“I think of all the weapons in a house: knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers, skillets, cleavers wine bottles, and I wonder if I’ll be one of those women.”

anton chekhov once observed it is not the writer’s job to solve problems and draw conclusions:

In my opinion it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as God, pessimism, etc; his job is merely to record who, under what conditions, said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness. I heard two Russians in a muddled conversation about pessimism, a conversation that solved nothing; all I am bound to do is reproduce that conversation exactly as I heard it. Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.

—Anton Chekhov, in a letter to Alexei Suvorin, May 30, 1888

. . . a century later andre dubus illustrated chekhov’s credo this way:

“Leslie in California”

WHEN THE ALARM rings the room is black and grey; I smell Kevin’s breath and my eye hurts and won’t open. He gets out of bed, and still I smell beer in the cold air. He is naked and dressing fast. I get up shivering in my nightgown and put on my robe and go by flashlight to the kitchen, where there is some light from the sky. Birds are singing, or whatever it is they do. I light the gas lantern and set it near the stove, and remember New England mornings with the lights on and a warm kitchen and catching the school bus. I won’t have to look at my eye till the sun comes up in the bathroom. Dad was happy about us going to California; he talked about sourdough bread and fresh fruit and vegetables all year. I put water on the stove and get bacon and eggs and milk from the ice chest. A can of beer is floating, tilting, in the ice and water; the rest are bent in the paper bag for garbage. I could count them, know how many it takes. I put on the bacon and smoke a cigarette, and when I hear him coming I stand at the stove so my back is to the door.

‘Today’s the day,’ he says.

They are going out for sharks. They will be gone five days, maybe more, and if he comes back with money we can have electricity again. For the first three months out here he could not get on a boat, then yesterday he found one that was short a man, so last night he celebrated.

‘Hey, hon.’

I turn the bacon. He comes to me and hugs me from behind, rubbing my hips through the robe, his breath sour beer with mint.

‘Let me see your eye.’

I turn around and look up at him, and he steps back. His blond beard is damp, his eyes are bloodshot, and his mouth opens as he looks.

‘Oh, hon.’

He reaches to touch it, but I jerk my face away and turn back to the skillet.

‘I’ll never do that again,’ he says.

The bacon is curling brown. Through the window above the stove I can see the hills now, dark humps against the sky. Dad liked the Pacific, but we are miles inland and animals are out there with the birds; one morning last week a rattlesnake was on the driveway. Yesterday some men went hunting a bobcat in the hills. They say it killed a horse, and they are afraid it will kill somebody’s child, but they didn’t find it. How can a bobcat kill a horse? My little sister took riding lessons in New England; I watched her compete, and I was afraid, she was so small on that big animal jumping. Dad told me I tried to pet some bobcats when I was three and we lived at CampPendleton. He was the deer camp duty officer one Sunday, and Mom and I brought him lunch. Two bobcats were at the edge of the camp; they wanted the deer hides by the scales, and I went to them saying here, kitty, here, kitty. They just watched me, and Dad called me back.

‘It wasn’t you,’ Kevin says. ‘You know it wasn’t you.’

‘Who was it?’

My first words of the day, and my voice sounds like dry crying. I clear my throat and grip the robe closer around it.

‘I was drunk,’ he says. ‘You know. You know how rough it’s been.’

He harpoons fish. We came across country in an old Ford he worked on till it ran like it was young again. We took turns driving and sleeping and only had to spend motel money twice. That was in October, after we got married on a fishing boat, on a clear blue Sunday on the Atlantic. We had twenty-five friends and the two families and open-faced sandwiches and deviled eggs, and beer and wine. On the way out to sea we got married, then we fished for cod and drank, and in late afternoon we went to Dad’s for a fish fry with a fiddle band. Dad has a new wife, and Mom was up from Florida with her boy friend. Out here Kevin couldn’t get on a boat, and I couldn’t even waitress. He did some under-the-table work: carpenter, mechanic, body work, a few days here, a few there. Now it’s February, a short month.

‘Hon,’ he says behind me.

‘It’s three times.’

‘Here. Let me do something for that eye.’

I hear him going to the ice chest, the ice moving in there to his big hands. I lay the bacon on the paper towel and open the door to pour out some of the grease; I look at the steps before I go out. The grease sizzles and pops on the wet grass, and there’s light at the tops of the hills.

‘Here,’ he says, and I shut the door. I’m holding the skillet with a pot holder, and I see he’s wearing his knife, and I think of all the weapons in a house: knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers, skillets, cleavers, wine bottles, and I wonder if I’ll be one of those women. I think of this without fear, like I’m reading in the paper about somebody else dead in her kitchen. He touches my eye with ice wrapped in a dish towel.

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more from vollmann’s europe central

PINCER MOVEMENTS
(1914–1975)

The Saviors: A Kabbalistic Tale

 1

 The tale of Fanya Kaplan, that darkhaired, pale-faced, slender idealist, tells itself with grim brevity in keeping with her times. For just as tyrannicides spurn slow justice, so likewise with tyrants. Between exploit and recompense lay only four days, which in most histories would comprise but an ellipsis between words, a quartet of periods, thus: . . . .—but which, if through close reading we magnify them into spheres, prove to contain in each case a huddle of twenty-four grey subterranean hours like orphaned mice; and in the flesh of every hour a swarm of useless moments like ants whose queen has perished; and within each moment an uncountable multitude of instants resembling starpointed syllables shaken out of words—which at the close of this interval, Fanya Kaplan was carried beyond Tau, final letter of the magic alphabet. Her attempt took place on 30 August 1918. It is written that after Lenin fell, the young assassin hysterically fled, but then, remembering that the moral code of the Social Revolutionaries required her to give up her life in exchange for her victim’s, stopped running, turned back, and in trembling silence surrendered to our security forces. On 3 September, Fanya Kaplan, who happened to be noted for her “Jewish features,” was led into a narrow courtyard of the Lubyankaand there shot from behind by the commandant of the Kremlin himself, P. D. Malkov. (That luminary I. M. Sverdlov, who’d already played so indispensable a role in the liquidation of the Romanov family, instructed Malkov: Her remains are to be destroyed without a trace.) Thus the life and works of the blackhaired woman.

 The tale of Lenin’s bride, N. K. Krupskaya, makes for a happier parable. And doesn’t the parable possess greater integrity, greater righteousness we might almost say, than any other literary form? For its many conventions weave a holy covenant between the reader, who gets the mystification he craves in a bonbon-sized dose, and the writer, whose absence renders him divine. Granted, those very stringencies sometimes telescope events into dreamlike absurdity. In Krupskaya’s case, were it not for her nearly accidental marriage she’d surely have remained as hidden to history as the silent letter Aleph. What was she then in her maiden days? We don’t want to call her a cipher; we can’t deny that her parable, like ours, began with birth. But in this genre (as in the lyric poem) there can be no random causes. Every death must occur for good reason. Every word, right down to its gaping letters o and grinning letters e, must offer resonance with sentences before and beyond—not predictability, mind you, for that would be tedious, but after each comma the hindsighted reader needs to be in the position of saying: Why didn’t I see that coming? Fanya Kaplan, for example, was never notified that she’d been condemned to death. And yet when Malkov’s very first bullet exploded between her shoulderblades, she experienced coherence, and screamed not with surprise, but with desperate fear and outrage againstinevitability.—As for Krupskaya, call her the darling of parable-mongers; introduce her as the perfect personification of  convention. (This is why her collected works are so deadly dull.) Trotsky patronized her; Stalin by the end commanded her; Lenin himself merely used her. Historians regard her as a faithful mediocrity. I myself have always read in her a striving toward kindliness, for which I offer praise. Unutterably typical of her epoch—and thus perhaps curiously akin to Fanya Kaplan—she was agitated all her life by fervor. Just as the same letter may appear in two words of contrary meaning, so the lives of those two women write themselves in nearly identical characters. Who am I to find in Krupskaya’s enthusiasms anything alien to Fanya Kaplan’s? One loved the Revolution; the other hated it. What force transformed them into opposites, if they were opposites?

  2

 We read that Krupskaya was first (that is, before her parable is supposed to begin) a pious little girl who prayed to the icon in her bedroom, then a rapturous Tolstoyan. In company with her friends she attacked awealthy factory owner with snowballs. We find her cutting hay to help hostile and uncomprehending peasants at age fifteen, then teaching night classes in literacy to factory workers at twenty-two. She was one of those souls who long more than anything to be of use in this world. Unknowingly she found herself drawn to the letter Cheth, which resembles the Greek letter pi and which, thus visually representing a gate, refers to ownership. She yearned to give herself, to be possessed, to know where she stood. 

  By the time she was twenty-six, she was receiving, materializing and carrying to underground printers the invisible-inked manifestoes which Lenin sent from prison. The legend says that one of her greatest joys was to watch the magic letters appear in the boiling water, as if they comprised a secret message written expressly for her, instead of being merely another metallically impersonal appeal to the workers. (After all, reader, don’t you prefer to believe that this story which you’re taking the trouble to read has something to say to you?) But for just the same reason that she shunned fashionable clothes, chocolates and other frivolous pleasures, Krupskaya strove to persuade herself that in the self-abnegation of transcription lay her destiny.

  When she reached the age of twenty-seven, N. K. Krupskaya was arrested for the first time. After two months in preliminary detention, they released her, thinking her to be a shy nobody who’d gotten mixed up in illegal activity only by mistake, but so brazen and exalted were her actions on behalf of the Kostroma strikers that she was arrested again after only eighteen days.

  Here again I seem to see that pallid, protuberant-featured Social Revolutionary woman who sought to kill Lenin. It’s said that Fanya Kaplan had already become a committed anarcho-terrorist by the time she was sixteen. When the gendarmes burst in, she and her comrades were arrayed around the bed, carefully assembling the components of a bomb, like those Kabbalists who in their circle-beset diagrams arrange into bristling molecules the various emanations and manifestations of God. It’s even said that the police themselves were moved by the perfection of the urchin-spined grey spheres laid out upon the young girl’s white sheets. Fearing for the Tsar’s safety, the court at first condemned her to death, but in view of her youth and sex the sentence was commuted to hard labor for life in Siberia. There she dwelled between the river-ice and the celestial alphabets of constellations until the October Revolution amnestied her. By then Fanya Kaplan was more determined than ever to redeem all Russia from centralist abomination.

 Krupskaya, who proved equally unrepentant, they kept her in the blankness of the cells for five months, until a convict named M. F. Vetrova burned herself to death to protest her own fate. So in garments of flame this woman (otherwise almost unknown) dictated her tale of righteousness. Who says that tales are only words? Embarrassed by Vetrova’s propaganda triumph, the authorities felt compelled to exercise upon their remaining female prisoners the same leniency which they would grant Fanya Kaplan. In March of 1897, not long after her twenty-eighth birthday, they freed Krupskaya on grounds of failing health. (Fanya Kaplan for her part was also twenty-eight when she was freed forever by Malkov’s bullets.)

  A photograph from this period reveals Krupskaya’s pale, stern beauty. Her smooth forehead glows like winter sunshine on a snowy field, her clenched lips cannot entirely deny their own sensuousness, and her eyes gaze with painful sincerity into the ideal—dark eyes these, longing eyes from which a craving for meaning steadfastly bleeds. Her high and proper collar hides her almost to the chin, so she’s but a face, closed but promising something, like a flower-bud. She’s combed her hair severely back, and cropped it short; she’s a recruit, a fighter, a militant.

 3

 Knowing that Lenin needed a copyist in his Siberian exile, and learning that she too would be exiled (the police themselves being not entirely illiterate readers of dangerousness), she accepted her leader’s proposal for a marriage of convenience, replying in those famous words, meant to show her imperviousness to bourgeois institutions: Well, so what. If as a wife, then as a wife.—In fact there is every reason to believe that beneath this bravado lived an idolatrous passion.—Upon her arrival the following year, when Fanya Kaplan was celebrating her tenth birthday, the reunited atheists submitted to a full church wedding in Shushenskoe, which is wistfully called “the Siberian Italy.” 

 The law required an exchange of rings; and devotees of that most Kabbalistic genre, the parable-within-a-parable, might well concentrate on this most pathetic episode of the ceremony, unable to resist dissecting the ironic symbolism of those two copper wedding bands lying side by side on the black velvet cushion. * It’s said that when the eternally virginal Krupskaya first saw them, she blushed. Freshly worked copper has a peculiar brightness, like bloody gold. We need not detain ourselves here with mystic correlations and analogies, God being ineffable anyway; it seems that the raw luminosity of the rings exposed her unacknowledged feelings in their revelatory glare. They’d been fashioned by a Finnish comrade who was still learning the jeweler’s craft—indeed, he was indebted to Krupskaya for his tools, so he’d taken special pains, inscribing them with the names of thebride and groom in characters which in their squat angularity might well have graced some seventeenth-century diagram of astrology’s nested spheres. In their shape the rings are said to have resembled the letter Samekh—a sort of o which tapers as it rejoins its starting point, and which sports a tiny bud on top, imagined by dreamy brides to be a precious stone. Need I add that this character of the mystical alphabet symbolizes both help and sleep? (Recall Marx’s ambiguous proverb: Religion is the opium of the masses.)

 Who knows the fate of those shining circlets? The ring which Krupskaya slipped upon Lenin’s finger was never seen again. As for the one he slid onto hers, she removed it immediately, for the sake of revolutionary convention. Then the ceremony was over, and they walked home by separate ways.

 So she became both drudge and disciple, the good soldier, the bedfellow (or occasional bedfellow as I should say, for in their Kremlin suite each spouse had a private room and a single-width metal-framed bed *), the harmless mediocrity, the liquidator of pessimism, the amateur who transcribed Lenin’s essays and sewed his nightshirts. (That German Communist Clara Zetkin, more glamorous than Krupskaya by far, visited the happy couple before and after the Revolution; her memoirs indulgently commend the wife’s “frankness, simplicity and rather puritanic modesty.”)

 He called her Nadya. She called him Volodya.

 4

 On that August day two decades later, when the darkhaired, pale-faced, slender woman approached Lenin’s Rolls-Royce, then took shaky aim with her little Browning as a line of hysterical determination sank from each corner of her tight-compressed lips, the supreme deity of the Soviet Union ought to have been gathered in, rising to the heart of heaven just as letters of the Hebrew alphabet are said to take wing during the course of certain Kabbalistic raptures. Certainly Fanya Kaplan (alias Dora) was banking on that when she gave herself up in observance of the covenant a life for a life. But the blackhaired woman, member in good standing of the Social Revolutionary Combat Organization though she was (which is to say, self-spendthrift), lacked competence. One cannot forbear to recall the half-built bomb on her girlhood’s bed. Was the premature ending of that story mere bad luck, or had she and her accomplices forgotten to post sentries? (In this connection we’d do well to invoke the letter Daleth, whose shape—the upper righthand angle of a square—implies both knowledge and unenlightenment, being a door which can open and close. The young anarchists had faith * that the door would stay closed until they’d completed their preparations to murder the Minister of the Interior. The police forced it open. Either way, the tale would have gone on, and the door remained.) What else should we expect? So many revolutionaries are intellectuals, a class of people whose aspirations tend to run ahead of their capabilities. Just think of that Paris Communard of the previous century who used to sit in cafés, constructing such beautiful little barricades out of breadcrumbs that everyone admired him; come the uprising, he built a perfect barricade out of stones—and the troops marched around it. (Shall we interject here that Krupskaya was perfectly useless with a gun, and that her attempts at cryptography brought smiles to the lips of Tsarist police spies?)

 With typically hysterical exoticism, Fanya Kaplan had incised her bullets with dum-dum crosses so that they represented magic atoms, then dipped them in a substance which she believed to be curare poison, but which would prove to exert no effect whatsoever. Then she set out to try her luck. As soon as Lenin had completed his Friday address to the workers, she fired three shots which hummed like the letter Mem. One pierced a woman who was complaining about the confiscation of bread at railroad stations. The second shot struck Lenin in the upper arm, injuring his shoulder. The third soared upward through his lung into his neck, coming to rest in a fortuitous spot (if any bullet wound can be considered such). Lenin’s face paled, and he sank to the running board, bleeding, unconscious.

 5

 The Cheka sent a car for Krupskaya without telling her anything. She was in terror; that day the leading Chekist Uritsky had already been assassinated. At such moments, when we find ourselves in danger of losing the protagonist we love, the tale of our marriage begins to glow, and the letters tremble on the page as once did our own souls when we realized the inevitability of the first kiss. Later, if he lives, those same words will go dry and stale. But for now the beloved Name trembles in every constituent, and we feel weak and sick. Krupskaya had already begun to suffer from the heart condition which would underline the remaining chapters of her life. She felt half suffocated. Her vision doubled; the streets of Moscow shimmered with tears. When, penetrating the magic circle of Latvian Riflemen, she found her husband apparently dying,* she composed herself and gripped his hand in silence. (Years later, she’d be dry-eyed at his funeral.) He was lying on his right side. They said he’d opened his eyes when the car pulled up; he’d wanted to ascend the stairs himself. In the secret pocket of her dress, her fingers clasped the copper ring he’d given her in Shushenskoe.

 The doctors had already cut his suit off. Lenin’s eyes would not open. He breathed with the desperate, shallow gasps of a lover nearing orgasm; and, as if to reinforce this impression, a curl of blood had dried upon his paper-white chest in the shape of the letter Lamed, whose snaky shape has Kabbalistic associations with sexual intercourse.

 At dawn his breaths deepened, and then he looked at her. Krupskaya whispered: We have no one but you. Stay with us; save us . . .

 To comfort her, one of the nurses (who herself was weeping) said: He needs you, Nadezhda Konstantinovna.

 Then they all began to heal him, giving him injections with a squat glass syringe whose shape was reminiscent of the letter Qoph, emblem of inner sight.

 As soon as he came back into his mind, he became impatient. He had many things to do to insure that his Revolution would be irreversible. Krupskaya rarely found herself alone with him. First it was the doctors, then Trotsky, Stalin and the rest, come to congratulate him on his survival. He gazed at her half-humorously, rolling his eyes. She knew he longed to be at work by himself, preparing new commandments and testimonies. What could she do to aid him? How could she prevent him from tiring himself into a relapse? Shyly clearing her throat, she said: Pretend this convalescence is only another term in prison, Volodya. You know you can deal with that!—He laughed delightedly.

 On 14 September she took him to somebody’s confiscated estate in the pleasant village of Gorki. He recovered secretly behind those walls. Krupskaya remained at his side as often as he would let her. While he slept, she sat in her room, repeating his name with such whispered fervor that the nurses said: It’s almost as if she believes he’ll fade away if she closes her eyes for one minute!—They tried to get her to rest, but she burst into tears.

 In another week Volodya’s bandages came off. Before October he began to walk again without her help, although he’d lost much blood and there were circles under his eyes. She brought him home to the Kremlin just before the end of that month, sleeping with her door open in case he should call for her. He’d already reverted to his habit of pacing his office on tiptoe throughout the night hours, muttering, searching for clear policies; these well-known sounds soothed her. By November he was almost entirely restored. And in celebration, the Bolsheviks everywhere replicated his graven images.

 6

 Fanya Kaplan was executed on the same day that the Commissar of the Interior released the infamous “Order Concerning Hostages,” which decreed that all Right Social Revolutionaries be arrested at once and reserved for mass liquidation as needed. In Perm alone they shot thirty-six captives to avenge Lenin and Uritsky. Thus the terrorists were requited to their faces. Less than twenty-four hours later, the Red Terror was born. The birth announcement went hissing across telegraph lines like the letter Shin, whose three vertical arms culminate in poppy-heads of flame. Meanwhile the press kept calling for more blood, more blood. In the ever timely words of Comrade N. V. Krylenko (whose own destiny would be death by shooting): We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more. 

 


* Exegesis easily uncovers other ironies: The purple-cloaked priest, it is written, was as exasperated as his victims, because this marriage prevented him from renting the extra room of Lenin’s house which the bride and her mother would now occupy. (Had she remained unmarried, Krupskaya would have been remanded to the locality of Ufa.) And perhaps he scented the godlessness of the convict spouses. What must he have made of Krupskaya’s abashedness, Lenin’s sarcastic smiles? How might he have proceeded, had he understood that this church of his, by sealing the union of these two helpmeets, was hastening its own destruction, and his?

 

*Upon his own escape from Siberia to England in 1902, Trotsky had likewise found them working in separate quarters. “Nadyezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya . . . was at the very centre of all the organization work,” he writes in his memoirs. “In her room there was always a smell of burned paper from the secret letters she heated over the fire to read.” 

 

*Blind faith, one might say. In Siberia she went literally and mysteriously blind for three years, but upon her blindness was engraved the secret alphabet of her cause. Under the influence of the terrorist Spiridovna, she swore to be patient, and someday to execute justice. And then, as if by magic, the world revealed itself once more to her sight.

 

*Arguably Fanya Kaplan had, as exegetes like to say, “wrought better than she knew,” since the bullet remaining in Volodya’s neck proved to be a time bomb. Nearly three years later, the doctors finally decided to remove it, and although the operation was a success, scarcely two days later he suffered the first of the cerebral hemorrhages which were to carry him off. 

 

europe under the nazi octopus: the opening of william t. vollmann’s europe central

VIEW FROM A RUINED ROMANIAN FORT
(1945)

Steel In Motion

As often as not, the things that attract us to another person are quite trivial, and what always delighted me about Blumentritt was his fanatical attachment to the telephone.

 

—Field-Marshal Erich von Manstein (1958)

 

1

 

A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy’s whole being). Somewhere between steel reefs, a wire wrapped in gutta-percha vibrates: I hereby . . . zzzzzzz . . . the critical situation . . . a crushing blow. But because these phrases remain unauthenticated (and because the penalty for eavesdropping is death), it’s not recommended to press one’s ear to the wire, which bristles anyhow with electrified barbs; better to sit obedient, for the wait can’t be long; negotiations have failed. Away flees Chamberlain, crying: Peace in our time. France obligingly disinterests herself in the Prague government. Motorized columns roll into snowy Pilsen and keep rolling. Italy foresees adventurism’s reward, from which she would rather save herself, but, enthralled by the telephone, she somnambulates straight to the balcony to declare: We cannot change our policy now. We are not prostitutes. The ever-wakeful sleepwalker in Berlin and the soon-to-be-duped realist in the Kremlin get married. This will strike like a bomb! laughs the sleepwalker. All over Europe, telephones begin to ring.

 

In the round room with the fan-shaped skylight, with Greek gods ranked behind the dais, the Austrian deputies sit woodenly at their wooden desks, whose black rectangular inlays enhance the elegance; they were the first to accept our future; their telephone rang back in ’38. Bulgaria, denied the British credits which wouldn’t have preserved her anyway, receives the sleepwalker’s forty-five million Reichsmarks. The realist offers credits to no one but the sleepwalker. Shuffling icons like playing cards, Romania reiterates her neutrality in hopes of being overlooked. Yugoslavia wheedles airplanes from Germany and money from France. Warsaw’s humid shade is already scented with panic-gasps. The wire vibrates: Fanatical determination . . . ready for anything.

 

According to the telephone (for perhaps I did listen in once, treasonously), Europe Central’s not a nest of countries at all, but a blank zone of black icons and gold-rimmed clocks whose accidental, endlessly contested territorial divisions (essentially old walls from Roman times) can be overwritten as we like, Gauleiters and commissars blanching them down to grey dotted lines of permeability convenient to police troops. Now’s the time to gaze across all those red-grooved roof-waves oceaning around, all the green-tarnished tower-islands rising above white facades which grin with windows and sink below us into not yet completely telephone-wired reefs; now’s the time to enjoy Europe Central’s café umbrellas like anemones, her old grime-darkened roofs like kelp, her hoofbeats clattering up and bellnotes rising, her shadows of people so far below in the narrow streets. Now’s the time, because tomorrow everything will have to be, as the telephone announces, obliterated without warning, destroyed, razed, Germanified, Sovietized, utterly smashed. It’s an order. It’s a necessity. We won’t fight like those soft cowards who get held back by their consciences; we’ll liquidate Europe Central! But it’s still not too late for negotiation. If you give us everything we want within twenty-four hours, we’ll compensate you with land in the infinite East.

 

In Mecklenburg, we’ve prepared a demonstration of the world’s first rocket-powered plane. Serving the sleepwalker’s rapture, Göring promises that five hundred more rocket-powered planes will be ready within a lightning-flash. Then he runs out for a tryst with the film star Lida Baarova. In Moscow, Marshal Tukhachevsky announces that operations in a future war will unfold as broad maneuver undertakings on a massive scale. He’ll be shot right away. And Europe Central’s ministers, who will also be shot, appear on balconies supported by nude marble girls, where they utter dreamy speeches, all the while listening for the ring of the telephone. Europe Central will resist, they say, at least until the commencement of Case White. Every man will be issued a sweaty black machine-carbine, probably hand-forged, along with ten round lead bullets, three black pineapple grenades each not much larger than a pistol grip, and a forked powder horn of yellowed ivory adorned with circle-inscribed stars . . . 

 

The telephone gloats: Liberating advance . . . shock armies . . . ratio of mechanized forces.

 

Across the next frontier, where each line of fenceposts leans away from the other, our shared victim’s proud military poets dull all apprehensions by equating Warsaw 1939 with Smolensk 1634. While they dispose their hopeless echelons, we draw the Ribbentrop-Molotov Line, on which we stamp GEHEIM, which means secret. And why stop there? The sleepwalker gets Lithuania, the realist Finland. Our creed’s a lamp whose calibrated radiance bows down into its zone. It was and is Jews who bring the Negroes into the Rhineland. That is precisely why the Party affirms that Trotskyism is a Social-Democratic deviation in our Party. The telephone rings; General Guderian receives his instructions to activate Case Yellow. We’ll whirl away Europe Central’s wine-tinted maple leaves and pale hexagonal church towers.

 

2

 

You won’t get to watch it happen; they don’t allow windows in this office, so you may feel a trifle dull at times, but at least you’ll never be alone, since on the steel desk, deep within arm’s length, hunches that octopus whose ten round eyes, each inscribed with a number, glare through you at the world. The Pact of Steel . . . a correct decision . . . my unalterable will . . . rally round the Party of Lenin and Stalin. In the bottom righthand drawer’s a codebook whose invocations control the speeds and payloads of steel, but the octopus seems to be watching. Take the gamble if you dare; how well can those ten eyes see? The sleepwalker in the Reich Chancellery could tell you (not that he would): they’re his eyes, lidless, oval, which imparts to them a monotonously idiotic or hysterical appearance; in the ditch outside, a hundred other open-eyed heads revert to clay, not that they have anything in common with the octopus, whose glare remains eternally sentient.

 

What about the mouthpiece? Is it true that it can hear your every breath through its black holes? In his underground headquarters with its many guards, the realist sits tired behind a large desk, awaiting the telephone’s demands. Although he’s good at hanging up on people with as much force as the soldier who slams another shell into our antitank gun, he’s hanging up on them, not on the telephone itself, which he can’t live without. He subsumes himself in it, all-hearing; he knows when Shostakovich takes his name in vain. At the first ring he’ll summon his generals to attend him at that conference table with its green cloth.

 

The sleepwalker’s all eyes; the realist is all ears; their mating forms the telephone.

 

3

 

This consciousness may indeed derive, as the American victors will assert, from entirely mechanical factors: Within the bakelite* skull of the entity hangs, either nestled or strangled in a latticework of scarlet-colored wires, a malignantly complex brain not much larger than a walnut. Its cortex consists of two brown-and-yellow lobes filamented with fine copper wire. It owns ideas as neatly, numerously arrayed as Poland’s faded yellow eagle standards: The camp of counterrevolution . . . German straightforwardness . . . the slanders of the opposition . . . the soundness of the Volkish theory. It knows how to get everyone, from Akhmatova (who, visionary that she is, mistakes it for a heart of rose coral), to Zhykov (who fools himself that it can be played with), from Gerstein to Guderian, those twin freethinkers who dance alone within their soaring bullet-prisons in obedience to the telephone-brain’s involution at the center of the shell.

 

Don’t trust any technicians who assure you that this brain is “neutral”—soon you’ll hear how angrily the receiver jitters in its cradle. Kollwitz, Krupskaya and the rest—it will dispose of them all, magically. It’s got their number. (As the sleepwalker admonishes Colonel-General Paulus: One has to be on the watch, like a spider in its web . . . ) In short, it will enforce the principle of unified command.

 

It makes the connection. It rings.

 

From the receiver, now clattering like a dispatch rider’s motorcycle across the cobblestones of Prague, to the black cold body, runs a coil whose elasticity draws out the process of strangulation. (Thanks to this telephone, General Vlasov will perish in a noose of piano wire.) From the anus-mouth behind the dial extrudes another strand of black gut thinner and less elastic than the receiver’scoil, and this pulses all the way to the wall socket. Since this morning our troops have been . . . Some frowning little Romanian blonde’s in the way; we’ve got to shoot her. Now into the deep green forests of Europe Central! The relationship of forces in the Stalingrad sector . . . ferro-concrete defense installations. Can rubberoid sinews feel? How do I make them bleed? Ruthless fanaticism . . . we’ll find a way to deal with him. They undulate now, as the telephone rings.

 

The telephone rings. It squats like an idol. How could I have mistaken it for an octopus?

 

Behind the wall, rubberized black tentacles spread across Europe. Military maps depict them as fronts, trenches, salients and pincer movements. Politicians encode them as borders (destroyed, razed, utterly smashed). Administrators imagine that they’re roads and rivers. Public health officials see them as the black trickles of people dwindling day by day on Leningrad’s frozen streets. Poets know them as the veins of Partisan Zoya’s martyred body. They’re anything. They can do anything.

 

 

4

 

In a moment steel will begin to move, slowly at first, like troop trains pulling out of their stations, then more quickly and ubiquitously, the square crowds of steel-helmed men moving forward, flanked by rows of shiny planes; then tanks, planes and other projectiles will accelerate beyond recall. Polish soldiers feebly camouflage their helmets with netting. Germans go to the cinema to fall in love with film stars; when Operation Citadel fails, they’ll be swooning over Lisca Malbran. Russian cavalry charge into action against German tanks; German schoolgirls try to neutralize Russian tanks by pouring boiling water down the turrets. Barrage balloons swim in the air, finned and fat like children’s renderings of fish. Don’t worry; Europe Central’s troops will stand fast, at least until Operation Barbarossa! (Their strategic dispositions are foxed and grimed like a centuries-old Bible.) Steel finds them all.

 

Steel, imbued with the sleepwalker’s magic sight, illuminates itself as it comes murdering. (Amidst the cemetery snowdrifts of Leningrad lie the coffined and the coffinless. Steel did this.) The broad rays of light as a Nebelwerfer gets launched from its half track, those inform steel’s gaze, mark steel’s reach.

 

From the heavy, pleated metal of a DShK machine-gunsight, a soldier’s gaze travels so that his bullet may speed true. Steel needs him to launch it on its way, but don’t the gods always need their worshipers? From the telephone’s brain, thoughts shoot down insulated copper conductors. It’s time to commence Operation Blau. The Signal Corps prepares to receive and retransmit the dispatch: Defend the achievements of Soviet power . . . a severe but just punishment . . . And already the telephone is ringing again! Who will answer?

 

Maybe no one except the Signal Corps, whose flags, attached to arms evolved from human, can transform any command into a series of articulated colors. The telephone rings!

 

The telephone rings. The receiver clamps itself to a mouth and an ear. (Where did those come from? I thought they were mine.) Another order flies up the black cable, down the elastic coil, and into the ear: Under no circumstances will we agree to artillery preparation, which squanders time and the advantage of surprise.

 

The V-phone rings; the S-phone rings. Jackboots ring on Warsaw’s uneven sidewalks. The Tyrvakians have mined their bridges with Turkish dynamite. We believe, on the contrary, that the combination of the internal combustion engine and armor plate enable us to take our fire to the enemy without any artillery preparation . . .

 

All across Europe, telephones ring, teleprinters begin to click their hungry teeth, a Signal Corps functionary waves the first planes forward, and velocity infuses steel-plated monsters whose rivets and scales shimmer more blindingly than Akhmatova’s poems. Within each monster, men sit on jumpseats, waiting to kill and die.

 

Just in case, shouldn’t we now call up our rectangles of knobbly reptile-flesh, each knob a helmeted Red Army man, the rectangles marching across the snow toward the Kremlin domes while chilly purple sky-stripes rush in the same direction, white cloud-stripes in between? They’re dark icons, almost black. The telephone rings: Commence Operation Little Saturn. Everything becomes a mobile entity comprised of articulated segments. Don’t worry. In the cinema palaces, Lisca Malbran will help us pretend that it isn’t happening.

 

Here come the guns like needles on round bases, and the guns which protrude from between two grey shields, and the guns which grow out of steel mushrooms, and the guns as long as houses, anchored by chassis large enough for a crew of twenty, the guns whose barrels are as long as torpedoes and the wheeled guns with fat snouts and long flare suppressors. It’s only a question of time and manpower. And so the mechanized hordes go rushing east and west across Europe.

 

5

 

Guarding itself against posterity’s blame, the telephone has qualified itself: Provided always that the operation obeys the following conditions: appropriate terrain, surprise and mass commitment. Moreover, it warns, each component must be metallic, replaceable, reliable, rapid and lethal—In spite of mass commitment, there were not enough components. The operation will fail.

 

Someday, bereft of propellants, steel must fall to rest and rust. (The telephone pleads: Mechanical reinforcement.) Smiling wearers of the starred helmet will raise high the red banner, as filmed by R. L. Karmen. Hold fast to the last bullet. Then, in the shellshocked silence of Europe, which squanders time and the advantage of surprise, morgues and institutes will blossom through the snow. In one of them, in a windowless, telephoned recess, I sit at a desk, playing with a Geco 7.65 shell.

 

6

 

What once impelled millions of manned and unmanned bullets into motion? You say Germany. They say Russia. It certainly couldn’t have been Europe herself, much less Europe Central, who’s always such a good docile girl. I repeat: Europe’s a mild heifer, a plump virgin, an R-maiden or P-girl ripe for loving, an angel, a submissive prize. Europe is Lisca Malbran. Europe’s never burned a witch or laid hands on a Jew! How can one catalogue her jewels? In Prague, for instance, one sees dawn sky through the arched windows of bell-towers, and that sky becomes more desirable by being set in that verdigrised frame whose underpinning, the finger of the tower itself, emerges from the city’s flesh, the floral-reliefed, cartouched and lionheaded facades of it whose walled and winding streets have ever so many eyes; Europe’s watchful since she’s already been raped so many times, which may be why some of her eyes still shine with lamplight even now, but what good does it do to see them coming? The first metal lice already scuttle over her skin, which is cobblestoned with dark grey and light grey follicles. Europe feels all, bears all, raising her sky-ringed church-fingers up to heaven so that she can be married.

 

What set steel in motion? The late SS-Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein has counseled me to seek the answers in Scripture, meaning Europe Central’s old Greek Bibles with their red majiscules and black woodcut engravings of terrifying mummies bursting up from narrow sarcophagi; a few dozen of those volumes survived the war. To Gerstein, elucidation became even more magical a solvent than xylol, into which our forensicists immerse the identity documents dug up from KatyńForest. (In that bath, inks bleached away by cadaveric fluid come back to life.) Have you ever seen a railroad tank car of fuel shot up by incendiary bullets? Elucidation must be even brighter than that! He asked himself what he dared not ask his strict father: Why, why all the death? His blood-red Bibles told him why.

 

The telephone rings. It informs me that Gerstein’s answer has been rejected, that Gerstein has been hanged, obliterated, ruthlessly crushed. It puts the former Field-Marshal Paulus on the line.

 

Paulus advises me that the solution to any problem is simply a matter of time and manpower.

 

So I apply myself now, on this dark winter night, preparing to invade the meaning of Europe; I can do it; I can almost do it, just as when coming to a gap in the wall of some ruined Romanian fort, one can peer down upon thriving linden treetops; you can see them waving and massing, then far away dropping abruptly down to the fields.

 



*If this organism does in fact reside in Moscow, then I presume that the cranial casing partakes of Soviet duralumin—an excellent variety, called kol’chugaliuminii, which was developed by Iu. G. Muzalevskii and S. M. Voronov.


teutonic wisdom: the violent metaphysics of werner herzog

I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.

 

—Werner Herzog  

  A three-part denominator? Good with a camera,
  maybe not so good at math.

 

“fear was the price for living”—glimpses of the life and work of chester himes

 


the life of chester himes

 

Chester Himes, (1909–1984), novelist. A prolific writer whose career spans fifty years, Chester Himes is best known for his naturalist and detective fiction. A gambler, hustler, burglar, ex-convict, and expatriate, Himes’s Catholic experiences and peripatetic life provided him abundant material for fiction that portrays the near existential “absurdity” of blackness in America. Focusing on violence—physical, political, and psychic—as a ubiquitous dynamic in American culture, Himes’s fiction ponders the often futile struggle to resist a relentlessly hostile environment.

 —from http://www.answers.com/topic/chester-b-himes

 

Himes grew up in a middle-class home in Missouri and in Ohio. While a freshman at Ohio State University, Himes was expelled for a prank, and in late 1928 he was arrested and sentenced to jail and hard labor for 20 to 25 years for armed robbery. Imprisoned in Ohio Penitentiary, he began writing short stories which were published in national magazines. For Himes, writing and publishing was a way to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates, as well as avoid violence.

In 1934 Himes was transferred to LondonPrison Farm and in April 1936 he was released on parole into his mother’s custody. Following his release he did part time jobs and at the same time continued to write. During this period he came in touch with Langston Hughes who facilitated Himes contacts with the world of literature and publishing.

In the 1940s Himes spent time in Los Angeles, working as a screenwriter but also producing two novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade that charted the experiences of the wave of black in-migrants, drawn by the city’s defense industries, and their dealings with the established black community, fellow workers, unions and management. 

In City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Mike Davis cites Himes’ brief career as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers as an example of the ongoing racism of Hollywood: he was terminated when Jack Warner heard about him and said “I don’t want no goddamned niggers on this lot.” (p 43). Himes later wrote in his autobiography:

Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate. 

By the 1950s Himes had decided to settle in France permanently, a country he liked in part due to his critical popularity there.

Chester Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909 and died in Spain in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease.

—from wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chester_Himes 

 

 
some quotations from himes’ work
 

 

 

on violence as the singular American narrative

There is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed in the American scene through violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, the gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamned thing after another; they grew up in violence …. The only people that the American community has tried to teach that it is Christian to turn the other check and live peacefully are the black people. . .   

My French editor says, the Americans have a style of writing detective stories that no one has been able to imitate …. There’s no reason why the black American, like all other Americans, and brought up in this sphere of violence which is the main sphere of American detective stories, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t write them. It’s just plain and simple violence in narrative form …. American violence is public life, it’s a public way of life; it became a form, a detective story form. 

Chester Himes, “My Man Himes” (1976)

 If I had wanted to express my revulsion for violence then I would have made the violence even more repellent, really repellent. I am simply creating stories that have a setting I know very well. 

—Nova (January 1971), 52 

 

on race 

 The American black is a new race of man; the only new race of man to come into being in modern time. And for those hackneyed, diehard, outdated, slavery-time racists to keep thinking of him as a primitive is an insult to the intelligence. In fact, intelligence isn’t required to know the black is a new man, complex, intriguing, and not particularly likeable. I find it very difficult to like American blacks myself; but I know there’s nothing primitive about us, as there is about the most sophisticated African. 

—Himes, The Quality of Hurt (1972)  

 

on writing (and race) 

 No matter what I did, or how I lived, I had considered myself a writer since I’d published my first story in Esquire when I was still in prison in 1934. Foremost a writer. Above all a writer. It was my salvation and is. The world can deny me all other employment, and stone me as an ex-convict, as a nigger, as a disagreeable and unpleasant person. But as long as I can write, whether it is published or not, I’m a writer, and no one can take that away. “A fighter fights, a writer writes”, so I must have done my writing . . .  

Himes, The Quality of Hurt 

I had the creative urge, but the old, used forms of the black American writer did not fit my creations. I wanted to break through the barrier that labeled me as a “protest writer.” I knew the life of an American black needed another image than just the victim of racism. We were more than just victims. We did not suffer, we were extroverts. We were unique individuals, funny not clowns, solemn but not serious, hurt but not suffering, sexualists but not whores in the usual sense of the word; we had tremendous love of life, a love of sex, a love of ourselves. We were absurd.

 —Himes, My Life of Absurdity

  

from his novels

 In Lonely Crusade (1947), the protagonist Lee Gordon is a man pushed to the edge. At the start of the novel the omniscient narrator observes that “Fear was the price for living”; nevertheless, after a run of unemployment, Gordon manages to become a union organizer. However, his happiness soon turns to a kind of self-fuelling fear:

… when he boarded the streetcar with white Southern war-workers that war spring of 1943, being a Negro imposed a sense of handicap that Lee Gordon could not overcome. He lost his brief happiness in the seas of white faces … he had once again crossed into the competitive white world where he would be subjected to every abuse concocted in the minds of white people to harass and intimidate Negroes ….  and to be afraid, and hate his fear himself for fearing it, and hate himself for feeling it. The fear in him was something a dog could smell … he could see the hostile faces of the white workers, their hot, hating stares; he could feel their antagonisms hard as a physical blow; hear their vile asides and abusive epithets with a reality that cut like a knife.

Of his novel The End of the Primitive (1955), Himes stated that “I put a sexually frustrated American woman and a racially-frustrated black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment, and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for: a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, and in the end, tragedy.” the doomed Jesse’s dream life is conveyed with an hallucinatory absurdity worthy of De Quincey:

He dreamed he was in a house with a thousand rooms of different sizes made entirely of distorted mirrors. There were others besides himself but he could not tell how many because their reflections went on into an infinity in the distorted mirrors. Nor could he see their true shape because in one mirror they all appeared to be obese dwarfs and in another tall, thin, cadaverous skeletons. He ran panic-stricken from room to room trying to find a familiar human shape, but he saw only the grotesque reflections, the brutal faces that leered from some distortions, the sweet smiles from others, the sad eyes, the gentle mouths, the sinister stares, the  treacherous grins, the threatening scowls, hating and bestial, suffering and saintly, gracious and kind, and he knew that none of them was the true face and he continued to run in frantic terror until he found a door and escaped.

Thus America as a deranged fun-house. When Jesse kills the white girl Kriss, he believes, paradoxically, that he has now joined the ranks of humanity:

You finally did it …. End product of Americanism on one Jesse Robinson – black man. Your answer, son. You’ve been searching for it. BLACK MAN KILLS WHITE WOMAN …. Human beings only species of animal life where males are known to kill their females. Proof beyond all doubt. Jesse Robinson joins the human race. “I’m a nigger and I’ve just killed a white woman,” Jesse said, giving the address on 21st Street and hung up. “That’ll get the lead out of his ass,” he thought half-amused.

 

the detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed

 An inconspicuous black sedan pulled out from the kerb and parked at the end of the block unnoticed, and the two tall, lanky colored men dressed in black mohair suits that looked as though they’d been slept in got out and walked towards the scene. Their wrinkled coals bulged beneath their left shoulders. The shiny straps of shoulder holsters showed across the fronts of their blue cotton shirts. The one with the burnt face went to the far side of the crowd; the other remained on the near side. Suddenly a loud voice shouted, “Straighten up!” An equally loud voice echoes, “Count off!”

The Crazy Kill (1959)

 

their code 

 As set out in A Rage in Harlem (1965):

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren’t crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Gravedigger’s would bury it. They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering for the essential needs of the people – gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody but themselves. “Keep it cool,” they warned, “Don’t make graves.”

 

Harlem, their patrol grounds:

 Unwed young mothers, suckling their infants, living on a prayer; fat black racketeers coasting past in big bright-colored convertibles with their solid gold babes, carrying huge sums of money on their person; hardworking men, holding up buildings with their shoulders, talking in loud voices up there in Harlem where the white bosses couldn’t hear them; teen-age gangsters grouping for a gang-fight, smoking marijuana weed to get up their courage; everybody escaping the hot-box rooms they lived in, seeking respite in a street made hotter by the automobile exhaust and the heat released by the concrete walls and walks.

The Crazy Kill

 


on violence as the singular American narrative

short fiction by dennis cooper

A disquieting short story from Dennis Cooper: a model of economy and dialogue, and companion piece to Brian Evenson’s story “The Installation,” as noted in this post from the great http://htmlgiant.com/.

 

 

“Graduate Seminar”

By  Dennis Cooper

 

Artist: . . . and that’s a work on paper entitled Mirror Not Mirror from my recent show at Hilton Perreault Gallery. Any questions?

 

Art student: I wonder if you would mind talking about your older work, especially Railroad Tie (1972)?

 

Artist: Do I mind? Yes. Do I know it’s expected of me? Yes. Switch to slide tray number two, please.

 

Art student: I know you must be tired of talking about Railroad Tie, but, speaking as an aspiring artist, it changed my life, so—

 

Artist: Yes, I’m sure it did. Changed mine as well, as you are no doubt aware. Please show the first slide.

 

Artist: That’s Ty Wilson, need I say, who, according to the history books, collaborated with me on Railroad Tie, and who is now of course very famous, more famous in fact than myself, even though he never made a single artwork on his own and did nothing with regards to Railroad Tie apart from appearing in it.

 

Art student: And being the coolest guy ever.

 

Artist: I’d love to argue that point, but a court order prevents me. So, for those of you who live under a rock, in Railroad Tie my work’s celebrated (he said ironically) thematic interest in mapping the accidental (in quotes) was adapted to a mode of presentation that was soon to be, shall we say, au courant thanks to my pioneering efforts. Specifically, I photo-documented a teenaged boy’s hitchhiking trip across the U.S. And there he is now hitchhiking. Next slide, please. And there he is getting picked up by the infamous trucker. Any questions so far?

 

Art student: Did you explain your art project to the trucker?

 

Artist: Naturally I explained the art project to the trucker, and, yes, he really did say, “So, if I understand your art project, I can kill this boy, and that would be okay because it’s for art, right?” And, as I testified in court, I said, “The term art is being redefined as we speak, so it would be difficult for me to answer that question. Therefore, you must answer it yourself.” Next slide.

 

Artist: I’m going to go through these quickly because you’ve all seen them a hundred thousand times. That’s Ty being drugged. Ty lying unconscious in the back of the truck. Ty’s reaction upon being relieved of his manhood . . . and of course, finally, there’s the trucker killing Ty. Any questions?

 

Art student: What was it like being in prison for eight years?

 

Artist: What was it like? Well, my friends Andy and Jasper and Roy spent those eight years getting very rich and famous, and I spent them making dinnerware out of tin cans. And the millions that Railroad Tie earned on the art market went to a charity for victims of violent crime. And, of course, the late, illustrious genius Ty Wilson spawned a cottage industry of posters and documentaries and tribute songs and memorabilia that makes Jim Morrison seem like Bobby Rydell, a name you no doubt have never heard before in your lives, which is my point.

 

—from Dennis Cooper’s latest book of short stories, Ugly Man (2009).  

 

Text online at http://www.fiftytwostories.com/?p=442

and at

http://democratic-and-cool.blogspot.com/2009/06/ladies-and-gentlemen-brilliant-dennis.html.

 

Text with NSFW images online at

http://denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.com/2007_03_05_archive.html.

 

 

céline’s prose style explained, plus more from normance . . .

. . . Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel. 

  

. . . Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar: 

  

Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines. 

  

—just then—

 

FEEOOFEEOOFEEOOFEEOOFEEOOFEEOOFEEOO
¡WHOP!

 

—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican. 

Compare to Céline’s:

I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!

Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante’s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.

. . . Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narratorof Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.

…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them… 

 

—from Steve Finbow, “Roaring Up from the Depths”

 

http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/roaring-up-from-the-depths/

Cover Image

 

Ferdinand versus Jules “the jerk-off artist”:

— Hey, Jules! Hey, Jules!

He could at least answer!

— You try calling him!

He gestures to us to leave him alone… he’s sulking… brooding…

— Leave me the fuck alone!

I can hear him clearly… between two tremendous bombs… a moment of calm… he wants a drink! Ah, a drink?… he’s outta luck!

The whole garden is flaming, all the shrubs…

It’s amazing that he doesn’t catch on fire, and his gondola and platform with him! considering the waves of sparks!

— Hey bozo, in the cart! jump! weirdo!

He called me a Kraut, a spy! a traitor! I can talk trash as well! all the names in the book!

— Faggot! hey, faggot!

— Please, Ferdinand! Take it easy!…

Always trying to calm me down! me, so tolerant and fair!… me, who he’d offended horribly! and publicly! and intentionally!…

— I hope your Jules roasts, the pig! the sub-pig! you were in on it together? tell me you were! admit it!

— No, Louis, calm down! Of course not!

— I hope that bozo of yours roasts! your fondler! I’d like to see him glazed in the flames all right! he’s poised for it! right into the pot!

Vrrouum! vrroum!

You’re probably finding me monotonous… I’m imitating the ruckus… what can I do? that’s how it is, period!… twenty squads fly over us, seething…

Ah! the windmill is leaning! and us! our whole building!… a powerful puff of air!… up above, Jules pitches against the rail, I think he’s going to crash through… no! he slams into it and ricochets off to the other side… he was thirsty, the gondolier now it must be a bit worse! he must have no tongue left!… it’s a dry wind from Levallois! even in our room, we’re baking in this heat!… especially our eyes! our eyes! our eyelids won’t close!… I’m not making it up!… the people who were there will tell you: an eruption! fifty… a hundred bomb craters spurting into the sky!… and not just in the sky, all around! and the windmill still isn’t burning! you want proof: Jules in all his glory on his skates! look how he maneuvers! and pivots! swerves! but he doesn’t break the barrier!… no! no!…

— Nut-job! Lunatic!

I howl at him!

He’s really taking a ride! his little platform is swaying, pitching, rolling and he’s still riding it in his gondola! from one railing to the other!… and in a hell of a wind! it’s blowing in from the Renault factory! from the west, a real oven! tornado after tornado! I’m not making any of this up! all the outskirts are an eruption… not just one little neighborhood!… the factories are torching!… the clown in his crate catches it all… right in the face! he’s a lot more exposed to the wind than we are… the whole windmill is leaning into the wind!… the whole frame… and the big strut and the ladder!… him up there, he rolls with the swells, pitching, then he shoots off again! if the platform really tips, that joker’s going to take a dive! in the lilacs! in the fire-and-phosphorous lilacs! jeez , he catches the railing! pivots! and off again! ah, he’s the acrobat of the elements! if he were overcome with rage, he’d fling himself off!… all the same I’m insulting him good and plenty! he tacks straight up against the swell… seems to me… I think… really!… they played a trick on him bringing him up there… or did he ask his pals to bring him? isn’t that the question?… there are strange forces at work, frequency waves, and more!… nothing would surprise me seeing how Jules behaves! the way he hangs onto his traffic light… acrobat artiste!

— Jump, you vampire!

There’s a little lull… the windmill straightens up… but the wind starts up again from the other side, towards Dufayel… a terrible aftershock!… this quake, I think this is it!

Sail, ship’s pup

The wind is up

I sing to him… he doesn’t give a fuck!… he throws himself against the other rail! his torso, face and nose are lit up… he’s all you see above Paris… naturally, being so high in the air! take a look at all the sparks hitting him! gust after gust!… even for us in our room, what swarms pouring in the window! crackling over us! we should have caught on fire too! we’re as lucky as Jules!

— I’m thirsty, Lili!… aren’t you thirsty?

She doesn’t answer… I shake her… I pick her up in my arms…

Aren’t you thirsty, Lili?

All she’s watching is Jules!… her eyes are glued to him! Jules up there, doing acrobatics with the bombs! I yell at him!

— Go on, chickie! dive!

It’s true, he’s stalling, the jerkoff artist!… I’m spurring him on!… he takes off at a zigzag, starts over! what a scene!… he’s never gonna break the rail!… and it’s flimsy too…

 

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