arrivals & departures, parodies and portents: the openings of pynchon’s novels


CHRISTMAS EVE, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he’d look in on the Sailor’s Grave, his old tin can’s tavern on East Main Street. He got there by way of the Arcade, at the East Main end of which sat an old street singer with a guitar and an empty Sterno can for donations. Out in the street a chief yeoman was trying to urinate in the gas tank of a ’54 Packard Patrician and five or six seamen apprentice were standing around giving encouragement. The old man was singing, in a fine, firm baritone:

Every night is Christmas Eve on old East Main,

Sailors and their sweethearts all agree.

Neon signs of red and green

Shine upon the friendly scene,

Welcoming you in from off the sea.

Santa’s bag is filled with all your dreams come true:

Nickel beers that sparkle like champagne,

Barmaids who all love to screw,

All of them reminding you

It’s Christmas Eve on old East Main.

"Yay chief," yelled a seaman deuce. Profane rounded the corner. With its usual lack of warning, East Main was on him.

Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been road-laboring and when there wasn’t work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he’d care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about: East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal night’s dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in the street, barmaid with a ship’s propeller tattooed on each buttock, one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP’s caught him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody’s face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.

V. (1963)

Book Covers - Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" by Clampants.
ONE summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home
from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put per­haps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million collars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work. She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlan whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them. Was that how he’d died, she wondered, among dreams, crushed by the only ikon in the house? That only made her laugh, out loud and helpless: You’re so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.

The letter was from the law firm of Warpe, Wist-full, Kubitschek and McMingus, of Los Angeles, and
signed by somebody named Metzger. It said Pierce had died back in the spring, and they’d only just now found the will. Metzger was to act as co-executor and special counsel in the event of any involved litigation. Oedipa had been named also to execute the will in a codicil dated a year ago. She tried to think back to whether anything unusual had happened around then. Through the rest of the afternoon, through her trip to the market in downtown Kinneret-Among-The-Pines to buy ricotta and listen to the Muzak (today she came through the bead-curtained entrance around bar 4 of the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble’s variorum re­cording of the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, Boyd Beaver, soloist); then through the sunned gathering of her marjoram and sweet basil from the herb garden, read­ing of book reviews in the latest Scientific American, into the layering of a lasagna, garlicking of a bread, tearing up of romaine leaves, eventually, oven on, into the mixing of the twilight’s whiskey sours against the arrival of her husband, Wendell ("Mucho") Maas from work, she wondered, wondered, shuffling back through a fat deckful of days which seemed (wouldn’t she be first to admit it?) more or less identical, or all pointing the same way subtly like a conjurer’s deck, any odd one readily clear to a trained eye. It took her till the mid­dle of Huntley and Brinkley to remember that last year at three or so one morning there had come this long-distance call, from where she would never know (unless now he’d left a diary) by a voice beginning in heavy Slavic tones as second secretary at the Transyl-vanian Consulate, looking for an escaped bat; modu­lated to comic-Negro, then on into hostile Pachuco dialect, full of chingas and maricones; then a Gestapo officer asking her in shrieks did she have relatives in Germany and finally his Lamont Cranston voice, the one he’d talked in all the way down to Mazatlan. "Pierce, please," she’d managed to get in, "I thought we had—"

"But Margo," earnestly, "I’ve just come from Commissioner Weston, and that old man in the fun house was murdered by the same blowgun that killed Professor Quackenbush," or something.

The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)

A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre.
There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.

Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in velveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and far
ther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time: drunks, old veterans still in shock from ordnance 20 years obsolete, hustlers in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about among the rest of the things to be carried out to salvation. Only the nearer faces are visible at all, and at that only as half-silvered images in a view finder, green-stained VIP faces remembered behind bulletproof windows speeding through the city.

They have begun to move. They pass in line, out of the main station, out of downtown, and begin pushing into older and more deso
late parts of the city. Is this the way out? Faces turn to the windows, but no one dares ask, not out loud. Rain comes down. No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into—they go in under archways, secret entrances of rotted concrete that only looked like loops of an underpass . . . certain trestles of blackened wood have moved slowly by overhead, and the smells begun of coal from days far to the past, smells of naphtha winters, of Sundays when no traffic came through, of the coral-like and mysteriously vital growth, around the blind curves and out the lonely spurs, a sour smell of rolling-stock absence, of maturing rust, developing through those emptying days brilliant and deep, especially at dawn, with blue shadows to seal its passage, to try to bring events to Absolute Zero . . . and it is poorer the deeper they go ruinous secret cities of poor, places whose names he has never heard. . . the walls break down, the roofs get fewer and so do the chances for light. The road, which ought to be opening out into a broader highway, instead has been getting narrower, more broken, cornering tighter and tighter until all at once, much too soon, they are under the final arch: brakes grab and spring terribly. It is a judgment from which there is no appeal.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

LATER than usual one summer morning in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler drifted awake in sunlight through a creeping fig that hung in the window, with a squadron of blue jays stomping around on the roof. In his dream these had been carrier pigeons from someplace far across the ocean, landing and taking off again one by one, each bearing a message for him, but none of whom, light pulsing in their wings, he could ever quite get to in time. He understood it to be another deep nudge from forces unseen, almost surely connected with the letter that had come along with his latest mental-disability check, reminding him that unless he did something publicly crazy before a date now less than a week away, he would no longer qualify for benefits. He groaned out of bed. Somewhere down the hill hammers and saws were busy and country music was playing out of somebody’s truck radio. Zoyd was out of smokes. On the table in the kitchen, next to the Count Chocula box, which turned out to be empty, he found a note from Prairie. "Dad, they changed my shift again, so I rode in with Thapsia. You got a call from Channel 86, they said urgent, I said, you try waking him up sometime. Love anyway, Prairie."

"Froot Loops again I guess," he muttered at the note. With enough Nestle’s Quik on top, they weren’t all that bad, and various ashtrays yielded half a dozen smokable butts. After taking as much time as he could in the bathroom, he finally got around to locating the phone and calling the local TV station to recite to them this year’s press release. But — "You’d better check again, Mr. Wheeler. Word we have is that you’ve been rescheduled." "Check with who, I’m the one’s doin’ it, ain’t I?" "We’re all supposed to be at the Cucumber Lounge." "Well I won’t, I’ll be up at the Log Jam in Del Norte." What was the matter with these people? Zoyd had been planning this for weeks.

Desmond was out on the porch, hanging around his dish, which was always empty because of the blue jays who came screaming down out of the redwoods and carried off the food in it piece by piece. After a while this dog-food diet had begun to give the birds an attitude, some being known to chase cars and pickups for miles down the road and bite anybody who didn’t like it. As Zoyd came out, Desmond gave him an inquiring look. "Just dig yourself," shaking his head at the chocolate crumbs on the dog’s face, "I know she fed you, Desmond, and I know what she fed you too." Desmond followed him as far as the firewood, tail going back and forth to show no hard feelings, and watched Zoyd backing all the way down to the lane before he turned and got on with his day.

Vineland (1990)

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,— the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking’d-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel’d Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,— the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax’d and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults. Here have come to rest a long scarr’d sawbuck table, with two mismatch’d side-benches, from the Lancaster County branch of the family,— some Second-Street Chippen­dale, including an interpretation of the fam’d Chinese Sofa, with a high canopy of yards of purple Stuff that might be drawn all ’round to make a snug, dim tent,— a few odd Chairs sent from England before the War,— mostly Pine and Cherry about, nor much Mahogany, excepting a sinister and wonderful Card Table which exhibits the cheaper sinu­soidal Grain known in the Trade as Wand’ring Heart, causing an illu­sion of Depth into which for years children have gaz’d as into the illustrated Pages of Books…along with so many hinges, sliding Mor­tises, hidden catches, and secret compartments that neither the Twins nor their Sister can say they have been to the end of it. Upon the Wall, banish’d to this Den of Parlor Apes for its Remembrance of a Time bet­ter forgotten, reflecting most of the Room,— the Carpet and Drapes a little fray’d, Whiskers the Cat stalking beneath the furniture, looking out with eyes finely reflexive to anything suggesting Food,— hangs a Mirror in an inscrib’d Frame, commemorating the "Mischianza," that memorable farewell Ball stag’d in ’77 by the British who’d been Occu­pying the City, just before their Withdrawal from Philadelphia.

This Christmastide of 1786, with the War settl’d and the Nation bick­ering itself into Fragments, wounds bodily and ghostly, great and small,
go aching on, not ev’ry one commemorated,— nor, too often, even recounted. Snow lies upon all Philadelphia, from River to River, whose further shores have so vanish’d behind curtains of ice-fog that the City today might be an Isle upon an Ocean. Ponds and Creeks are frozen over, and the Trees a-glare to the last slightest Twig,— Nerve-Lines of con­centrated Light. Hammers and Saws have fallen still, bricks lie in snow-cover’d Heaps, City-Sparrows, in speckl’d Outbursts, hop in and out of what Shelter there may be,— the nightward Sky, Clouds blown to Chalk-smears, stretches above the Northern Liberties, Spring Garden and Ger-mantown, its early moon pale as the Snow-Drifts,— smoke ascends from Chimney-Pots, Sledging-Parties adjourn indoors, Taverns bustle,— freshly infus’d Coffee flows ev’ryplace, borne about thro’ Rooms front and back, whilst Madeira, which has ever fuel’d Association in these Parts, is deploy’d nowadays like an ancient Elixir upon the seething Pot of Politics,— for the Times are as impossible to calculate, this Advent, as the Distance to a Star.

Mason & Dixon (1997)

Now single up all lines!"

"Cheerly now … handsomely …
very well! Prepare to cast her off!"

"Windy City, here we come!"

"Hurrah! Up we go!"

It was amid such lively exclamation that the hydrogen skyship
Inconve­nience, its gondola draped with patriotic bunting, carrying a five-lad crew be­longing to that celebrated aeronautics club known as the Chums of Chance, ascended briskly into the morning, and soon caught the southerly wind.

When the ship reached cruising altitude, those features left behind on the ground having now dwindled to all but microscopic size, Randolph St. Cosmo, the ship commander, announced, "Now secure the Special Sky De­tail," and the boys, each dressed neatly in the summer uniform of red-and-­white-striped blazer and trousers of sky blue, spiritedly complied.

They were bound this day for the city of Chicago, and the World’s Columbian Exposition recently opened there. Since their orders had come through, the "scuttlebutt" among the excited and curious crew had been of little besides the fabled "White City," its great Ferris wheel, alabaster temples of commerce and industry, sparkling lagoons, and the thousand more such wonders, of both a scientific and an artistic nature, which awaited them there.

"Oh, boy!" cried Darby Suckling, as he leaned over the lifelines to watch the national heartland deeply swung in a whirling blur of green far below, his tow-colored locks streaming in the wind past the gondola like a banner to leeward. (Darby, as my faithful readers will remember, was the "baby" of the crew, and served as both factotum and
mascotte, singing as well the difficult treble parts whenever these adolescent aeronaunts found it impossible to con­tain song of some kind.) "I can’t hardly wait!" he exclaimed.

"For which you have just earned five more demerits!" advised a stern voice close to his ear, as he was abruptly seized from behind and lifted clear of the lifelines. "Or shall we say ten? How many times," continued Lindsay
Nose­worth, second-in-command here and known for his impatience with all man­ifestations of the slack, "have you been warned, Suckling, against informality of speech?" With the deftness of long habit, he flipped Darby upside down, and held the flyweight lad dangling by the ankles out into empty space—"terra firma" by now being easily half a mile below—proceeding to lecture him on the many evils of looseness in one’s expression, not least among them being the ease with which it may lead to profanity, and worse. As all the while, however, Darby was screaming in terror, it is doubtful how many of the useful sentiments actually found their mark.

Against The Day (2006)

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.

"That you, Shasta?"

"Thinks he’s hallucinating."

"Just the new package I guess."

They stood in the street light through the kitchen window there’d never been much point in putting curtains over and listened to the thumping of the surf from down the hill. Some nights, when the wind was right, you could hear the surf all over town.

"Need your help, Doc."

"You know I have an office now? just like a day job and everything?"

"I looked in the phone book, almost went over there. But then I thought, better for everybody if this looks like a secret rendezvous."

Okay, nothing romantic tonight. Bummer. But it still might be a paying gig. "Somebody’s keepin a close eye? "

"Just spent an hour on surface streets trying to make it look good."

"How about a beer?" He went to the fridge, pulled two cans out of the case he kept inside, handed one to Shasta.

"There’s this guy," she was saying.

There would be, but why get emotional? If he had a nickel for every time he’d heard a client start off this way, he would be over in Hawaii now, loaded day and night, digging the waves at Waimea, or better yet hiring somebody to dig them for him . . . "Gentleman of the straight-world persuasion," he beamed.

"Okay, Doc. He’s married."

"Some . . . money situation."

She shook back hair that wasn’t there and raised her eyebrows so what.

Groovy with Doc. "And the wife—she knows about you?"

Shasta nodded. “But she’s seeing somebody too. Only it isn’t just the usual—they’re working together on some creepy little scheme."

"To make off with hubby’s fortune, yeah, I think I heard of that happenin once or twice around L.A. And . . . you want me to do what exactly?" He found the paper bag he’d brought his supper home in and got busy pretending to scribble notes on it, because straight-chick uniform, makeup supposed to look like no makeup or whatever, here came that old well-known hardon Shasta was always good for sooner or later. Does it ever end, he wondered. Of course it does. It did.

Inherent Vice (2009)

harold bloom on the fading american dream and the deepening american nightmare


I might have thought the American Dream had ended, but the election of Barack Obama makes a difference. He invoked our national dream in his victory speech, an important citation though edged by the ill omens of financial and economic disaster both at home and abroad (I write on 20 November, 2008).


Like so many potent social myths, the American Dream is devoid of clear meanings, whether in journalistic accounts or in academic analyses. The major American writers who have engaged the dream—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—have been aware of this haziness and of attendant ironies. And yet they have affirmed, however ambivalently, that it must be possible to have a nation in which all of us are free to develop our singularities into health, prosperity, and some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement. Call this Emerson’s Party of Hope, whose current prophet and leader is the still untested President-Elect Obama.


Let us call the Other Side the American Nightmare, from Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville through T.S. Eliot and Faulkner onto our varied contemporaries such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. Between Faulkner and these came Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, and Ralph Ellison. Dreamers of nightmare realities and irrealities, these superb writers are not altogether in Emerson’s opposing camp, the Party of Memory because, except for Poe, Eliot and O’Connor, they shared the American freedom from dogma.


But they dwelled on our addiction to violence, endemic from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab through Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, and on our constant involuntary parodying of hopes for a more humane life.


What are we to believe about our nature and destiny in the sea of history that has engulfed so many other nations? We make terrible blunders, of which the Iraqi War and our current financial panic are merely the most recent, and only rarely can they be mitigated. Our American Dream always is likelier to bring forth another Jay Gatsby than a reborn Huck Finn. Our innocence is difficult to distinguish from ignorance, a problematical theme throughout the novels and stories of Henry James, our strongest novelist even as Walt Whitman remains our more-than-major poet. What Whitman discerned (in Emerson’s wake) was the American Adam, unfallen and dazzling as the sun. Is that national myth sustained by the extraordinary rise of Barack Obama?


Eight years from now we may be able to answer that question. A country without a monarch and a hereditary nobility must find its heroes in the American Presidency, an absurd ground for such a search ever since the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, almost a century and a half ago. Emerson’s Party of Hope trusts for a reversal, in the name of the American Dream.


—from The American Dream, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)

from chapter two of pynchon’s inherent vice


DOC TOOK THE FREEWAY OUT. THE EASTBOUND LANES TEEMED with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing, under the power transmission lines, everybody’s radios lasing on the same couple of AM stations, under a sky like watered milk, and the white bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you’d call psychedelic could ever happen, or if—bummer!—all this time it had really been going on up north.

Beginning on Artesia, signs directed Doc to Channel View Estates, A Michael Wolfmann Concept. There were the expected local couples who couldn’t wait to have a look at the next OPPOS, as Aunt Reet tended to call most tract houses of her acquaintance. Now and then at the edges of the windshield, Doc spotted black pedestrians, bewildered as Tariq must have been, maybe also looking for the old neighborhood, for rooms lived in day after day, solid as the axes of space, now taken away into commotion and ruin.

The development stretched into the haze and the soft smell of the fog component of smog, and of desert beneath the pavement-model units nearer the road, finished homes farther in, and just visible beyond them the skeletons of new construction, expanding into the unincorporated wastes. Doc drove past the gate till he got to a patch of empty contrac­tor hardpan with street signs already in but the streets not yet paved. He parked at what would be the corner of Kaufman and Broad and walked back.

Commanding filtered views of an all-but-neglected branch of the Dominguez Flood Control Channel forgotten and cut off by miles of fill, regrading, trash of industrial ventures that had either won or failed, these homes were more or less Spanish Colonial with not-necessarily-­load-bearing little balconies and red-tile roofs, meant to suggest higher-priced towns like San Clemente or Santa Barbara, though so far there wasn’t a shade tree in sight.

Close to what would be the front gate of Channel View Estates, Doc found a makeshift miniplaza put there basically for the construction folks, with a liquor store, a take-out sandwich place with a lunch counter, a beer bar where you could shoot some pool, and a massage parlor called Chick Planet, in front of which he saw a row of carefully looked-after motorcy­cles, parked with military precision. This seemed the most likely place for him to find a cadre of badasses. Plus, if they were all here at the moment, then chances were Mickey was, too. On the further assumption that the owners of these bikes were here for recreation and not waiting inside drawn up in formation prepared to kick Doe’s ass, he breathed deeply, surrounded himself with a white light, and stepped in the front door.

"Hi, I’m Jade?" A bubbly young Asian lady in a turquoise cheong­sam handed him a laminated menu of services. "And please take note of today’s Pussy-Eater’s Special, which is good all day till closing time?"

"Mmm, not that $14.95 ain’t a totally groovy price, but I’m really trying to locate this guy who works for Mr. Wolfmann?"

"Far out. Does he eat pussy?"

"Well, Jade, you’d know better’n me, fella named Glen?"

"Oh sure, Glen comes in here, they all do. You got a cigarette for me?" He tapped her out an unfiltered Kool. "Ooh, lockup style. Not much eating pussy in there, huh?"

"Glen and I were both in Chino around the same time .: Have you seen him today?"

"Till about one minute ago, when everybody suddenly split. Is there something weird going on? Are you a cop?"

"Let’s see." Doc inspected his feet. "Nah … wrong shoes."

"Reason I ask is, is if you were a cop, you’d be entitled to a free pre­view of our Pussy-Eater’s Special?"

"How about a licensed PI? Would that—"

"Hey, Bambi!" Out through the bead curtains, as if on a time-out from a beach volleyball game, strode this blonde in a turquoise and orange Day-Glo bikini.

"Oboy,’ Doc said. "Where do we—"

"Not you, Bong Brain," Bambi muttered. Jade was already reaching for that bikini.

"Oh," he said. "Huh … see, is what I thought is, here? where it says ‘Pussy-Eater’s Special’? is what that means is, is that—"

Well … neither girl seemed to be paying him much attention any­more, though out of politeness Doc thought he should keep watching for a while, till finally they disappeared down behind the reception desk, and he wandered away figuring to have a look around. Out into the hall­way, from someplace ahead, seeped indigo light and frequencies even darker, along with string-heavy music from half a generation ago from LPs compiled to accompany bachelor-pad fucking.

Nobody was around. It felt like maybe there had been, till Doc showed up. The place was also turning out to be bigger inside than out. There were black-light suites with fluorescent rock ‘n’ roll posters and mirrored ceilings and vibrating water beds. Strobe lights blinked, incense cones sent ribbons of musk-scented smoke ceilingward, and carpeting of artificial angora shag in a variety of tones including oxblood and teal, not always limited to floor surfaces, beckoned alluringly.

As he neared the back of the establishment, Doc began to hear a lot of screaming from outside, along with a massed thundering of Harleys. "Uh-oh. What’s this?"

He didn’t find out. Maybe it was all the exotic sensory input that caused Doc about then to swoon abruptly and lose an unknown amount of his day. Perhaps striking some ordinary object on the way down accounted for the painful lump he found on his head when at length he awoke. Faster, anyhow, than the staff on Medical Center can say "subdural hematoma," Doc dug how the unhip Muzak was silent, plus no Jade, no Bambi, and he was lying on the cement Hoor of a space he didn’t recognize, though the same could not be said for what he now ID’d, far overhead, like a bad-luck planet in today’s horoscope, as the evilly twinkling face of Detective Lieutenant Bigfoot Bjornsen, LAPD. 

Continue reading

chapter one of pynchon’s inherent vice






















Under the paving-stones, the beach! 
Graffito, Paris, May 1968


She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.

“That you, Shasta?”

“Thinks he’s hallucinating.”

“Just the new package I guess.”

They stood in the street light through the kitchen window there’d never been much point in putting curtains over and listened to the thumping of the surf from down the hill. Some nights, when the wind was right, you could hear the surf all over town.

“Need your help, Doc.”

“You know I have an office now? just like a day job and everything?”

“I looked in the phone book, almost went over there. But then I thought, better for everybody if this looks like a secret rendezvous.”

Okay, nothing romantic tonight. Bummer. But it still might be a paying gig. “Somebody’s keepin a close eye?”

“Just spent an hour on surface streets trying to make it look good.”

“How about a beer?” He went to the fridge, pulled two cans out of the case he kept inside, handed one to Shasta.

“There’s this guy,” she was saying.

There would be, but why get emotional? If he had a nickel for every time he’d heard a client start off this way, he would be over in Hawaii now, loaded day and night, digging the waves at Waimea, or better yet hiring somebody to dig them for him . . . “Gentleman of the straight-world persuasion,” he beamed.

“Okay, Doc. He’s married.”

“Some . . . money situation.”

She shook back hair that wasn’t there and raised her eyebrows so what.

Groovy with Doc. “And the wife—she knows about you?”

Shasta nodded. “But she’s seeing somebody too. Only it isn’t just the usual—they’re working together on some creepy little scheme.”

“To make off with hubby’s fortune, yeah, I think I heard of that happenin once or twice around L.A. And. . . you want me to do what exactly?” He found the paper bag he’d brought his supper home in and got busy pretending to scribble notes on it, because straight-chick uniform, makeup supposed to look like no makeup or whatever, here came that old well-known hardon Shasta was always good for sooner or latter. Does it ever end, he wondered. Of course it does. It did.

They went in the front room and Doc laid down on the couch and Shasta stayed on her feet and sort of drifted around the place.

“Is, they want me in on it,” she said. “They think I’m the one who can reach him when he’s vulnerable, or as much as he ever gets.”

“Bareass and asleep.”

“I knew you’d understand.”

“You’re still trying to figure out if it’s right or wrong, Shasta?”

“Worse than that.” She drilled him with that gaze he remembered so well. When he remembered. “How much loyalty I owe him.”

“I hope you’re not asking me. Beyond the usual boilerplate people owe anybody they’re fucking steady— ”

“Thanks, Dear Abby said about the same thing.”

“Groovy. Emotions aside, then, let’s look at the money. How much of the rent’s he been picking up?”

“All of it.” Just for a second, he caught the old narrow- eyed defiant grin.

“Pretty hefty?”

“For Hancock Park.”

Doc whistled the title notes from “Can’t Buy Me Love,” ignoring the look on her face.

“You’re givin him IOUs for everything, o’ course.”

 “You fucker, if I’d known you were still this bitter— ”

 “Me? Trying to be professional here, is all. How much were wifey and the b.f. offering to cut you in for?”

 Shasta named a sum. Doc had outrun souped-up Rollses full of indignant smack dealers on the Pasadena Freeway, doing a hundred in the fog and trying to steer through all those crudely engineered curves, he’d walked up back alleys east of the L.A. River with nothing but a borrowed ’fro pick in his baggies for protection, been in and out of the Hall of Justice while holding a small fortune in Vietnamese weed, and these days had nearly convinced himself all that reckless era was over with, but now he was beginning to feel deeply nervous again. “This . . .” carefully now, “this isn’t just a couple of X- rated Polaroids, then. Dope planted in the glove compartment, nothin like ’at . . .”

 Back when, she could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout. Now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t read at all. Maybe something she’d picked up at acting school. “It isn’t what you’re thinking, Doc.”

 “Don’t worry, thinking comes later. What else?”

 “I’m not sure but it sounds like they want to commit him to some loony bin.”

 “You mean legally? or a snatch of some kind?”

 “Nobody’s telling me, Doc, I’m just the bait.” Come to think of it, there’d never been this much sorrow in her voice either. “I heard you’re seeing somebody downtown?”

 Seeing. Well, “Oh, you mean Penny? nice flatland chick, out in search of secret hippie love thrills basically— ”

 “Also some kind of junior DA in Evelle Younger’s shop?”

 Doc gave it some thought. “You think somebody there can stop this before it happens?”

 “Not too many places I can go with this, Doc.”

 “Okay, I’ll talk to Penny, see what we can see. Your happy couple—they have names, addresses?”

 When he heard her older gent’s name he said, “This is the same Mickey Wolfmann who’s always in the paper? The real- estate big shot?”

 “You can’t tell anybody about this, Doc.”

 “Deaf and dumb, part of the job. Any phone numbers you’d like to share?”

 She shrugged, scowled, gave him one number. “Try to never use it.”

 “Groovy, and how do I reach you?”

 “You don’t. I moved out of the old place, staying where I can anymore, don’t ask.”

He almost said, “There’s room here,” which in fact there wasn’t, but he’d seen her looking around at everything that hadn’t changed, the authentic English Pub Dartboard up on the wagon wheel and the whorehouse swag lamp with the purple psychedelic bulb with the vibrating filament, the collection of model hot rods made entirely of Coors cans, the beach volleyball autographed by Wilt Chamberlain in Day- Glo felt marker, the velvet painting and so forth, with an expression of, you would have to say, distaste.

 He walked her down the hill to where she was parked. Weeknights out here weren’t too different from weekends, so this end of town was already all ahoot with funseekers, drinkers and surfers screaming in the alleys, dopers out on food errands, flatland guys in for a night of hustling stewardesses, flatland ladies with all-too-grounded day jobs hoping to be mistaken for stewardesses. Uphill and invisible, traffic out on the boulevard to and from the freeway uttered tuneful exhaust phrases which went echoing out to sea, where the crews of oil tankers sliding along, hearing them, could have figured it for wildlife taking care of nighttime business on an exotic coast.

In the last pocket of darkness before the glare of Beachfront Drive, they came to a pause, a timeless pedestrian gesture in these parts that usually announced a kiss or at least a grabbed ass. But she said, “Don’t come any further, somebody might be watching by now.”

“Call me or something.”

“You never did let me down, Doc.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll— ”

“No, I mean really ever.”

“Oh . . . sure I did.”

“You were always true.”

It had been dark at the beach for hours, he hadn’t been smoking much and it wasn’t headlights— but before she turned away, he could swear he saw light falling on her face, the orange light just after sunset that catches a face turned to the west, watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last wave of the day, in to shore and safety. At least her car was the same, the Cadillac ragtop she’d had forever, a ’59 Eldorado Biarritz bought used at one of the lots over on Western where they stand out close to the traffic so it’ll sweep away the smell of whatever they’re smoking. After she drove away, Doc sat on a bench down on the Esplanade, a long slopeful of lighted windows ascending behind him, and watched the luminous blooms of surf and the lights of late commuter traffic zigzagging up the distant hillside of Palos Verdes. He ran through things he hadn’t asked, like how much she’d come to depend on Wolfmann’s guaranteed level of ease and power, and how ready was she to go back to the bikini and T-shirt lifestyle, and how free of regrets? And least askable of all, how passionately did she really feel about old Mickey? Doc knew the likely reply—“I love him,” what else? With the unspoken footnote that the word these days was being way too overused. Anybody with any claim to hipness “loved” everybody, not to mention other useful applications, like hustling people into sex activities they might not, given the choice, much care to engage in.

Back at his place, Doc stood for a while gazing at a velvet painting from one of the Mexican families who set up their weekend pitches along the boulevards through the green flatland where people still rode horses, between Gordita and the freeway. Out of the vans and into the calm early mornings would come sofa-width Crucifixions and Last Suppers, outlaw bikers on elaborately detailed Harleys, superhero bad-asses in Special Forces gear packing M16s and so forth. This picture of Doc’s showed a Southern California beach that never was—palms, bikini babes, surfboards, the works. He thought of it as a window to look out of when he couldn’t deal with looking out of the traditional glass-type one in the other room. Sometimes in the shadows the view would light up, usually when he was smoking weed, as if the contrast knob of Creation had been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.

Except for tonight, which only looked more like work. He got on the telephone and tried to call Penny, but she was out, probably Watusi-ing the night away opposite some shorthaired attorney with a promising career. Cool with Doc. Next he rang up his Aunt Reet, who lived down the boulevard on the other side of the dunes in a more suburban part of town with houses, yards, and trees, because of which it had become known as the Tree Section. A few years ago, after divorcing a lapsed Missouri Synod Lutheran with a T-Bird agency and a fatality for the restless homemakers one meets at bars in bowling alleys, Reet had moved down here from the San Joaquin with the kids and started selling real estate, and before long she had her own agency, which she now ran out of a bungalow on the same oversize lot as her house. Whenever Doc needed to know anything touching on the world of property, Aunt Reet, with her phenomenal lot-by-lot grasp of land use from the desert to the sea, as they liked to say on the evening news, was the one he went to.

“Someday,” she prophesied, “there will be computers for this, all you’ll have to do’s type in what you’re looking for, or even better just talk it in—like that HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey?—and it’ll be right back at you with more information than you’d ever want to know, any lot in the L.A. Basin, all the way back to the Spanish land grants—water rights, encumbrances, mortgage histories, whatever you want, trust me, it’s coming.” Till then, in the real non-sci-fi world, there was Aunt Reet’s bordering-on-the-supernatural sense of the land, the stories that seldom appeared in deeds or contracts, especially matrimonial, the generations of family hatreds big and small, the way the water flowed, or used to. She picked up on the sixth ring. The TV set was loud in the background.

“Make it quick, Doc, I’ve got a live one tonight and a quarter ton of makeup to put on yet.”

“What can you tell me about Mickey Wolfmann?”

If she took even a second to breathe, Doc didn’t notice. “Westside Hochdeutsch mafi a, biggest of the big, construction, savings and loans, untaxed billions stashed under an Alp someplace, technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi, becomes exercised often to the point of violence at those who forget to spell his name with two n’s. What’s he to you?”

Doc gave her a rundown on Shasta’s visit and her account of the plot against the Wolfmann fortune.

“In the real-estate business,” Reet remarked, “God knows, few of us are strangers to moral ambiguity. But some of these developers, they make Godzilla look like a conservationist, and you might not care to get into this, Larry. Who’s paying you?”

“Well . . .”

“All on spec, eh? big surprise. Listen, if Shasta can’t pay you, maybe that means Mickey’s dumped her, and she’s blaming the wife and wants revenge.”

“Possible. But say I just wanted to hang out and rap with this Wolfmann dude?”

Was that an exasperated sigh? “I wouldn’t recommend your usual approach. He goes around with a dozen bikers, mostly Aryan Brotherhood alumni, to watch his back, all court-certified badasses. Try making an appointment for once.”

“Wait a minute, I ditched social- studies class a lot, but . . . Jews and the AB . . . Isn’t there . . . something about, I forget . . . hatred?”

“The book on Mickey is, is he’s unpredictable. More and more lately. Some would say eccentric. I would say stoned out of his fuckin mind, nothing personal.”

“And this goon squad, they’re loyal to him, even if when they were in the place they took some oath with maybe a anti-Semitic clause in it here and there?”

“Drive within ten blocks of the man, they’ll lie down in front of your car. Keep coming, they’ll roll a grenade. You want to talk to Mickey, don’t be spontaneous, don’t even be cute. Go through channels.”

“Yeah, but I also don’t want to get Shasta in trouble. Where do you think I could run into him, like, accidentally?”

“I promised my kid sister I’d never put her baby in the way of danger.”

“I’m cool with the Brotherhood, Aunt Reet, know the handshake and everything.”

“All right, it’s your ass, kid, I have major liquid-liner issues to deal with here, but I’m told Mickey’s been spending time out at his latest assault on the environment—some chipboard horror known as Channel View Estates?”

“Oh yeah, that. Bigfoot Bjornsen does commercials for them. Interrupting strange movies you’ve never heard of.”

“Well, maybe your old cop buddy’s the one who should be taking care of this. Have you been in touch with the LAPD?”

“I did think of going to Bigfoot,” Doc said, “but just as I was reaching for the phone I remembered how, being Bigfoot and all, he’d probably try to pop me for the whole thing.”

“Maybe you’re better off with the Nazis, I don’t envy you the choice. Be careful, Larry. Check in now and then just so I can reassure Elmina that you’re still alive.”

Fucking Bigfoot. Well, wouldn’t you know. On some extrasensory impulse, Doc reached for the tube, switched it on and flipped to one of the off-network channels dedicated to long-ago TV movies and unsold pilots, and sure enough, there was the old hippie- hating mad dog himself, moonlighting live, after a busy day of civil-rights violation, as pitchman for Channel View Estates. “A Michael Wolfmann Concept,” it read underneath the logo. 

Continue reading

echoes of brock vond in pynchon’s new novel . . .

Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?

—from Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice



coming soon!

July 9
short stories
Maile Meloy, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

July 30

William T. Vollmann, Imperial


August 4
Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

“shit, money and the word”: personal crap to be mulled over later

promotion made official.  found out my antics have inspired my co-workers to nickname me the heart-break kid. like gawd hisself, i will not be mocked: they will get theirs, the bastards! now more money is coming in… to do what with? no time to travel. maybe feed a kid in africa. clone my dogs. clone myself? ugh.

sadly, unless something drastic happens, i will continue sleep-walking through life until henry james’ “great good thing” comes for me.

got rid of 55 banker’s boxes of books last weekend: stuff like musty old penguin translations of tolstoy and dostoevsky, law books, the complete works of rick moody (first editions), about 2/3rds of kingsley amis’ output, books by alexander cockburn, robert fisk, christopher hitchens, econometrics, multiple sets of doris lessing’s the children of violence series and her canopus in argos: archives series…. When and where did I get all this stuff?… goodbye my never read various abridgements of gibbon, goodbye lesbian art in america, you were so good to me!, goodbye betty page books, bye-bye the novels of william gibson, au revoir screenplays by harold pinter, derek jarman and richard price, so long multiple copies of robert musil’s five women, good riddance my omnium gatherum of philip roth — goodbye, p-ro, you one shot wonder! admit it, you blew your wad on portnoy’s complaint… please stop writing novels about your dawning realization that you too will one day be dead… goodbye, my first edition of in cold blood, which my dogs pissed on, goodbye, 10 years’ worth of the new yorker (in boxes littered with mouse shit)….  goodbye all 1625-odd of you! you’re off to be reincarnated as toilet paper…. Shit! After all the money I spent on you over the last 30 years …  you put me in mind of pynchon’s famous “shit, money and the Word”:


The money seeping its way out . . .   what stayed at home in Berkshire went into timberland whose diminishing green reaches were converted acres at a clip into paper — toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint — a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word. . . . Shit, money, and the Word, the three American truths, powering the American mobility, claimed the Slothrops, clasped them for good to the country’s fate.



gin marshmallows and mayonnaise candies—pynchon’s paen to english christmas treats

"There is no graceful way out of this now": Pynchon’s take on holiday snacking in WW II London:

"…the grainy shadows, the grease-hazy jars of herbs, candies, spices, all the Compton Mackenzie novels on the shelf, glassy ambrotypes of her late husband Austin night-dusted inside gilded frames up on the mantel…"

The reclusive author and his famously bad teeth:

   Thomas Pynchon, from Glen Cove High School Yearbook

Mrs. Quoad’s is up three dark flights, with the dome of faraway St. Paul‘s out its kitchen window visible in the smoke of certain after
noons, and the lady herself tiny in a rose plush chair in the sitting-room by the wireless, listening to Primo Scala’s Accordion Band. She looks healthy enough. On the table, though, is her crumpled chiffon handkerchief: feathered blots of blood in and out the convolutions like a floral pattern.

"You were here when I had that horrid quotidian ague," she recalls Slothrop, "the day we brewed the wormwood tea," sure enough, the very taste now, rising through his shoe-soles, taking him along. They’re reassembling it must be outside his memory . . . cool clean interior, girl and woman, independent of his shorthand of stars so many fading-faced girls, windy canalsides, bed-sitters, bus-stop good-bys, how can he be expected to remember? but this room has gone on clarifying: part of whoever he was inside it has kindly remained, stored quiescent these months outside of his head, distributed through the grainy shadows, the grease-hazy jars of herbs, candies, spices, all the Compton Mackenzie novels on the shelf, glassy ambrotypes of her late husband Austin night-dusted inside gilded frames up on the mantel where last time Michaelmas daisies greeted and razzled from a little Sevres vase she and Austin found together one Saturday long ago in a Wardour Street

"He was my good health," she often says. "Since he passed away I’ve had to become all but an outright witch, in pure self-defense." From the kitchen comes the smell of limes freshly cut and squeezed. Darlene’s in and out of the room, looking for different botanicals, asking where the cheesecloth’s got to, "Tyrone help me just reach down that—no next to it, the tall jar, thank you love"—back into the kitchen in a creak of starch, a flash of pink. "I’m the only one with a memory around here," Mrs. Quoad sighs. "We help each other, you see." She brings out from behind its cretonne camouflage a great bowl of candies. "Now, " beaming at Slothrop. "Here: wine jellies. They’re prewar."

"Now I remember you—the one with the graft at the Ministry of Supply!" but he knows, from last time, that no gallantry can help him now. After that visit he wrote home to Nalline: "The English are kind of weird when it comes to the way things taste, Mom. They aren’t like us. It might be the climate. They go for things we would never dream of. Sometimes it is enough to turn your stomach, boy. The other day I had had one of these things they call ‘wine jellies.’ That’s their idea of candy, Mom! Figure out a way to feed some to that Hitler ‘n’ I betcha the war’d be over tomorrow!" Now once again he finds himself checking out these ruddy gelatin objects, nodding, he hopes amiably, at Mrs. Quoad. They have the names of different wines written on them in bas-relief.

"Just a touch of menthol too," Mrs. Quoad popping one into her mouth. "Delicious."

Slothrop finally chooses one that says Lafitte Rothschild and stuffs it on into his kisser. "Oh yeah. Yeah. Mmm. It’s great."

"If you really want something peculiar try the Bernkastler Doktor. Oh! Aren’t you the one who brought me those lovely American slimy elm things, maple-tasting with a touch of sassafras—"

"Slippery elm. Jeepers I’m sorry, I ran out yesterday."

Darlene comes in with a steaming pot and three cups on a tray. "What’s that?" Slothrop a little quickly, here.

"You don’t really want to know, Tyrone."

"Quite right," after the first sip, wishing she’d used more lime juice or something to kill the basic taste, which is ghastly-bitter. These people are really insane. No sugar, natch. He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, "Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—" a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingenue’s thewse"years ago," at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

"You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!" cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. "Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams." Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

"Serves me right," Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of the mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry . . . mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away that bitterness.

Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it must be pure nitric acid, "Oh mercy that’s really sour," hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple—three more candy jars down off of the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small, hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.

"Now you’re getting the idea!" Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, "you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks. Why are Americans so impulsive?"

"Well," mumbling, "usually we don’t get any more complicated than Hershey bars, see. …"

"Oh, try this," hollers Darlene, clutching her throat and swaying against him.

"Gosh, it must really be something," doubtfully taking this nasty-looking brownish novelty, an exact quarter-scale replica of a Mills-type hand grenade, lever, pin and everything, one of a series of patriotic candies put out before sugar was quite so scarce, also including, he no-dees, peering into the jar, a .455 Webley cartridge of green and pink striped taffy, a six-ton earthquake bomb of some silver-flecked blue gelatin, and a licorice bazooka.

"Go on then," Darlene actually taking his hand with the candy in it and trying to shove it into his mouth.

"Was just, you know, looking at it, the way Mrs. Quoad suggested."

"And no fair squeezing it, Tyrone."

Under its tamarind glaze, the Mills bomb turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center. It is unspeakably awful. Slothrop’s head begins to reel with camphor fumes, his eyes are running, his tongue’s a hopeless holocaust. Cubeb? He used to smoke that stuff. "Poisoned …" he is able to croak.

"Show a little backbone," advises Mrs. Quoad.

"Yes," Darlene through tongue-softened sheets of caramel, "don’t you know there’s a war on? Here now love, open your mouth."

Through the tears he can’t see it too well, but he can hear Mrs. Quoad across the table going "Yum, yum, yum," and Darlene giggling. It is enormous and soft, like a marshmallow, but somehow—unless something is now going seriously wrong with his brain—it tastes like gin. "Wha’s ‘is," he inquires thickly.

"A gin marshmallow," sez Mrs. Quoad.


"Oh that’s nothing, have one of these—" his teeth, in some perverse reflex, crunching now through a hard sour gooseberry shell into a wet spurting unpleasantness of, he hopes it’s tapioca, little glutinous chunks of something all saturated with powdered cloves.

"More tea?" Darlene suggests. Slothrop is coughing violently, having inhaled some of that clove filling.

"Nasty cough," Mrs. Quoad offering a tin of that least believable of English coughdrops, the Meggezone.

"Darlene, the tea is lovely, I can feel my scurvy going away, really I can.

—from Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow


the céline effect: “céline is a great liberator; I feel called by his voice”—philip roth

Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s influence on North American writers makes for a fascinating case study in literary influence. Is Céline a "strong poet" whose anxiety of influence has been felt on this side of the Atlantic for several generations? Have many of our best writers been "misprisioned" by the sinister Frenchman via the Freudian dynamics of Harold Bloom’s theory of literary progeniture? Do Céline’s populist sympathies for the poor and the sick and the outcast account for at least part of his attraction?    

Or does his searing contempt for that Dostoevskyean antheap, modern society (a contempt that many mistake for fascism), make him the exemplar of the truly authentic artist, the one who stands apart from the rest—and therefore markes him as a writer of highest possible integrity?

I think the real attraction of Céline is his frenetic style of wised-up street talk and caustic social observation. It’s a style that seems to survive in part the harrows of translation.

To be more precise: Céline’s voice, ably rendered by Ralph Manheim for the benefit of non-Francophones, plus the circumstances of his life, as captured and refined in his fiction, exerts such a seductive, siren-like lure for the safe and well-fed North American writer.

It is ironic Céline that remains so alluring for the North American writer, for that writer, no matter what degree of aliention he or she may feel, has never known the horrors and hardships of Vichy—occupation, resistance, treason—or had to endure the fugitive status of being allied with the wrong side, the losing side, indeed, quite clearly the criminal side in a global conflict, and, further, of being personally selected by the highest-ranking officals of your country as a most-wanted criminal, worthy of the death penalty, and even further again of being on the run in the Europe of 1945, with the continent itself now being rebooted by the victorious Allies to start again at Year Zero, with the determination to remove all vestiges of the Nazis and their accomodators very much on the agenda … to find one’s self alone, hunted and destitute, your country and continent in ruins…

Céline’s circumstances for a major portion of his writing life make Charles Bukowski’s call to "run with the hunted" seem like an invitation to a Japanese tea ceremony… everything Céline did seems marked with the stamp of the true isolate, and I often hear somewhere in my mind D.H. Lawrence’s dictum that "the essential Ameriucan character is cold, hard, stoic, isolate—and a killer." And Céline was at least the first four of those things when he had to be, and he may indeed have been a killer, too, what with his political pamphlets and his countrymen’s propinquity for betraying even to certain death the stigmatized and isolated among them, something that within a decade of his noxious political writings Céline came to know all too well.

Now here’s one academic’s take on the matter of Céline’s influence on North American writers (Alice Kaplan is the author of a fascinating study of an anti-Semitic writer in Vichy France, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach):   

Alice Kaplan, "The Céline Effect: A 1992 Survey of Contemporary American Writers."
From Modernism/modernity. Volume 3, Number 1, January 1996, pp. 117-136. 

Louis-Ferdinand Céline confounds the paradigm for fascist writers. A doctor for the poor with clear populist tendencies who emerged on the literary scene from out of nowhere, he produced a runaway best-seller, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) (1932), then a misunderstood bildungsroman, Mort à crédit (Death on the Installment Plan) (1936), that revolutionized the look of written French and exploded narrative convention. In the late 1930s he published two anti-Semitic pamphlets (Bagatelles pour un massacre [Trifles for a massacre] and L’École des cadavres [School for corpses]), both wildly successful, that pushed back the envelope of acceptable hate speech. In occupied France, he wrote letters to the editors of collaborationist newspapers and was identified with the racial policies of Vichy, but he was inconsistent and fairly useless as a polemicist for the "new order," since his spleen turned against Vichy as well its enemies. Nonetheless his camp was chosen: he was the writer who had passionately demanded the extermination of the Jews. At the end of the war he fled, following the Vichy government to the castle town of Sigmaringen, then to Denmark, where he was imprisoned by the Danes and released into exile. He was not extradited back to France during the early days of the purge, when collaborators such as Robert Brasillach were being condemned to death. By the time Céline stood trial, in absentia, the fury days of the purge had ended. Amnestied in 1951 as a veteran of World War I, he returned to a semireclusive life in the Paris suburb of Meudon, where he penned a trilogy of novels about the immediate postwar moment, featuring a shattered Europe and a paranoid, misunderstood, and wildly comic narrator. His novels (but obviously not his complete works) have been edited in the prestigious "Pléiade Collection"; his work appears on the French state agrégation examination, which certifies teachers of literature at the highest level. He is generally acknowledged, along with Marcel Proust (perhaps as an anti-Proust, in terms of class and syntax), as the great literary innovator of the century. Céline’s pamphlets, according to the wishes of his widow, have not been reedited since the war; pirate versions have been seized by his estate. There is currently a debate in France about whether or not his pamphlets should be reedited; whether, on the one hand, there is enough "Céline" in them to make them valuable as literary objects, or, on the other hand, whether it isn’t dangerous, in a current French climate of escalating racism and electoral successes by Le Pen’s Front National, to make this writer’s hate speech available to a public who reads him as great literature.

Céline has figured in the American literary context at least since the early 1930s; the story of his American reception runs along not quite parallel tracks to the French story, with some fascinating differences. This essay concentrates on one part of the American picture: Céline’s reception among writers.

The Miller Paradigm

Georges Brassaï, in a memoir entitled Henry Miller: grandeur nature (Henry Miller: lifesize), tells the following, now famous story: Henry Miller was living in Paris in 1932 and struggling with the manuscript of Tropic of Cancer, which had already been rejected by publishers. 1 An agent connected with the French publishing firm of Denoël and Steele gave Miller galley proofs of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit. This was Frank Dobo, also of the Winkler International Literary Agency, the agent who would help sell and promote the English version of Céline’s first novel with Little, Brown and Company, and who was soon after to become deeply involved in Miller’s literary career. According to Brassaï, reading Céline so affected Miller that he rewrote Tropic of Cancer. 2 Miller told Brassaï that "no writer had ever given him such a shock"; Brassaï went so far as to claim that Miller moved to the working-class suburb of Clichy to be near Céline—a strange claim, since Céline never lived in Clichy, although he consulted at the medical clinic there.

It is no coincidence that Brassaï, who with novelist Pierre MacOrlan was identified with 1930s Montmartre-Montparnasse bohemianism, and who prowled Paris by night with Henry Miller as he prepared his famous photo essay Paris by Night, should be fascinated by Miller’s attraction to the author of Voyage au bout de la nuit. Whether or not the story, as Brassaï told it, is literally true, we know that Miller sent Tropic to Céline, that he championed Céline throughout his career, calling him his "brother" and a "great man," and that he signed an American petition in his defense when Céline was threatened with extradition on charges of collaboration.3 The "shock" that Miller is said to have felt upon reading Céline had a positive and long-lasting effect. Samuel Putnam, a translator of Rabelais who was also closely linked to Miller through their shared Paris expatriate scene (Putnam would employ Miller at his literary magazine, The New Review ) used the word "shock" in a different register in his 1934 review of the American edition of the English translation of Journey to the End of the Night: "It is safe to wager that nine out of ten non-French French teachers in America would be unable to make head or tail out of the original, while the French-born ones would be terribly shocked, linguistically as well as morally."4 The difference between the academic and the artistic response is clearly marked here: Henry Miller’s discovery of Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, as related by Georges Brassaï, establishes a distinct relationship to Céline on the part of American authors, showing Céline en route to becoming a writer for writers.

The fact that Miller first read Céline in the original French is not to be overestimated in accounting for the impact Céline had on him. Many critics, including Putnam, acknowledged in the 1930s that John Marks’s translations of Céline were inferior to the original in tone, in addition to being expurgated. At Little, Brown, the telegram that editor Herbert Jenkins sent to the Boston branch, listing the phrases that Marks had cut, was hung on the wall as a reminder of the scandal that Journey constituted for the American reading public in 1934.5 It is astonishing that we had to wait until 1983for Ralph Manheim’s translation of Journey. By then, Céline’s American reputation had waned considerably.

American Moments

Under the impetus of the New Directions 1947 reprint of Death on the Installment Plan, Journey to the End of the Night in 1949, and the 1954 publication of Guignol’s Band in English, the circle of American-based writers interested in Céline expanded. For understanding the constellation of references and positions that accompanied the American taste for Céline during the 1950s, there is no more representative figure than Kenneth Rexroth, the New Directions author and critic who, in a series of articles on poetry, the Beat Generation, and literary rebellion, consistently used Céline as a counterpoint to the "polite" American writers, critics, and poets he dubbed the "Reactionary Generation." The paradox is that a writer like Céline, in the American context, shows up as an aesthetic alternative to writers who, like him, in the European context are situated on the reactionary Right. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound represented for the anarchist Rexroth the very essence of orthodoxy, crowned by a New Critical formalism for which he reserved his wittiest contempt: "there was growing up in Vanderbilt University, one of the few institutions of learning in the American South, a little coterie of political reactionaries, under the leadership of their English professor, John Crowe Ransom. . . . Their idol was T. S. Eliot, Classicist, Anglo-Catholic, Royalist. . . . They approved of Ezra Pound but wished he paid more attention to the rules of verse."6 At the other end of Rexroth’s spectrum was Allen Ginsberg, with his "denunciatory" jeremiad Howl, representing "an almost perfect fulfillment of the long, [Walt] Whitman, Populist, social revolutionary tradition in American poetry."7

Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs set out to visit Céline in Meudon in 1958. (It is generally thought that Burroughs learned of Céline through Miller as early as 1944 and transmitted his knowledge to the younger Beats, Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.) In the volume of poems that Ginsberg began writing in Paris that same year—entitled Kaddish, after the Jewish mourner’s prayer—Céline appears with a host of other writers—Whitman, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, Charles Dickens, William Carlos Williams, Arthur Rimbaud (Céline and Rimbaud are the only French writers mentioned)—in a poem called "Ignu." He is portrayed in his decrepit Meudon persona, administering morphine:

Céline himself an old ignu over prose
I saw him in Paris dirty old gentleman of ratty talk
with longhaired cough three wormy sweaters round his neck
brown mould under historic fingernails
pure genius his giving morphine all night to 1400 passengers on a sinking ship
"because they were all getting emotional"8

The physical description corresponds to the person Ginsberg and Burroughs must have seen at Meudon—decrepit, ill, covered in sweaters in an unheated house. The elements of Céline’s first two novels are suggested as well: the gathering of crowds, the ship, Céline’s medical practice. The gift of morphine in "Ignu" is much closer to a Burroughs fantasy (Burroughs had published Junkie in 1953, and he presented a copy of the book to Céline) than to any dominant aspect of Céline’s prose, and shows how Céline’s aura could be appropriated. In the mid-1960s, Ginsberg would acknowledge the influence of Céline on his poetry in technical, rather than thematic, terms: "the rapidity of transitions and shiftings made possible by the 3-dot syntax . . . that’s what impresses us in US who are interested in the use of aural speech patterns transferred to written language."9

That the Céline celebrated by the Beats was a sentence-level writer was no doubt part of the decision made by New Directions to underwrite a new translation of one of the French writer’s previously translated novels during the 1960s. In 1966, they published Ralph Manheim’s translation of Mort à crédit, Death on the Installment Plan, which rendered Céline in a style that was more syntactically interesting, and more American in terms of vocabulary than the earlier, British-idiom translations by John Marks. Manheim’s work is more attuned to the qualities that Ginsberg valued in Céline’s writing: the odd speech patterns and the three dots, which were often ignored or "corrected" in Marks’s translations. This was the first of the decade’s several major publishing events in the American career of Céline: in 1968, Manheim’s translation of D’un chateau l’autre, Castle to Castle, won a National Book Award for translation, boosting the visibility and prestige of Céline’s post-World War II historical fiction.

In 1965, Céline made a significant appearance in Bruce Jay Friedman’s anthology of short stories, Black Humor. Céline is represented in the volume by the Admiral Bragueton episode from Journey to the End of the Night. He is the only French writer, appearing alongside Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, John Barth, Terry Southern, and J. P. Donleavy. The essay in which Friedman introduces the black humor genre is political and aesthetic in focus; black humor, Friedman argues, is the only possible literary response to the mad reality of the Vietnam war, and Céline was the precursor of this angry, hallucinatory genre: "There is Thomas Pynchon appearing out of nowhere with a vision so contemporary it makes your nose bleed and there is Céline who reminds you that he thought all your thoughts, worked the same beat, was dumbfounded as many times a day as you are, long before you were born."10

It was in the 1960s that Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five; John Clellon Holmes, the chronicler of the Beat Generation who became a teacher of fiction writing; and Philip Roth, the young Jewish author of the infamous Portnoy’s Complaint, all taught Céline in fiction courses at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.11 The appearance of Céline as an antiwar writer in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), the dominant theme of which is a critique of the bombing of Dresden and whose success was overdetermined by protests against the American bombings of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, presented the French writer to a mass of American readers as an antiwar figure at a time when opposition to the Vietnam War was becoming a mass movement. If the 1950s was the decade when Céline’s reputation was expanding among writers and critics connected to the Beat Generation, the 1960s—with Céline’s canonization as a black humorist, the impact of the new Manheim translations, and the interest in his work shown by such mainstream novelists as Vonnegut and Roth—was the decade when Céline came closest to reaching a mass American audience—when Céline was reinvented as an antiwar novelist.

The Survey

In 1991, I undertook a survey of contemporary American writers. It was an attempt to document an afterlife for Céline—a life after the oppositional cultural movements of the 1960s, after the waning of avant-garde writing. The angry young men have been replaced as the most celebrated figures on the literary scene by women and minorities, and first-person narrative has attained a decidedly more confessional, less hallucinatory quality than it had thirty years ago. I wanted to know: Is Céline remembered? Is he still a writer’s writer? Who is reading him today?

The idea of asking a group of contemporary writers about a literary figure is an almost shockingly simple approach to questions of intertextuality and influence that have received sophisticated theoretical treatment. A survey cannot capture effects that are unconscious, repressed, or even indirect, but it can provide writers with a chance to give testimony—to create a text of their own. It is this "text"—the collective written responses to my questions on Céline—that I analyzed for patterns, repetitions, and surprises.

The empiricism of a survey was bound to antagonize a group of people who define themselves by their creativity. Asking writers to respond to yes-or-no questions is a bit like asking artists to complete a paint-by-numbers landscape. As I compiled the list of writers and later grappled with their answers, more often than not the survey came to seem rather like one of the experiments carried out by French writers of the twentieth-century OuLiPo school, which wants to formulate elaborate rules and mathematical structures as the bases for literary creation. My survey was a constraint, a mold, an opening into literary history that the writers could follow, resist, or ignore, as they pleased.

Among the thousands of writers producing in the United States today, I chose to survey novelists, poets, and translators. I included editors who have shaped some of the most interesting writing of the past twenty years and essayists who, in my opinion, have left the scholarly domain to reach an audience outside the university through large-circulation literary magazines such as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. I chose individual writers for a variety of reasons: some had written or had spoken about Céline in interviews; others wrote in a genre or style favored by Céline; some writers were surveyed simplybecause I thought they would respond vehemently. At the same time, I aimed for a representative sample from various schools and tendencies in American writing: New Directions writers, Language poets, mainstream Knopf and Random House writers, writers born after 1950, and writers closely identified by their race, ethnicity, or sexual politics. The oldest writer to whom I sent the survey was born in 1897; the youngest, in 1964. The majority of writers who responded were born between 1927 and 1951, although there was a cluster of responses from writers born between 1909 and 1917, who came of age during the 1930s, when Céline’s American star first rose (fig. 1). My basic source for writers’ addresses was The Writers Directory, 1990-1992, although finding the right address was still not easy, and ten surveys never reached their destination.12

What do I mean by "writer"? The distinctions between writers and critics, between producers and analysts of literature, are not always clear, especially today when for economic and institutional reasons American writers often make a living by teaching criticism and creative writing in university English departments and in writing programs. This is a characteristic of American writers today that distinguishes them both from Céline, who always defined himself against literary and academic communities, and from contemporary French writers who are not institutionally linked to the French university system. Even Ginsberg, who was indicted on obscenity charges in 1957 for Howl, today teaches writing at Brooklyn College; Maxine Hong Kingston, the best-known Asian-American novelist in the United States, is a distinguished professor at Berkeley; and John Barth, known for his metafiction, holds an endowed professorship at Johns Hopkins. Very few of the writers surveyed are [fig. 1] completely independent of the academic world: either they teach, write criticism for academic journals, or depend on income from speaking engagements at universities.

I sent the survey to 163 writers.13 I received 65 responses, including completed surveys, letters, and one postcard, which constituted a response rate of 40 percent—unusually high for this kind of survey (10 percent is considered a very good response rate to any kind of direct mailing). I was struck by the generosity of the respondents, both in answering my questions and in suggesting more complex ones than I had asked.

Of the 65 respondents, 55 had heard of Céline, of whom 43 had read him; 12 people who hadn’t read Céline took the trouble to return the survey. Fourteen respondents asked to be quoted anonymously.

What Texts Have You Read?

I asked writers to check off the works by Céline they had read; these included the French editions of his novels and anti-Semitic/political pamphlets, and the English translations of his novels by John Marks and by Ralph Manheim.

An equal number of writers (17) had read Death on the Installment Plan in the Marks and Manheim translations. The figures, however, tilted toward Marks for Journey (34 people had read his translation, while 13 had read Manheim’s). More writers, that is, had read Journey before 1983, when the Manheim translation was first published.

The Céline work most frequently read by the American writers surveyed was Marks’s translation of Voyage au bout de la nuit, the only translation available from 1934 to 1983. The same number of people who had read the Manheim translation (13) read Voyage in the original French. The fact that Manheim’s translation appeared so long after the publication of Voyage is an important factor here. The ages of the Voyage readers ranged from 52 to 81, indicating that an older generation of American writers was more likely to have read novels in French than those born after 1945. One surprising result was that 9 of the 13 readers who read Voyage in French also read it in English as Journey: either they read the book twice, once in French and once in English, or they used one of the English translations as a guide in reading the French—an indication not only of their dedication as readers, but also of the specific appeal, and difficulty, of Céline’s French.

Discovering Céline

Céline is an antiacademic figure who nonetheless requires an educated taste. His work is transmitted in this country mainly through schools. Eleven writers had read Céline for the first time in college, either in a course or because friends had recommended his work. Five respondents precociously read him in high school or as teenagers, 1 in a graduate seminar, and 1 in a writer’s workshop—only 2 of the writers surveyed had first encountered him as book reviewers.

There were a number of writers who reported reading Céline as their first intense brush with literature (the experience that readers often recall with respect to J. D. Salinger or Rimbaud). The poet and translator Richard Howard, who has read a great deal of Céline, discovered him in high school—in Cleveland, where "a sort of diabolic aureole surrounded this antisemitic figure." 14 Novelist Jim Harrison also first read Céline "in high school, a rural agricultural school where my teacher subscribed to the Nation and Saturday Review so I found out early about Céline." Gary Indiana "first read Céline precociously, at age 13 or 14, because his books were available in paperback at the local news store: I liked the titles." If we date these high-school encounters to 1945, 1953, and 1963 respectively, we have evidence of a Céline influence on young people extending over three decades, from the period of his greatest infamy—the immediate aftermath of the war—to the decade of his most obvious influence, yet before the appearance of the first Manheim translation in 1966.

In addition to these high-school readers, the following writers (fig. 2) reported specific years for their first "awareness" of Céline (they are listed by order of birth year). Norman O. Brown (b. 1913) wrote a particularly interesting response to this question in a letter describing two different discoveries of Céline, fifty years apart.His initial encounter occurred

in my first Marxist incarnation in the late 1930s . . . as a "muck-raker," with ambiguous proletarian affinities. [Then] in the past year [1990] I discovered as more relevant to my post-Marxist tendencies Kristeva’s Pouvoirs de l’horreur [Powers of horror]. . . . the material was so fascinating I went to the French edition and read it bilingually, paying special attention to the quotations from Céline. Thus through Kristeva in bilingual translation I got some access to Céline in the original.

Only 2 writers (not counting Brown) mention French sources—either personal or literary—for their first encounter with Céline: overwhelmingly, then, his reputation seems to have depended on word of mouth within an American network.

Placing Céline

I asked, "Where do you place Céline (list other comparable authors, give a value judgment or a description): (a) in terms of French Literature; (b) in terms of American literature; (c) along with other translated European authors?" The results were eclectic; some writers placed Céline among the timeless classics, others with nineteenth-century novelists, with his contemporaries in the 1930s, or with writers working today. There was no discernible pattern of generational affinity in these comparisons: Jay McInerney (b. 1955), sees Céline as someone who "made the Beat Movement possible," while Ted Morgan (b. 1932), compares him to Eric Bogosian, the 1990s performance artist. Céline is poet Philip Levine’s "favorite French writer of this century," whom he prefers to André Gide, Proust, and André Malraux. Richard Howard calls Céline one of the "three greatest prose writers of the Second World War period," along with André Breton and Maurice Blanchot.

In terms of American placement, Henry Miller was the most frequently cited in comparison with Céline (6 times); Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, and the Beats were each cited 3 times, while John Hawkes, Ray Federman, Vonnegut, Pound, Harold Brodkey, and John Dos Passos were each mentioned twice. Clark Blaise defined Céline as a "proletarian lyric writer," along with Henry Roth, Edward Dahlberg, early James Farrell, Dos Passos, and William Saroyan (Nathaniel West was also mentioned). A number of writers chose to respond to this question in the "not as good as" mode—that is, evaluatively. According to Ron Sukenick, "Céline doesn’t rank with Faulkner or Melville but beats the Hemingway-Fitzgerald bunch by a longshot."

It was surprising that Norman Mailer responded to the survey by specifying that only one of his responses could be quoted—the response to this comparative question. He claimed that Céline is "significantly less valuable than Henry Miller." The remark is consistent with Mailer’s having championed Henry Miller in The Prisoner of Sex, after Miller had been famously attacked by feminist essayist Kate Millett in her Sexual Politics. Céline is an occasion for Mailer to continue championing Miller15


Céline’s English-language titles attracted attention. Gary Indiana, as noted above, saw Céline’s paperbacks at the newsstand when he was thirteen or fourteen years old, and "liked the titles." Tom Wolfe thinks that Death on the Installment Plan is the "greatest book title ever devised—better in English than it is in French."16 Greil Marcus, music critic and historian of punk rock, confessed to never having read Céline—"I haven’t gotten around to it (also haven’t read Woolf, Forster, etc); afraid I might like it too much (not kidding)"—yet he responded to several of the questions on the basis of his received ideas about Céline. Marcus has clearly absorbed Céline, in English, at the level of the titles: in Dead Elvis, published the year of the survey, he entitled a chapter "Ten Years After: Death on the Installment Plan."17 There is already a strong trickle-down effect of Céliniana in the culture, available to a knowledgeable critic like Marcus. Céline’s English titles are recyclable as slogans; the writer himself is known, even by someone who hasn’t read him, as forbidden and dangerous.

Voice and Freedom

Céline’s effect on a writer’s own practice was often connected by the respondents to the category of voice, although what "voice" means varied widely:18 Jay McInerny, for example, spoke of "a freeing up of the inner voice, a license to say whatever you feel," while for Andrei Codrescu, Céline’s writing is characterized by "the closeness of the speaking mouth: you can taste the spittle." Clark Blaise in a follow-up interview referred to Céline as promoting a "singularity of voice": "voice" in this case is akin to originality, or "signature," and for Blaise this is the key element in Céline. Like Samuel Beckett, Blaise contends, Céline is "entirely a ‘voice writer.’"19

Several writers acknowledged the effect of Céline as one of "freedom." Again, what liberation meant varied. For the Rumanian-born Codrescu, Céline represented a freedom from institutions: "He has given me license to practice medicine regardless of what authorities are watching." For Maxine Hong Kingston, he endorsed a freer speech, an end to secrets: "Perhaps I am assured by Céline that it’s all right to say anything I want." In Jim Harrison’s response, this freedom is physical and spiritual, linked to speed and range, power and godliness: "a strong early influence along with Faulkner etc., in terms of digression, freedom, how to accelerate fiction as if you were a god." Even 2 of the anonymous respondents, who were otherwise hostile to Céline, used the word "freedom," though grudgingly: "he freed [my writing] up—slightly"; "perhaps a certain freedom." In a 1984 interview in the Quinzaine Littéraire, Philip Roth combined these notions of voice and freedom in a provocative tribute to Céline, calling him "my Proust": "Céline," Roth concluded, "is a great liberator; I feel called by his voice."20 It is difficult to tell from his phrasing, translated here from the French, to what purpose Roth feels called. Céline’s "call," I suspect, is nothing other than the call to read Céline and to write.

The Pamphlets

Céline’s political affinities, his targets, and the passionate debates over what purpose his hate language served in its original context wither, or are suspended by many passionate American readers, in the interests of his writerly, emancipating effects. This may be both because he is not an American writer—and is therefore exempt from more local political passions—and because the full-blown expression of his racism takes place only in the pamphlets, which (with the exception of Mea Culpa [1936], an anticommunist polemic) are not available in English translation and so tend not to cloud his American reception.

Nevertheless, many more people (13, the number of Voyage readers) claim to have read one or more of the pamphlets (Mea Culpa, Bagatelles pour un massacre [1937], L’École des cadavres [1938], and Les Beaux Draps [1941]) than have read the playful postwar send-up of the world of journalists and editors, Entretiens avec le Professeur Y (1955), which was translated and published as Conversations with Professor Y in the United States in a 1986 bilingual edition.21 Saul Bellow read Les Beaux Draps in Paris in 1948, and responded to the survey with the following pun: "I still remember the hackles those fine sheets raised" ("fine sheets" being the transposition of the reference to bedsheets in "beaux draps," by which Céline is referring to the "fine fix" that the French have gotten themselves into during the Occupation).22

Overwhelmingly, the pamphlet readers have closer connections to France and to the French language than do the writers who have read only the novels. Saul Bellow was born in Montreal and has lived in France. Clark Blaise is of Quebecois origins. Raymond Federman, an American writer born in France in 1928, was the only survey respondent to have read every Céline text, French and English. Richard Howard is the foremost American translator of French literature. The writer and former journalist Sanche de Gramont came to the United States from France as an adult and changed his name to Ted Morgan. The poets Michael Palmer and Keith Waldrop also translate from the French and have close intellectual ties to France. Gary Indiana read the pamphlets while living in France.

Age is significant: of the 13pamphlet readers, 9 were born between 1911 and 1932, and only 3 were born after 1940—the youngest, Gary Indiana, in 1950. While he was living in France in 1980, Indiana read copies of Bagatelles pour un massacre, L’École des cadavres, and Les Beaux Draps borrowed from Jean-Jacques Schuhl, an experimental French novelist with an affinity for the Beats. No respondent under forty-two years of age had read the pamphlets. This is a provocative result, for it implies that the memory of Céline’s anti-Semitic writing is fading among his readers today. One might argue about whether that is good or bad, from both an ethical and an aesthetic point of view.

The responses I want to juxtapose with the surprising number of readers of the pamphlets—20 percent of those who responded to the survey—are to the question "Are you aware of the controversy over Céline’s political views?" and to the follow-up question "What effect has that awareness had on your appreciation of his work?" Forty-two writers responded that they were aware of the controversy, while only 1 writer wasn’t. What interests me here is the way American writers deal with a figure who is morally compromised, how they factor politics and formal considerations in reading Céline.

Politics versus Form

Thirteen people said that Céline’s political views had no effect on their reading; they answered with such startling one-liners as "none," "little or none," "little," "almost none," "not much," and "absolutely no effect." Of these 13 readers, 1 had read all four pamphlets, while another had read only Bagatelles pour un massacre. The "none at all" group included Adrian Piper, a professor of philosophy and performance artist who has taken strong political positions against American racism in her own art, most recently in an installation on the Rodney King incident.

At the other end of the spectrum were the people who refused to read Céline. For example, Paul Bowles declared, "I have avoided him for 5 decades," while Richard Selzer said, "I prefer not to read bigots and fascists. Life is too short. Art is too long." The anonymous respondents had harsher things to say, for example, "don’t you dare associate me with Céline." Or, in response to the question "Are you aware of the controversy over Céline’s political views?" one respondent asked in turn if the evil of Nazism could be construed as controversial, i.e., debatable. Jim Harrison offered up his own split between politics and aesthetics in the form of self-criticism: "Writers tend to be politically naive, self included. Have to stick to the work itself."

Another group of respondents considered politics and form as inseparable issues (this is one of the few groupings where none of the respondents asked for anonymity). Charles Bernstein described the effects of Céline’s politics as "part of the complexity of his work," whereas for Clark Blaise, "it provokes a sharper scrutiny of the good work and helps explain the bad." With regard to the effect of his awareness of the Céline controversy, Michael Palmer commented that "an awareness comes through the work, not apart from it." For Gary Indiana, "Céline’s vision is so deranging and raucous that his political views—which are impossible to take seriously—become a source of humor." Andrei Codrescu expressed it more figuratively: "the writing is generative: the views are to the writing what shit is to flowers, unfortunately." Céline, for Bob Perelman, is "an intensely interesting problem." Maxine Hong Kingston, however, reported a negative effect. She "liked the energy, the language . . . the idea that one must do anything—including go to jail—rather than join the army"; she saw Céline as a "wild hare, like Ezra Pound in American literature" but stopped reading Céline after hearing about his "weird views." Lydia Davis responded to this question with questions of her own:

To raise the very difficult question of morality and literature—i.e., how immoral can a piece of writing be and still be given highest honors and esteem—more broadly, how much, if anything, can or should be sacrificed for the sake of a piece of art. It forces me to judge author as man separately from work as work, despise a moral failing while admiring a consummate work of art.

Again, in the 1984 Quinzaine Littéraire interview, Philip Roth, perhaps the best-known American Jewish writer in France, gives this dichotomy between ideology and literature a poetic form, describing an art that transcends his own subject position. "To read him," Roth says about Céline, "I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism is not at the heart of his books, even D’un chateau l’autre. "23

Historically Céline has always been positioned differently in the United States than in France. Thus Roth’s bracketing of Céline’s anti-Semitism can be understood as part of an American tradition and as the long-range consequence of an editorial decision made by an American publisher during the 1930s. In 1938, the year Bagatelles was selling briskly in France, Céline proposed the anti-Semitic pamphlet to Little, Brown. His American editor, Herbert Jenkins, rejected it definitively:

As you indicated in your letter, this is a four-hundred page attack on the Jews written with your usual vigor and violence. It does not appear to contain any narrative or personal experiences except in the last forty pages. We feel that you have made statements which are unsupported by evidence and that its publication here will seriously damage your reputation as an outstanding author.24

It was a rejection that would have long-term consequences for Céline’s American reputation. It looks, in retrospect, as if the rejection of Bagatelles in 1938—and the fact that all of the anti-Semitic material of the 1930s and 1940s would remain untranslated and therefore unavailable to American readers—helped create a situation in which Céline could maintain his identity for American readers of the late 1940s and beyond solely as the author of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. When Kenneth Rexroth, in a 1959 essay, "forgives" Céline on the very point that he can’t forgive Eliot and Pound, he does so by purposefully limiting the Céline corpus to the novels: "We can, if we confine ourselves to the two great novels, forgive Céline for being an anti-Semite, but when, as the Communists used to say, ‘Art is a weapon,’ then we cannot forgive. We cannot forgive the direct, depraved political tendentiousness of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or [Eugène] Guillevic."25 Whether or not, in their French context, the pamphlets functioned as "weapons" is not an issue Rexroth explores.

Conclusion: The Céline Effect

The most important finding to emerge from the survey is that while Céline’s novels may sell under 5,000 copies a year in the United States, he apparently endures as a writer for writers in a specific tradition: Céline as anarchist, liberator, anti-James/anti-Eliot figure in twentieth-century American letters, pitted against a whole tradition of polite, subtle psychological fiction and poetry. This dominant Céline effect was what I wished to explore.

Peter Glassgold, who succeeded James Laughlin as editor-in-chief of New Directions, wrote in response to the survey that Céline "had an interesting impact in the ’60s, helping to dynamite the Jamesian dominance of what a real novel ought to be. But I’m afraid this has degenerated and been watered down by creative writing programs." I asked Clark Blaise to tell me, therefore, as an educator of writers at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and director of its International Writing Program, what he thought "being a Jamesian" meant.

Rigorous attention to unity of point of view, tone, elevation of psychological realism, stifling expression; everything disguised—out of that comes Eliot, the aged eagle spreading his wings at age twenty. In the U. S., the clichés of writing are "politics are ruinous for good writing/dreams and allegories are cheap devices; write what you know; show, don’t tell." Céline, who breaks all the rules, "expands the perimeter of the permissible." The New Yorker, with its tailored tone, would detest Céline. . . . I learned through Céline that an unevenness of tone is not a flaw; spleen can be bracing.26  

Blaise uses Céline in the classroom to dismantle received ideas about American writing. He is highly critical of the idea that you must write from your own experience; he thinks it culturally impoverishes young American writers, making them anti-intellectual. It is paradoxical to use Céline against the write-what-you-know rule, given that Céline himself was an autobiographical writer, but for American students both the experiences described by Céline and his mode of description are radically unfamiliar.Céline’s work provides alternative forms and demonstrates that a writer can rave and lose control, to "tell" as well as to "show."

The Céline effect is also marked for Blaise by a class difference. As a writer of the lower crust, again the opposite of James and Eliot, Céline is an emblematic figure for writers of French-Canadian descent (including Blaise and Kerouac before him), whose French identity is tied to the marginalized working classes rather than a more aristocratic sense of literariness connoted by "Frenchness" in the United States. Paradoxically, the French writer gives Americans license to reject the worship of Europe that is part of our cultural baggage: "I’m not a francophile in terms of French," Blaise explained. "Céline tells you that the French are a low, vermin-encrusted culture; highfalutin phrases come down to shit." According to Blaise, Céline’s portraits of the disenfranchised have situated his writing in a register that is subliterary, "stinking of the world and of everything impolite, authentic, and dangerous"—what Blaise referred to as an "aim of artlessness" in Célinian poetics.27

The picture that finally emerges of the American Céline—in terms of published, acknowledged influences (as opposed to my survey)—is West Coast, not East Coast; Beat and City Lights, not The New Yorker; New Directions, not New Critical. New Directions is certainly an East Coast institution, so the East/West American split is not literally true. But it is evocative: Céline as westerner—roving, the bad boy. He is a scandalous figure who can be celebrated by people who hate the system.28

Bob Perelman, a Language poet who spent many years in the San Francisco area, acknowledges the flavor of this American Céline when he says, as noted above, that he did not come to Céline through the usual "leftist-nihilist-anarchist enthusiasm." That this enthusiasm should be occasioned by a foreign writer whose deeply felt ideas are unacceptable in this culture is perhaps no accident, and it remains a subject for further analysis. How would American writers describe the effect of Pound’s or Eliot’s anti-Semitism on the appreciation of these poets? How would French writers come to terms with Céline’s ideology in response to a similar survey?

There is something specific in our culture that gives American writers the freedom to love Céline, or—to put it another way—that might account for the fact that the United States was the only country where writers organized a petition in favor of Céline in 1946, when he was threatened with extradition from Denmark to France.29 Certainly the American First Amendment tradition is consistent with a libertarian defense of Céline, regardless of his views. The First Amendment is tacitly present in several of the responses to the question about the effect Céline’s politics on an appreciation of his writing ("none at all," "absolutely none"). 

Along with our First Amendment culture, there is a specific New Critical tradition of close reading, which separates politics from aesthetic appreciation. The Beats were not New Critics—anything but—yet the impulse toward art that aims to be formally transcendent, canonical because disinterested, runs deep. James Laughlin explained this position in his introduction to the 1946 New Directions annual. Although he is defending Paul Eluard and Pound, his explanation could just as easily apply to his defense of Céline, that same year, when he signed the petition in his favor:

I have been severely criticized for publishing Eluard because he is said to be a Stalinist. He is a killer, they tell me; he killed Germans with his poems. Very well: I have two answers to that. Much as I am opposed to the whole business of war and legal killing I would probably have done, or tried to do, exactly what Eluard did under similar circumstances. And secondly, I don’t care whether he is a Stalinist or what he is; the man can write. He is a poet and no mistake. That’s enough for me. I am one who still thinks Ezra Pound’s poetry is good—very good—not withstanding his political folly. These people who changed their minds about the merits of Pound’s poetry the day he was indicted for treason make me sick and angry. A poem is a thing in itself. You judge it by itself, for itself and of itself—not by the politics of the man who wrote it.30 The gist of this defense is pacifist and libertarian, but appeals most of all to the integrity of the art object and the talent of the artist: "the man can write." In 1942, Henry Miller articulated the same position, in his case specifically in reference to Céline: "I don’t care whether he is a Fascist or a Democrat or a shit-house cleaner. He can write. "31 This can-do/separatist defense of the politically compromised writer informs the 1946 petition and remains a familiar stance in all subsequent American discussions of Céline.

The other side of the coin is the refusal to read Céline. This rejectionist position is the same one often taken with respect to Martin Heidegger or Paul de Man. Political flaws or ideologically unacceptable positions in the text or in the author’s life become a kind of obscenity, and the work is censured. This, too, is distinctly American.

A third position that comes out of the survey is an integrationist one. This position would read Céline in many layers, many contexts, and recontextualizations, measuring the energy of the work in its passage through time and space. Often the most nuanced and conflicted positions boil down to this attempt to make the work make sense on both an ideological and poetic level, without reducing it to either one. Michael Palmer, who objected to the either/or quality of my questions about Céline’s politics versus his writing, explained in a follow-up postcard: "It really comes down to the reasons, at a fairly early stage, for my ‘refusal’ of the work. Certainly the fascism, but something else as well, perhaps a reductive bitterness which permeated it and (for me) ‘automatized’ the process of composition."32 For poet Charles Bernstein, who, unlike Palmer, is "very excited by the style, the urgency, the ‘. . .’ as poetic fragmentation, stream of tirade," Céline’s politics "deepens an appreciation of the dystopian and repulsive character of this work."

As a counter to the well-made novel or poem, as a figure of resistance and liberation from literary authority as historically constituted by the New Criticism, even as the occasion for moral conflict, Céline still signifies a vital critical function within the American institutions of literature.

[Please see post immediately below for text of footnotes.]

Alice Kaplan is Professor of Romance Studies and Literature at Duke University. Her previous work on Céline includes Sources et citations dans "Bagatelles pour un massacre" (1987) and a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, coedited with Philippe Roussin, "Céline, USA" (1994).

intimations of oswald spengler… by the mid-60s, mailer pessimistic about the future of the west…

…and my ideas are going to become more and more unimportant. There’s something going on which I don’t think I understand anymore, and I used to have a confidence that I understood the times better than anyone, but now I just don’t know. These McLuhans, these Pynchons and Jeremy Larners and this love of electronics and plastic and folk/rock make me feel like Plekhanov’s scolding of the Soviets in 1917. Sometimes I think we’re at the tail end of something which soon may be gone forever, so that in 50 years, for instance, there may not be anyone alive who’s read all of “Remembrance of Things Past.” See how gloomy I am. Why indeed should I give a damn what my friends’ ideas are—indeed let them cherish them for a while, they don’t matter any more thanmy own ideas. What I do know is that the majority of people among whom you spent your intellectual life, and they are the Communists of the ’40s who form up a large part of this, had an aridity of invention and sterility of emotion which had everything to do with preparing the ground for the extraordinary nihilism which is now near upon us, because with rare exceptions, and Lionel would be one of the very rare ones, they offered no fertile continuations of Western thought—their best and final tool was a savage, even cannibalistic malice…..

Love for now,      


—From a letter by Norman Mailer to Diana Trilling, June 1966. Now consider Mailer’s letter of August 8, 1945, to his first wife, Beatrice, about the long-term consequences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima:

I think our age is going to mark the end of such concepts as man’s will and mass determination of power. The world will be controlled by a few men, politicians and technicians—Spengler’s men of the late West-European-American civilization. Much as he stimulates me, I’m no Spenglerian. In the alternatives of doing the necessary or nothing, I prefer nothing if the necessary is unpalatable.

More of Norman Mailer’s letters appear on The New Yorker’s Web site.