Communist troops would do to them if they were caught in their Manchukuo uniforms. Anyway, all they had in their barracks to wear besides their cadet outfits were uniforms of the O.C.S. baseball team. So they tore off the names and tried to get away wearing these. I don’t know if you know, but the school had a great team. They used to go to Taiwan and Korea for friendship games. That guy", and here the lieutenant motioned toward the man tied to the tree, "was captain of the team and batted cleanup. We think he was the one who organized the getaway, too. He killed the two instructors with a bat. The instructors knew there was trouble in the barracks and weren’t going to distribute weapons to the cadets until it was an absolute emergency. But they forgot about the baseball bats. Both of them had their skulls cracked open. They probably died instantly. Two perfect home runs. This is the bat."

The lieutenant had the corporal bring the bat to him. He passed the bat to the veterinarian. The doctor took it in both hands and held it up in front of his face, the way a player stepping into the batter’s box does. It was just an ordinary bat, not very well made, with a rough finish and an uneven grain. It was heavy, though, and well broken in. The handle was black with sweat. It didn’t look like a bat that had been used recently to kill two human beings. After getting a feel for its weight, the veterinarian handed it back to the lieutenant, who gave it a few easy swings, handling it like an expert.

"Do you play baseball?" the lieutenant asked the veterinarian.

"All the time when I was a kid."

"Too grown up now?"

"No more baseball for me," the veterinarian said, and he was on the verge of asking "How about you, lieutenant?" but he swallowed the words.

"I’ve been ordered to beat this guy to death with the same bat he used," the lieutenant said in a dry voice as he tapped the ground with the tip of the bat. "An eye for an eye,a tooth for a tooth. Just between you and me, I think the order stinks. What the hell good is it going to do to kill these guys? We don’t have any planes left, we don’t have any warships, our best troops are dead. Just the other day some kind of special new bomb wiped out the whole city of Hiroshima in a split second. Either we’re going to be swept out of Manchuria or we’ll all be killed, and China will belong to the Chinese again. We’ve already killed a lot of Chinese, and adding a few bodies to the count isn’t going to make any difference. But orders are orders. I’m a soldier and I have to follow orders. We killed the tigers and leopards yesterday, and today we have to kill these guys. So take a good look, Doctor. This is another way for people to die. You’re a doctor, so you’re probably used to knives and blood and guts, but you’ve probably never seen anyone beaten to death with a baseball bat."

The lieutenant ordered the corporal to bring player No. 4, the cleanup batter, to the edge of the hole. Once again they tied his hands behind his back, then blindfolded him and had him kneel down on the ground. He was a tall, strongly built young man with massive arms the size of most people’s thighs. The lieutenant called over one young soldier and handed him the bat. "Kill him with this," he said. The young soldier stood at attention and saluted before taking the bat, but having taken it in his hands he just went on standing there as if stupefied. He seemed unable to grasp the concept of beating a Chinese man to death with a baseball bat.

"Have you ever played baseball?" the lieutenant asked the young soldier.

"No, sir, never," the soldier replied in a loud voice. Both the village in Hokkaido where he was born and the village in Manchuria where he grew up had been so poor that no family in either place could have afforded the luxury of a baseball or a bat. He had spent his boyhood running around the fields, catching dragonflies and playing at sword fighting with sticks. He had never in his life played baseball, or even seen a game. This was the first time he had ever held a bat.

The lieutenant showed him how to hold the bat and taught him the basics of the swing, demonstrating a few times himself. "See? It’s all in the hips," he grunted through clenched teeth. "Starting from the backswing, you twist from the waist down. The tip of the bat follows through naturally. Understand? If you concentrate too much on swinging the bat, your arms do all the work and you lose power. Swing from the hips."

The soldier didn’t seem frilly to comprehend the lieutenant’s instructions, but he took off his heavy gear as ordered and practiced his swing for a while. Everyone was watching him. The lieutenant placed his hands over the soldier’s to help him adjust his grip. He was a good teacher. Before long, the soldier’s swing, though somewhat awkward, was swishing through the air. What the young soldier lacked in skill he made up for in muscle power, having spent his days working on the farm.

"That’s good enough," the lieutenant said, using his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow. "O.K., now try to do it in one good, clean swing. Don’t let him suffer."

What he really wanted to say was "I don’t want to do this any more than you do. Who the hell could have thought of anything so stupid? Killing a guy with a baseball bat . . ." But an officer could never say such a thing to an enlisted man.

The soldier stepped up behind the blindfolded Chinese man where he knelt on the ground. When the soldier raised the bat, the strong rays of the setting sun cast its long, thick shadow on the earth. This is so weird, the veterinarian thought. The lieutenant’s right: I’ve never seen a man killed with a baseball bat. The young soldier held the bat aloft for a long time. The veterinarian saw its tip shaking.

The lieutenant nodded to the soldier. With a deep breath, the soldier took a backswing, then smashed the bat with all his strength into the back of the Chinese cadet’s head. He did it amazingly well. He swung his hips exactly as the lieutenant had taught him to, the brand of the bat made a direct hit behind the man s ear, and the bat followed through perfectly. There was a dull crushing sound as the skull shattered. The man himself made no sound. His body hung in the air for a moment in a strange pose, then flopped forward. He lay with his cheek on the ground, blood flowing from one ear. He did not move. The lieutenant looked at his watch. Still gripping the bat, the young soldier stared off into space, his mouth agape.

The lieutenant was a person who did things with great care. He waited for a f u ll minute. When he was certain that the Chinese man was not moving at all, he said to the veterinarian, "Could you do me a favor and check to see that he’s really dead?"

The veterinarian nodded, walked over to where the young Chinese lay, and knelt down and removed his blindfold. The man’s eyes were open wide, the pupils turned upward, and bright – red blood was flowing from his ear. His half-opened mouth revealed the tongue lying tangled inside. The impact had left his neck twisted at a strange angle. The man’s nostrils had expelled thick gobs of blood, making black stains on the dry ground. One particularly alert, and large, fly had already burrowed its way into a nostril to lay eggs. Just to make sure, the veterinarian took the man’s wrist and felt for a pulse. There was no pulse, certainly not where there was supposed to be one. The young soldier had ended this burly man’s life with a single swing of a bat-indeed, his first – ever swing of a bat. The veterinarian glanced toward the lieutenant and nodded, to signal that the man was, without a doubt, dead. Having completed his assigned task, he was beginning slowly to rise to his frill height when it seemed to him that the sun shining on his back suddenly increased in intensity.

At that very moment, the young Chinese batter in uniform No. 4 rose up into a sitting position as if he had just come frilly awake. Without the slightest uncertainty or hesitation?or so it seemed to those watching?he grabbed the doctor’s wrist. It all happened in a split second. The veterinarian could not understand; this man was dead, he was sure of it. But now, thanks to one last drop of life that seemed to well up out of nowhere, the man was gripping the veterinarian’s wrist with the strength of a steel vise. Eyelids stretched open to the limit, pupils still glaring upward, the man fell forward into the hole, dragging the doctor in after him. The doctor fell in on top of him and heard the man’s ribs crack as his weight came down. Still the Chinese ballplayer continued to grip his wrist. The soldiers saw all this happening, but they were too stunned to do anything more than stand and watch. The lieutenant recovered first and leaped into the hole. He drew hispistol from his holster, set the muzzle against the Chinese man’s head, and pulled the trigger twice. Two sharp, overlapping cracks r ang out, and a large black hole opened in the man’s temple. Now his life was completely gone, but still he refused to release the doctor’s wrist. The lieutenant knelt down and, pistol in one hand, began the painstaking process of prying open the corpse’s fingers one at a time. The veterinarian lay there in the hole, surrounded by eight silent Chinese corpses in baseball uniforms. Down in the hole, the screeching of cicadas sounded very different from the way it sounded above ground.

Once the veterinarian had been freed from the dead man’s grasp, the soldiers pulled him and the lieutenant out of the grave. The veterinarian squatted down on the grass and took several deep breaths. Then he looked at his wrist. The man’s fingers had left five bright-red marks. On this hot August afternoon, the veterinarian felt chilled to the core of his body. I’ll never get rid of this coldness again, he thought. That man was truly, seriously trying to take me with him wherever he was going.

The lieutenant reset the pistol’s safety and carefully slipped the gun into its holster. This was the first time he had ever fired a gun at a human being. But he tried not to think about it. The war would continue for a little while at least, and people would continue to die . He could leave the deep thinking for later. He wiped his sweaty right palm on his pants, then ordered the soldiers who had not participated in the execution to fill in the hole. A huge swarm of flies had already taken custody of the pile of corpses.

The young soldier went on standing where he was, stupefied, gripping the bat. He couldn’t seem to make his hands let go. The lieutenant and the corporal left him alone. He had seemed to be watching the whole bizarre series of events, the "dead" Chinese suddenly grabbing the veterinarian by the wrist, their falling into the grave, the lieutenants leaping in and finishing him off, and now the other soldiers’ filling in the hole. But in fact he had not been watching any of it. He had been listening to a bird in a tree somewhere making a "Creeeak! Creeeak!" sound as if winding a spring. The soldier looked up, trying to pinpoint the direction of the cries, but he could see no sign of the windup bird. He felt a slight sense of nausea at the back of his throat.

As he listened to the winding of the spring, the young soldier saw one fragmentary image after another rise up before him and fade away. After the Japanese were disarmed by the Soviets, the lieutenant would be handed over to the Chinese and hanged for his responsibility in these executions. The corporal would die of the plague in a Siberian concentration camp: he would be thrown into a quarantine shed and left there until dead, though in fact he had merely collapsed from malnutrition and had not contracted the plague, not, at least, until he was thrown into the shed. The veterinarian would die in an accident a year later: a civilian, he would be taken by the Soviets for co6perating with the military and sent to another Siberian camp to do hard labor; he would be working in a deep shaft of a Siberian coal mine when a flood would drown him along with many soldiers. And I, thought the young soldier with the bat in his hands, but he could not see his own future. He could not even see as real the events that were happening before his very eyes. He closed his eyes now and listened to the call of the windup bird.

Then, all at once, he thought of the ocean, the ocean he had seen from the deck of the ship bringing him from Japan to Manchuria eight years earlier. He had never seen the ocean before, nor had he seen it since. He could still remember the smell of the salt air. The ocean was one of the greatest things he had ever seen in his life, bigger and deeper than anything he had imagined. It changed its color and shape and expression according to time and place and weather. It aroused a deep sadness in his heart, and at the same time it brought his heart peace and comfort. Would he ever see it again? He loosened his grip and let the bat fall to the ground. It made a dry sound as it struck the earth. After the bat left his hands, he felt a slight increase in his nausea.

The windup bird went on crying, but no one else could hear its call.


This story was translated by Jay Rubin and published in the January 20, 1997 issue of The New Yorker.

gilbert sorrentino’s a strange commonplace

 

"To the novel—everyone’s novel—Sorrentino brings honor, tradition, and relentless passion."—Don DeLillo

 

Borrowing its title from a William Carlos Williams poem, A Strange Commonplace lays bare the secrets and dreams of characters whose lives are intertwined by coincidence and necessity, possessions and experience. Ensnared in a jungle of city streets and suburban bedroom communities from the boozy 1950s to the culturally vacuous present, lines blur between families and acquaintances, violence and love, hope and despair. As fathers try to connect with their children, as writers struggle for credibility, as wives walk out, and as an old man plays Russian roulette with a deck of cards, their stories resonate with poignancy and savage humor—familiar, tragic, and cathartic.

—from http://www.coffeehousepress.org/strangecommonplace.asp 

 

book cover of 

A Strange Commonplace 

by

Gilbert Sorrentino


Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel, A Strange Commonplace (provided it can be called a novel), begins with this sentence, which tells us a little story in itelf:

 

After her husband left her for some floozie who was supposed to be an executive secretary at the crummy half-assed company he’d worked at for years without a raise or even so much as a bottle of cheap whiskey at Christmas, she packed up a few things, took the girl, and moved in with her cousin Janet on Gerritsen Avenue.

 

The rest of the book is essentially a process of Sorrentino reworking, revising, and reimagining the particulars of this ur-story; themes of lust, madness, incest, suicide are periodically introduced into this original narrative, then abandoned, only to reappear later on. As with much of what Sorrentino wrote, the book’s formal structure is an area of primary focus for reader and writer.
 

 

 

Excerpts:

 

Pair of Deuces

 

He held a pair of deuces, a king of diamonds, a four of spades, and a seven of clubs. He drew three cards and waited to look to see if he’d got the third deuce. If he had drawn it, what? What would happen? What did he want to happen? Warren and Ray and Blackie were arranging their cards as best they could: Warren, shaking with palsy, Blackie, Jesus, Blackie had almost forgotten how to play the game, thought he was playing rummy half the time, and Ray, half-blind, who’d opened and drawn one card, looked irritated, so it was clear that the two low pair he’d probably been dealt had not miraculously become a full house. Even though he’d probably prayed to St. Anselm or St. Jude or the Blessed Virgin, or maybe the Infant Jesus of Prague. He’d Infant Jesus of Prague him right up his ass if he’d got his third deuce. And if he had, a big black Packard would appear on the lawn where they walked the pitiful Alzheimer’s patients around and around. He’d find his beautiful Borsalino on his shelf next to the idiotic baseball caps his daughter-in-law brought him; he’d make sure to lose them, but she brought more. They all had those logos or dim-witted messages on them. The one he liked best matter-of-factly stated: BORN TO LOVE TRAINED TO KILL. What an impossibly stupid woman she was. Well, he didn’t have to live with her. So, he’d have his Borsalino on, maybe that powder-blue tropical worsted suit he’d babied for years and years with the beautiful drape to the pants. He’d step into his Packard. That sweet young girl he’d got half-drunk with about three lifetimes ago in a bar off Gun Hill Road would be on the seat next to him in a little sun dress, a white sun dress. They’d finish what they started, oh the hell with it. What he really wanted to happen was for Warren and Blackie and Ray to disappear, for the Ridge Meadow Manor to disappear, and for himself to be as if he had never been: not to disappear, but to have never existed. Three deuces would do the trick. He looked at his cards, pushing the tight little booklet open with his thumb, card by card. The card that should have been his third deuce was a four of clubs. Ray, squinting as he laid his cards down, won, of course, with his lousy two pair. Well, all right. Tomorrow he’d try another magical route to oblivion.

 

—from http://www.readysteadybook.com/Article.aspx?page=fromastrangecommonplace

 


Rain

 

The fathers:

 

and their lost children on gray and hopeless Saturdays: after the puppet shows and the botanical gardens, the parks, the zoos and rowboats; after the ice-cream sodas and hamburgers, the hot fudge sundaes and roller coasters, the Yoo-hoos and Shirley Temples; after the loose change pressed into the dirty, sticky little hands, the dollar bills; after the museums and museums and museums and pony rides, the Cracker Jacks and new sneakers and toy fire engines and dolls and hair ribbons and plastic barrettes; after the thin fake smiles and the small talk with the wives’ understanding and kind and reliable new boyfriends, the sharp words about meager child support and clothes for school; after ruining their shoes in the rain, after their sodden overcoats, the dark bars where nobody knows them but where the children get their 7-Ups on the house; after the introductions to Graces or Mollies or Annes or Elaines or Lindas or Charlottes or Anybodies dressed so as to look serious, so as to look like Moms, to look like Somebodies who could be Moms, who were just like Moms, just as good as Moms; after the long nights later over whiskey and beer and worries about how nothing had gone right; after the movies, the ice-cream parlors, the diners, the melted cheese sandwiches, the pizzas, the aimless walks; after the friends who say how big the children are getting, how pretty, how smart; after the long trips back to the wives’ little apartments in Bensonhurst or Washington Heights or Bay Ridge or Marine Park or Park Slope or the Lower East Side or Sunset Park or Brighton Beach, Ozone Park, Kew Gardens, anywhere; after the buses and the penny arcades, the boardwalks and amusement parks, the hot dogs and lost gloves and scarves and hats; after the boredom and tears and silences and bewilderment, the cheap souvenirs; after Snow White and Dumbo, Pinocchio and Tarzan and Mickey Mouse andDonald Duck; after the Neccos and Charms and Nibs and Black Crows and Baby Ruths and Milky Ways and Mounds; after the quarrels in hateful whispers because they were back too late or too early or because the children were too tired or over-excited or spoiled again, as usual; after the rages over who had been at fault, who had stopped caring about anything; after the old accusations of adultery and gambling, drunkenness and abandonment, withdrawal and frigidity and contempt, nights with phony friends, days with venomous bitches, yes! on the phone; after the discoveries of other men’s clothes in the closets, shoes, razors and after shave in the bathroom; after the nights watching television, playing records suddenly disliked, held in contempt, hated; after coming across old gifts given them by once-young, once-passionate, once-loving, once funny and warm and caring women who had been, was it possible? their wives; after shouting and cursing and blaming and suffering; after meandering affairs with secretaries and office assistants and receptionists, widowed or divorced neighbors, waitresses and God knows how many faceless unhappy women met at bars and parties and weddings and, Jesus, wakes; after the unbearable old photographs with their images of contentment and joy and love and now-harrowing smiles of optimism and hope and endless and wonderfully stupid youth; after all this, after walking from the subway in the rain, it seemed always in the fucking rain; after all this, the doomed, the hated Saturdays, again and again, the fathers remembered, in a dazzle of candor, the specific moments when the last tenuous links between them and their restless and distracted children began to dissolve, disintegrate, remembered their children in the act of fading away from them, fading into their actual lives: to which the fathers had no access, of which the fathers knew nothing at all and never would.

 

The fathers would sit with their beer and their whiskey, their Camels or Luckies or Chesterfields, their crossword puzzles and sour jingo political columns and imbecile horoscopes and righteous editorials and think about the time when they were not expected to be anything but simply alive. Alive and waiting for the glittering future: of beautiful wives and happy children and perfect lakes and summers and long vacations and bright beaches. And the absurd, wholly impossible bliss that awaited them, a thing of beauty.

 

—from http://www.coffeehousepress.org/strangecommonplaceexcerpt.asp