surrealistic short fiction from boris vian

 
Boris Vian was a French writer, poet, jazz musician, critic, actor—to name just a few of his trades.  Vian’s approach to life can be found in his famous assertion that that “I am not an existentialist. For an existentialist, existence precedes essence. For me, there isn’t any such thing as essence.” Vian was a Satrap of the College of Pataphysics, the neo-Surrealist group that included Raymond Queneau and Eugene lonesco.
 
In 1959, while watching the screening of a film made from  his 1946 novel I Spit on Your Graves (J’Irai Cracher Sur Vos Tombes). A few minutes into the film, Vian apparently yelled “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and then collapsed, dying of a heart attack at age 39.  I Spit on Your Graves was also associated with another death, after a man murdered his mistress in a Montmartre motel and left behind a copy of the bestselling novel at the murder scene within which he’d highlighted the particularly violent passages.
 
 
 


      Vian’s murderous bestseller

His short story “The Dead Fish” is a surrealistic piece about forgery and murder:
 
 
 The Dead Fish 
by Boris Vian   

The carriage door stuck as usual; at the other end of the train, the big hat chief leaned hard on the red button, and the compressed air squirted into the tubes. The assistant strained to force the two panels apart. He was hot. Drops of gray sweat zigzagging across his face, like flies, and the dirty collar of his insulated zephyr shirt was exposed.

 

The train was about to start when the chief released the button. The air belched joyously under the train, and the assistant almost lost his balance as the door suddenly gave way. He stumbled down, not without ripping open his collecting bag on the latch.

 

The train started, and the resulting atmospheric displacement pushed the assistant against the malodorous latrines, where two Arabs were discussing politics with great knife-blows.

 

The assistant shook himself, patted his hair, which was crushed against his soft skull like rotten weeds. A faint mist rose from his half-naked torso, from which stood out a jutting clavicle, and the beginnings of one or two pairs of uncouth, badly planted ribs.

 

With a heavy step, he went down the platform tiled with hexagons of red and green, soiled here and there with long black trails: it had rained octopuses during the afternoon, but the time that the station employees were supposed to dedicate to mopping the platform, according to their monumental chart, had been passed in the satisfaction of unmentionable needs.

 

The assistant rummaged in his pockets, and his fingers encountered the coarse corrugated pasteboard that he had to surrender at the exit. His knees hurt, and the dampness of the pools he had explored during the day made his badly fastened joints grind together. It must be said, he had gathered a more than honorable booty in his bag.

 

He handed his ticket to the dim man standing behind the grille. The man took it, looked at it and smiled ferociously.

 

“You haven’t got another one?” he said.

 

“No,” said the assistant.

 

“This one is forged.”

 

“But it was my boss that gave it to me,” said the assistant nicely, with a charming smile and a little nod.

 

The clerk giggled. “I’m not surprised it’s forged, then. He bought ten from us, this morning.”

 

“Ten what?” said the assistant.

 

“Ten forged tickets.”

 

“But why?” said the assistant. His smile grew weaker and drooped to the left.

 

“To give them to you,” said the clerk. “Primo, so as to get you sworn at, to begin with, which I am about to do; and secundo, so that you’d have to pay the fine.”

 

“Why?” said the assistant. “I’ve got hardly any money.”

 

“Because it’s slimy to travel with a forged ticket,” said the clerk.

 

“But you’re the ones that forge them!”

 

“We have to. Because there are characters slimy enough to travel with forged tickets. You think it’s fun, hey, to forget tickets all the while?”

 

“You’d certainly do better to clean up a tile,” said the assistant.

 

“No word games,” said the clerk. “Pay the fine. It’s thirty francs.”

 

“That’s not true,” said the assistant. “It’s twelve francs when you haven’t got a ticket.”

 

“It’s much more serious to have a forged one,” said the clerk. “Pay, or I’ll call my dog!”

 

“He won’t come,” said the assistant

 

“No,” said the clerk, “but it’ll make your ears hurt, anyhow.”

 

The assistant looked at the gloomy and emaciated face of the clerk, who gave him a venomous stare in return.

 

“I haven’t got much money,” he muttered.

 

“Me either,” said the clerk. “Pay up.”

 

“He gives me fifty francs a day,” said the assistant, “and I have to eat.”

 

The clerk tugged at the visor of his cap, and a blue screen dropped over his face. “Pay up,” he said with his hand, rubbing the thumb and forefinger together.

 

The assistant reached for his shiny, patched-up wallet. He took out two creased ten-franc notes and a little five-franc note that was still bleeding.

 

“Twenty-five,” he proposed uncertainly.

 

“Thirty,” said the three outstretched fingers of the clerk.

 

The assistant sighed, and his boss’s face appeared between his toes. He spat on it, right in the eye. His heart beat faster. The face dissolved and blackened. He put the money in the outstretched hand and left. He heard the click of the visor returning to its usual place.

 

Walking slowly, he reached the foot of the hill. The bag bruised his skinny hips, and the bamboo handle of his net whipped his frail, malformed calves at random as he walked.

 

***


Download the rest of the story here.

 

“i write entirely to find out what i’m thinking, what i’m looking at, what i see and what it means”

joan didion on novel writing (by way of considering
george orwell, john milton’s paradise lost, and airports)


Joan Didion, Why I Write

 

Of course I stole the title of this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:

 

I

I

I

 

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way,  change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with the veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

 

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one “subject,” this one “area”: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am “interested,” for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

 

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill. When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

 

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas—I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in “The Portrait of a Lady” as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention—but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down to Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of “Paradise Lost,” to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in “Paradise Lost,” the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

 

Which was a writer.

 

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want to what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

 

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

 

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object being photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in you mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hardor a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture Nota bene:

 

It tells you.

 

You don’t tell it.

 

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began “Play It As It Lays” just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture dictated the narrative intention of the book—a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams—and yet this picture told me no “story,” suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through a casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but never have met. I know nothing about her.  Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely the moment in Las Vegas that made “Play It As It Lays” begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which beings:

 

 “Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.”

 

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by “white space.”

 

I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished, “A Book of Common Prayer.” As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figured. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with paratyphoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of American at a film festival (I recall invoking the name “Jack Valenti a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed.  The lights went out.  The elevator stopped.  My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark.  I remember standing  at the window trying to call Bogotá (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in “A Book of Common Prayer,” as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

 

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 A.M.  I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogotá that stopped for an hour to refuel, but the way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished “A Book of Common Prayer.”  I lived in that airport for several years.  I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 A.M.  I can feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs.  I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals.  I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac.  I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room.  I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about 40 who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

 

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country.  This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one.  She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop.  In fact she is not simply “ordering: tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes.  Why is this woman in this airport?  Why is she going nowhere, where had she been?  Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

 

“She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport.  All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike.  Sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenidos’ and sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenue,’ some places were wet and hot and other dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalized Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling.

 

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

 

“I knew about airports.”

 

These lines appear about halfway through “A Book of Common Prayer,” but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports.  Until I wrote these lines I had no character called Victor in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name “Victor,” occurred to me as I wrote the sentence.  I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete.  I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive.  Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who “I” was, who was telling the story.  I had intended until that moment that the “I” be no more than the voice of the author, a 19th-century omniscient narrator.  But there it was:

 

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

 

“I knew about airports.”

 

This “I” was the voice of no author in my house.  This “I” was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called “Victor.”  Who was Victor?  Who was this narrator?  Why was this narrator telling me this story?  Let me tell you one thing about why writers write:  had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

 

—from The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976

 

dino buzzati’s critique of conspicuous consumption and class hierarchy

"She wore a modest, inexpensive spring dress bought off the rack. Yet the lyrical light of the sunset exalted it somewhat, making it chic."

Italo Calvino, Tommaso Landolfi, and Dino Buzzati form the trio of master fantasists in modern Italian literature. Buzzati, however, never altogether abandons realism in his fiction, so that the world he creates is simultaneously familiar to us yet strange in a way that seems oddly appropriate, once we accept the initial premise of his story.


Bookseller Photo 

Dino Buzzati, "The Falling Girl" 

Marta was nineteen. She looked out over the roof of the skyscraper, and seeing the city below shining in the dusk, she was overcome with dizziness.

The skyscraper was silver, supreme and fortunate in that most beautiful and pure evening, as here and there the wind stirred a few fine filaments of cloud against an absolutely incredible blue background. It was in fact the hour when the city is seized by inspiration and whoever is not blind is swept away by it. From that airy height the girl saw the streets and the masses of buildings writhing in the long spasm of sunset; and at the point where the white of the houses ended, the blue of the sea began. Seen from above, the sea looked as if it were rising. And since the veils of the night were advancing from the east, the city became a sweet abyss burning with pulsating lights. Within it were powerful men, and women who were even more powerful, furs and violins, cars glossy as onyx, the neon signs of nightclubs, the entrance halls of darkened mansions, fountains, diamonds, old silent gardens, parties, desires, affairs, and above all, that consuming sorcery of the evening which provokes dreams of greatness and glory.

Seeing these things, Marta hopelessly leaned out over the railing and let herself go. She felt as if she were hovering in the air, but she was falling. Given the extraordinary height of the skyscraper, the streets and squares down at the bottom were very far away. Who knows how long it would take here to get there. Yet the girl was falling.

At that hour the terraces and balconies of the top floors were filled with rich and elegant people who were having cocktails and making silly conversation. They were scattered in crowds, and their talk muffled the music. Marta passed before them and several people looked out to watch her.

Flights of that kind (mostly by girls, in fact) were not rare in the skyscraper and they constituted an interesting diversion for the tenants; this was also the reason why the price of those apartments was very high.

The sun had not yet completely set and it did its best to illuminate Marta’s simple clothing. She wore a modest, inexpensive spring dress bought off the rack. Yet the lyrical light of the sunset exalted it somewhat, making it chic.

From the millionares’ balconies, gallant hands were stretched out toward her, offering flowers and cocktails. "Miss, would you like a drink?…….Gentle Butterfly, why not stop a minute with us?"

She laughed, hovering, happy (but meanwhile she was falling): "No, thanks, friends. I can’t. I’m in a hurry."

"Where are you headed?" they asked her.

"Ah, don’t make me say," Marta answered, waving her hands in a friendly good-bye.

A young man, tall, dark, very distinguished, extended an arm to snatch her. She liked him. And yet Marta quickly defended herself: "How dare you, sir?" and she had time to give him a little tap on the nose.

The beautiful people, then, were interested in her and that filled her with satisfaction. She felt fascinating, stylish. On the flower-filled terraces, amid the bustle of waiters in white and the bursts of exotic songs, there was talk for a few minutes, perhaps less, of the young woman who was passing by (from top to bottom, on a vertical course). Some thought her pretty, others thought her so-so, everyone found her interesting.

"You have your entire life before you," they told her, "why are you in such a hurry? You still have time to rush around and busy yourself. Stop with us for a little while, it’s only a modest little party among friends, really, you’ll have a good time."

She made an attempt to answer but the force of gravity had already quickly carried her to the floor below, then two, three, four floors below; in fact, exactly as you gaily rush around when you are just nineteen years old.

Of course the distance that separated her from the bottom, that is, from street level, was immense. It is true that she began falling just a little while ago, but the street always seemed veryfar away.

In the meantime, however, the sun had plunged into the sea; one could see it disappear, transformed into a shimmering reddish mushroom. As a result, it no longer emitted its vivifying rays to light up the girl’s dress and make her a seductive comet. It was a good thing that the windows and terraces of the skyscraper were almost all illuminated and the bright reflections completely gilded her as she gradually passed by.

Now Marta no longer saw just groups of carefree people inside the apartments; at times there were even some businesses where the employees, in black or blue aprons, were sitting at desks in long rows. Several of them were young people as old as or older then she, and weary of the day by now, every once in a while they raised their eyes from their duties and from typewriters. In this way they too saw her, and a few ran to the windows. "Where are you going? Why so fast? Who are you?" they shouted to her. One could divine something akin to envy in their words.

"They’re waiting for me down there," she answered, "I can’t stop. Forgive me." And again she laughed, wavering on her headlong fall, but it wasn’t like her previous laughter anymore. The night had craftily fallen and Marta started to feel cold.

Meanwhile, looking downward, she saw a bright halo of lights at the entrance of a building. Here long black cars were stopping (from the great distance they looked as small as ants), and men and women were getting out, anxious to go inside. She seemed to make out the sparkling of jewels in that swarm. Above the entrance flags were flying.

They were obviously giving a large party, exactly the kind that Marta dreamed of ever since she was a child. Heaven help her if she missed it. Down there opportunity was waiting for her, fate, romance, the true inauguration of her life. Would she arrive in time?

She spitefully noticed that another girl was falling about thirty meters above her. She was decidedly prettier than Marta and she wore a rather classy evening gown. For some unknown reason she came down much faster than Marta, so that in a few moments she passed by her and disappeared below, even though Marta was calling her. Without doubt she would get to the party before Marta; perhaps she had a plan all worked out to supplant her.

Then she realized that they weren’t alone. Along the sides of the skyscraper many other young women were plunging downward, their faces taut with the excitement of the flight, their hands cheerfully waving as if to say: look at us, here we are, entertain us, is not the world ours?

It was a contest, then. And she only had a shabby little dress while those other girls were dressed smartly like high-fashion models and some even wrapped luxurious mink stoles tightly around their bare shoulders. So self-assured when she began the leap, Marta now felt a tremor growing inside her; perhaps it was just the cold; but it may have been fear too, the fear of having made an error without remedy.

It seemed to be late at night now. The windows were darkened one after another, the echoes of music became more rare, the offices were empty, young men no longer leaned out from the windowsills extending their hands. What time was it? At the entrance to the building down below-which in the meantime had grown larger, and one could now distinguish all the architectural details-the lights were still burning, but the bustle of cars had stopped. Every now and then, in fact, small groups of people came out of the main floor wearily drawing away. Then the lights of the entrance were also turned off.

Marta felt her heart tightening. Alas, she wouldn’t reach the ball in time. Glancing upwards, she saw the pinnacle of the skyscraper in all its cruel power. It was almost completely dark. On the top floors a few windows here and there were still lit. And above the top the first glimmer of dawnwas spreading.

In a dining recess on the twenty-eighth floor a man about forty years old was having his morning coffee and reading his newspaper while his wife tidied up the room. A clock on the sideboard indicated 8:45. A shadow suddenly passed before the window.

"Alberto!" the wife shouted. "Did you see that? A woman passed by."

"Who was it?" he said without raising his eyes from the newspaper.

"An old woman," the wife answered. "A decrepit old woman. She looked frightened."

"It’s always like that," the man muttered. "At these low floors only falling old women pass by. You can see beautiful girls from the hundred-and-fiftieth floor up. Those apartments don’t cost so much for nothing."

"At least down here there’s the advantage," observed the wife, "that you can hear the thud when they touch the ground."

"This time not even that," he said, shaking his head, after he stood listening for a few minutes. Then he had another sip of coffee.

scenes from the writing life: robert graves, poetry and mushroom cults

Rent "The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs" book by Marcus Boon by BookSwim Rental Library Club.

 

. . . The other great psychedelic pioneer of the 1950s was a J. P. Morgan vice president and amateur mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson and his wife had already written a voluminous work on the history of mushroom lore, Russia, Mushrooms, and History (1957) when, apparently through a conversation with the English poet Robert Graves, he found out about the continuing existence of a cult in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, that used teonanacatl, the vision-inducing mushrooms that Spanish writers had talked of after the conquest of Mexico. This mushroom cult had been discovered by an Austrianborn physician, Blas Pablo Reko, and picked up on by the Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had traveled to Oaxaca in 1938 with Reko to witness the ceremonial use of the mushrooms. Schultes’ interest in the cult was botanical (he claimed that he experienced none of the visionary dimensions of the plants he “discovered”), but Wasson saw the cultural and religious significance of the story and traveled to Oaxaca, where, on August, 15, 1953, he took the mushrooms (which were of three species, the best known being Stropharia cubensis) with the Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina.Wasson published a widely read account of his trip in LIFE magazine in 1957, but was apparently appalled when others who read his account began traveling to Oaxaca. Wasson argued that psychedelic mushrooms provided the key to many of the world’s religious mysteries, including the soma of the Vedas, the Eleusinian rites of Ancient Greece, certain visions related in the Zend Avesta, the holy scripture of Zoroastrianism, and the tree of good and evil in the Bible, but made no comment on contemporary use of the drugs. Forgetting his own LIFE article, he later criticized the vulgarization of contemporary discourse about the drugs, calling the term “psychedelics” “a barbarous formation,”101 and with a group of colleagues proposed a new term, “entheogen,” to describe the drugs—a term that conveniently obscures the nontheogenic nature of most twentieth-century use of the drugs.

 Robert Graves also believed that the psychedelics provided a source for much of the world of classical and preclassical mythology. In a review of Wasson’s work published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1956, he already speculated that the cult of Dionysus held mushroom orgies.102 On January 31, 1960, when he was sixty-four, Graves took mushrooms with Wasson in New York, and wrote an essay about it called “The Poet’s Paradise” (1961), which he read to Oxford students in the early 1960s. Graves described his experience in highly mythical terms, feeling that the mushrooms were taking him back to the world of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian paradise. He experienced worlds of jewels, demons, and erotic fantasy, while Wasson played a tape recording of Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina chanting. Graves was impressed, although he noted caustically, that “what was for thousands of years a sacred and secret element, entrusted only to persons chosen for their good conduct and integrity, will soon be snatched at by jaded sensation-seekers.”103 Such people would be disappointed, however, because instead of drunken oblivion they would experience heightened insight into themselves—which they might find less than recreational. Yet Graves believed that the experience of the mushroom was passive when compared to that of poetic trance: “It seems established that Tlalocan [Aztec word for paradise], for all its sensory marvels, contains no palace of words presided over by the Living Muse, and no small white-washed cell . . . to which a poet may retire and actively write poems in her honour, rather than bask sensuously under her spell.”104 A little later, Graves had an experience of synthetic psilocybin with Wasson, which disappointed everyone involved. Graves wrote that it had been “all wrong, a common vulgar drug, no magic, and followed by a nasty hang-over.”105 In the late 1960s he dismissed marijuana in print as being a low-class type of drug.

 —from Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Harvard (pp 253-255).

Notes 

101. Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl Ruck. 1986. Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 30.

102. “Centaur’s Food,” reprinted in Graves, Robert. 1960. Food for Centaurs: Stories, Talks, Critical Studies, Poems. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. A review of Wasson’s “Soma, Mushrooms, and Religion” was published in Difficult Questions, Easy Answers (1973)—in which Graves notes that Wasson does not credit him for developing the idea of Greek soma. The book also contains another essay on the mushroom experience, “The Universal Paradise.”

103. Robert Graves, 1969. On Poetry: Collected Talks and Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 380.

104. Graves, 1969, 382.

105. Graves, Richard. 1995. Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940–1985. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 306.

 

 

beckett and the old questions

(from a 2009 production of Endgame at The American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA)

Hamm:                    Do you remember when you came here?

 

Clov:                      No, Too small, you told me.

 

Hamm:                    Do you remember your father.

 

Clov (wearily):         Same answer.

 

                             You’ve asked me these questions millions of times.

 

Hamm:                    I love the old questions

 

(With fervour.)         All the old questions, the old answers, 
                             there’s nothing like them!

 

(Pause.)                  It was I was a father to you.

 

Clov:                      Yes.

 

(He looks at Hamm fixedly):

 

         This was that for me.

 

— Samuel Beckett, Endgame. Grove Press, 1958, p. 38

jonathan ames’ parodic homage to private dicks: “bored to death”


BORED TO DEATH


The trouble happened because I was bored. At the time, I was twenty-eight days sober. I was spending my nights playing Internet backgammon. I should have been going to AA meetings, but I wasn’t.

I had been going to AA meetings for twenty years, ever since college. I like AA meetings. My problem is that I’m a periodic alcoholic, even with going to AA. Every few years, I try drinking again. Or, rather, drinking tries me. It tries meon for size and finds out I don’t fit and throws me to the ground. And so I go crawling back to AA. Or at least I should. This last go-round, I was skipping meetings and just staying home and, like I said, playing Internet backgammon.

I was also reading a lot of crime fiction and private detective fiction, writers like Hammett, Goodis, Chandler, Thompson. The usual suspects, as it were. Since my own life was so dull, I needed the charge that came from their books—the danger, the violence, the despair.

So that’s all I was doing—reading and playing backgammon. I can afford such a lifestyle because I’m a writer. I’m not a hugely successful writer, but I’m my own boss. I’ve written six books—three novels and three essay collections—and at the time of the trouble I had roughly six thousand dollars in the bank, which is a lot for me. I also had a few checks for movie work coming in down the road.

By my economic standards it was a flush time. I had even paid my taxes early, at the end of March—it was now mid-April—and I was just trying to stay sober and keep a low profile in my own little life. I wasn’t doing any writing, because, well, I didn’t have anything to say.

Overall, I was being pretty reclusive. I only talked to a few people, primarily my parents, who are retired and live in Florida and who call me every day. They’re a bit needy, my senior citizen parents, but I don’t mind, life is short, so if I can give them a little solace with a daily call, what the hell. My father is eighty-two and my mother is seventy-five. I have to love them now as best I can. And the only other two people I really spoke to were the two close friends I have, one who lives here in New York and the other who’s in Los Angeles. I have a lot of acquaintances, but I’ve never had a lot of friends.

One night a week, I did leave the apartment to go see this girl. It was nice. I guess you could say that she was a friend, too, but I’ve never really thought of the women in my life as friends, which must be a flaw. Her name was Marie and we would have dinner, maybe go to a movie, and then we’d get into bed at her place, never my place, and the sex with her was good. But it wasn’t anything serious. She was twenty-six and I’m forty-two, and I retired from being serious with women a few years ago. Somebody always got hurt, usually the girl, and I couldn’t take it anymore.

Well, I’ll shut up now about all this. It’s not my drinking problem or my finances or my dead love life that I want to talk about. I only mention all this as some kind of way to explain why I had too much free time on my hands, because what’s really on my mind is this trouble I got into because, as I said, I was bored. Bored with backgammon and bored with reading and bored with being sober and bored with myself and bored with being alive.

I should make it clear that I wasn’t at all bored by the books I was tearing through and loving, but bored by the fact that I wasn’t actually doing anything, just reading, though it was, in fact, Hammett and Goodis and Chandler and Thompson who sort of provoked me to take action, and it’s when I took action, because of those authors’ books, that I blew up my life.

It was a fantasy, a crazed notion, but I gotit into my head that I wanted to play at being a private detective. I wanted to help somebody. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to have an adventure. And it’s pathetic, but what did I do? I put an ad on craigslist in the “services” section under “legal.” It read as follows:

Private Detective for Hire

Reply to: serv-261446940@craigslist.org
Date: 2007-04-13, 8:31AM EST

Specializing: Missing Persons, Domestic Issues.
I’m not licensed, but maybe I’m someone who can help
you. My fee is reasonable.
Call 347-555-1042

There were two other private-detective ads on craigslist and they offered all sorts of help—surveillance, undercover work, background checks, video and still photography, business investigations, missing persons, domestic issues, and two things that I didn’t quite grasp—”skip tracing” and “witness locates.”

I figured the only thing I could help with was trying to find someone or maybe following someone, which would most likely be a “domestic issue”—an unfaithful spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend. I didn’t have any qualms about that, following an unfaithful lover, though in all the private-detective fiction I’ve read the heroes never do “marriage work,” as if it’s beneath them, but I thought it would be fun to follow somebody and to do so for the purposes of a real mission. Sometimes, probably because I want everything to be like it is in a book or a movie, I have followed people on the streets of New York, pretending I was a detective or a spy.

I did try to cover myself legally by writing in my ad that I wasn’t licensed. I don’t know who does license private detectives, but I figured it was a difficult process and, anyway, I just wanted to put the ad up, mostly as a lark, a playing-out of a dream, like when I would shadow people on the streets. But I really didn’t think anybody would actually call me—I was offering far fewer services than the other private detectives and I was acknowledging in the ad that I wasn’t exactly a professional.

If somebody did call, then I figured after talking to me they would try somebody more reputable, but whatever came of it, even if nobody called, I thought it might be something I could write about, a comedic essay—”My Failed Attempt at Being a Private Detective.” Often during my writing career, mostly for my essays, I’ve put myself in weird positions and then milked it for humor. This situation would be like the time I tried to go to an orgy but wasn’t allowed in. Even when nothing happens, you can sometimes make a good story out of it.

Anyway, I got a thrill at posting the ad, but it was a short-lived thrill. For the first day, I would go and look at my ad, admiring my own handiwork, laughing to myself, wondering if something might happen, almost as if I checked it out enough times, other people would. But then, after about a day, the thrill wore off. It was one more ridiculous thing in a ridiculous life, and, of course, noone called.

Read the rest here.

Read about Ames and "Bored To Death" here.

a short story by kazuo ishiguro

“Crooner”

(from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall)
 

 
 

 


THE MORNING I SPOTTED Tony Gardner sitting among the tourists, spring was just arriving here in Venice. We’d completed our first full week outside in the piazza—a relief, let me tell you, after all those stuffy hours performing from the back of the cafe, getting in the way of customers wanting to use the staircase. There was quite a breeze that morning, and our brand-new marquee was flapping all around us, but we were all feeling a little bit brighter and fresher, and I guess it showed in our music.

 

But here I am talking like I’m a regular band member. Actually, I’m one of the “gypsies,” as the other musicians call us, one of the guys who move around the piazza, helping out whichever of the threecafe orchestras needs us. Mostly I play here at the Caffè Lavena, but on a busy afternoon, I might do a set with the Quadri boys, go over to the Florian, then back across the square to the Lavena. I get on fine with them all—and with the waiters too—and in any other city I’d have a regular position by now. But in this place, so obsessed with tradition and the past, everything’s upside down. Anywhere else, being a guitar player would go in a guy’s favour. But here? A guitar! The cafe managers get uneasy. It looks too modern, the tourists won’t like it. Last autumn I got myself a vintage jazz model with an oval sound-hole, the kind of thing Django Reinhardt might have played, so there was no way anyone would mistake me for a rock-and-roller. That made things a little easier, but the cafe managers, they still don’t like it. The truth is, if you’re a guitarist, you can be Joe Pass, they still wouldn’t give you a regular job in this square.

 

There’s also, of course, the small matter of my not being Italian, never mind Venetian. It’s the same for that big Czech guy with the alto sax. We’re well liked, we’re needed by the other musicians, but we don’t quite fit the official bill. Just play and keep your mouth shut, that’s what the cafe managers always say. That way the tourists won’t know you’re not Italian. Wear your suit, sunglasses, keep the hair combed back, no one will know the difference, just don’t start talking.

 

But I don’t do too bad. All three cafe orchestras, especially when they have to play at the same time from their rival tents, they need a guitar—something soft, solid, but amplified, thumping out the chords from the back. I guess you’re thinking, three bands playing at the same time in the same square, that would sound like a real mess. But the Piazza San Marco’s big enough to take it. A tourist strolling across the square will hear one tune fade out, another fade in, like he’s shifting the dial on a radio. What tourists can’t take too much of is the classical stuff, all these instrumental versions of famous arias. Okay, this is San Marco, they don’t want the latest pop hits. But every few minutes they want something they recognise, maybe an old Julie Andrews number, or the theme from a famous movie. I remember once last summer, going from band to band and playing “The Godfather” nine times in one afternoon.

 

Anyway there we were that spring morning, playing in front of a good crowd of tourists, when I saw Tony Gardner, sitting alone with his coffee, almost directly in front of us, maybe six metres back from our marquee. We get famous people in the square all the time, we never make a fuss. At the end of a number, maybe a quiet word will go around the band members. Look, there’s Warren Beatty. Look, it’s Kissinger. That woman, she’s the one who was in the movie about the men who swap their faces. We’re used to it. This is the Piazza San Marco after all. But when I realised it was Tony Gardner sitting there, that was different. I did get excited.

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