the underground man in montreal: rawi hage’s cockroach

According to the jacket copy, “The nameless narrator of Rawi Hage’s COCKROACH is an Arab immigrant who has failed at everything, including suicide, so he settles into a restless refuge among the human detritus of the Montreal underworld. He uses his court-ordered therapy sessions to spew surprisingly witty and descriptive bile about his life among the thieves and miscreants of the city, seducing his psychiatrist with his transgressive monologues and the intensity of his belief that he is part insect. He eventually finds work as a busboy, a position which allows him to maintain his social invisibility and listen in on the illicit schemes of the clientele. When he discovers a dark connection between one of the customers and an Iranian waitress whom he is infatuated with, he resolves to use his worthless life as currency to purchase a small measure of justice for her.”


I like to pass by fancy stores and restaurants and watch the people behind thick glass, taking themselves seriously, driving forks into their mouths between short conversations and head nods. I also like to watch the young waitresses in their short black dresses and white aprons. Although I no longer stand and stare. The last time I did that it was summer and I was leaning on aparked car, watching a couple eat slowly, neither looking at the other. A man from inside, in a black suit, came out and asked me to leave. When I told him that it is a free country, a public space, he told me to leave now, and to get away from the sports car I was resting against. I moved away from the car but refused to leave. Not even two minutes later, a police car came and two female officers got out, walked towards me, and asked for my papers. When I objected and asked them why, they said it was unlawful to stare at people inside commercial places. I said, Well, I am staring at my own reflection in the glass. The couple in the restaurant seemed entertained by all of this. While one of the officers held my papers and went back to the car to check out my past, I watched the couple watching me, as if finally something exciting was happening in their lives.They watched as if from behind a screen, as if it were live news. Now I was part of their TV dinner, I was spinning in a microwave, stripped of my plastic cover, eaten, and defecated the next morning just as the filtered coffee was brewing in the kitchen and the radio was prophesying the weather, telling them what to wear, what to buy, what to say, whom to watch, and whom to like and hate. The couple enjoyed watching me, as if I were some reality show about police chasing people with food-envy syndrome. 

I thought, I will show this happy couple what I am capable of. One of the officers came back from her car, gave me back my papers, and said, You’d better go now if you do not want trouble. So I started to walk. And when I passed the man outside his restaurant, I spat at the ground  beneath him and cursed his Italian suit. Then I crossed the street, entered a magazine store, flipped through a few pages, and came out again. I watched that same couple from behind the glass of the entrance to an office building. Now, all of the sudden, they had something to say to each other, so they had started to converse. And I watched the owner come to their table and talk to them as well.

Excitement had been injected into their mundane lives. I bet they even got an apologetic complimentary drink on the house at my expense. Bourgeois filth! I thought. I want my share!

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rudy wurlitzer’s nog as california cult classic

Toby Litt on Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog:

NOG IS THE KIND OF NOVEL THAT SUFFERS FROM BEING CALLED ‘EXPERIMENTAL’. Actually, it is part of a clear, established tradition. I would place it between Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) and Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—closer to Beckett in spirit, to Delillo in time.

The narrator of Nog, who may or may not be called Nog, shares with Beckett’s M-people a deep desire for inertia: ‘It is better to stay indoors and not mess around with useless experiences. A small room in a boarding house. Anonymous… Do nothing, want nothing, if you feel like walking, walk; sleeping, sleep.’ With DeLillo’s Bucky  Wunderlick, he shares an absurd paranoia: ‘I have nailed the pillowcase to the wall, as a sign or a flag. I asked for and I received a hammer and nail. It’s not safe here any more. And yet I am unable to creep out and establish some new space. Something has to happen, a new noise, a sense of something impending. Is it safe to say that?’

The whole performance, rap, trip, is highly self-conscious, ‘There are times when the voice of the narrator or the presence of the narrator should almost sing out.’ But never, or very rarely, annoyingly so. The hippyisms are kept to a minimum—which for a novel set in California in 1968 is stunningly restrained.

In fact, it is the craft of the prose which redeems Nog. There is no sentence here of which Wurlitzer isn’t fully in control—he may not know exactly what its overall long-term effect will be, but this is very unwild writing.

The opening paragraph of Nog is one of the most carefully constructed I have ever read:

Yesterday afternoon a girl walked by the window and stopped for sea shells. I was wrenched out of two months of calm. Nothing more than that, certainly, nothing ecstatic or even interesting, but very silent and even, as those periods have become for me. I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells. There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee-shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles—it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant. It was that thin-boned brittle movement with her feet that did it, that touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother. The way those thin feet remained planted, yet shifting slightly in the sand as she bent down quickly for a clam shell, sent my heart thumping, my mouth dry, no exaggeration, there was something gay and insane about that tiny gesture because it had nothing to do with her.

It was reading this passage convinced me I needed to read this book. I was at Waterstones Deansgate, in Manchester, and had just done a reading from Beatniks. I’d browsed a few other books, but Nog was the one which had caught me. When one of the booksellers told me I could choose any book I wanted from the shop, Nog was it.

A number of things came to mind whilst reading Nog: The Monkees’ film Head, Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Pascal, Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, Charlie Chaplin. But it is very much its own book. ‘I bought the octopus, and for a year I travelled through the country with it.’

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON A GIRL WALKED BY THE WINDOW AND stopped for sea shells. I was wrenched out of two months of calm. Nothing more than that, certainly, nothing ecstatic or even interesting, but very silent and even, as those periods have become for me. I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells. There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles – it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant. It was that thin-boned brittle movement with her feet that did it, that touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother. The way those thin feet remained planted, yet shifting slightly in the sand as she bent down quickly for a clam shell, sent my heart thumping, my mouth dry, no exaggeration, there was something gay and insane about that tiny gesture because it had nothing to do with her.

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art collecting & anti-semitism in paris: edmund de waal’s the hare with amber eyes

“It wasn’t just Renoir who disliked the Jews . . .”

Chapter 10     My Small Profits

It wasn’t just Renoir who disliked the Jews. A string of financial scandals throughout the 1880s were laid at the door of the new Jewish financiers, and the Ephrussi family was a particular target: ‘Jewish machinations’ were supposed to be behind the collapse in 1882 of the Union Générale, a Catholic bank that had strong ties to the Church, with many small Catholic depositors. The popular demagogue Edouard Drumont wrote in La France juive:

The audacity with which these men treat these enormous operations, which for them are just simple game parties, is incredible. In one session, Michel Ephrussi buys or sells oil or wheat worth ten or fifteen million. No trouble; seated for two hours near a column at the Stock Exchange and phlegmatically holding his beard in his left hand, he distributes orders to thirty courtiers who crowd around him with their pencils extended.

Courtiers come and whisper in Michel’s ear the day’s news. Money is seen to be a bagatelle to these Jewish money-men, implies Drumont, a plaything. It has no connection to the savings carefully taken into the bank on market day, or hidden in the coffee pot on the mantelpiece.

It is a vivid image of covert power, of plotting. It has the intensity of Degas’s painting At the Bourse of a whispered conversation between hook-nosed, red-bearded financiers amongst the pillars. The Bourse and its players segue into the Temple and the money-changers.

‘Who shall stop these men from living then, who shall soon make France look like a wasteland then?…it is the speculator in foreign wheat, it is the Jew, the friend of the Count of Paris…the favourite of all the salons of the aristocratic quarter; it is Ephrussi, the chief of the Jewish band who speculate on wheat.’ Speculation, the making of money out of money, is seen as a particular Jewish sin. Even Theodor Herzl, the apologist of Zionism, always eager to raise money for the cause from wealthy Jewry, is rude in a letter about ‘the Ephrussi, spekulant’.

Ephrussi et Cie did wield extraordinary power. The absence of the brothers from the Bourse was noted with panic during one crisis. Their threat to flood the markets with grain in response to Russian pogroms was taken seriously in an excited report in a newspaper during another crisis. ‘[The Jews]…have learned the potency of this weapon when they made Russia hold her hand in the last Jewish persecution…by reducing Russian securities twenty-four points in thirteen days. “Touch another of our people and not another ruble you shall have, to save your empire,” said Michel Ephrussi, head of the great house at Odessa, the largest grain dealers in the world.’ The Ephrussi were, in short, very rich, very visible and very partisan.

Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper, acted as the marshaller of opinion into print. He told the French how to spot a Jew – one hand is larger than another – and how to counter the threat that this race posed to France. His La France juive sold 100,000 copies in its first year of publication in 1886. By 1914 it had gone into 200 editions. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic, felt they owed nothing to the State. Charles and his brothers, Russian citizens from Odessa and Vienna and God knows where, looked after themselves – whilst leaching the life-blood of France by speculating with real French money.

The Ephrussi family certainly thought they belonged in Paris. Drumont certainly thought not: ‘Jews, vomited from all the ghettos of Europe, are now installed as the masters in historic houses that evoke the most glorious memories of ancient France…the Rothschilds everywhere: at Ferrières and at Les Vaux-de-Cernay…Ephrussi, at Fontainebleau, in the palace of Francis I…’ Drumont’s ridicule of the speed in which this family has moved from being ‘penniless adventurers’ to this ascent into society, their attempts at hunting, their recently commissioned coats of arms, became vicious anger when he thought of his patrimony soiled by the Ephrussi and their friends.

I force myself to read this stuff: Drumont’s books, newspaper, the endless pamphlets in numerous editions, the English versions. Someone has annotated a book on the Jews of Paris in my London library. Written very carefully and approvingly next to Ephrussi is the word venal pencilled in capitals.

There are quantities and quantities of this stuff, swinging wildly between hectoring generalities and splenetic detail. The Ephrussi family comes up again and again. It is as if a vitrine is opened and each of them is taken out and held up for abuse. I knew in a very general way about French anti-Semitism, but it is this particularity that makes me feel nauseated. It is a daily anatomising of their lives.

Charles is pilloried as someone ‘who operates…in the world of literature and the arts’. He is abused as someone who has power in French art, but treats art as commerce. Everything Charles does comes back to gold, say the writers in La France juive. Meltable, transportable, mutable gold to be carried, bought and sold by Jews who do not understand land or country. Even his book on Dürer is scrutinised for Semitic tendencies. How can Charles understand this great German artist, writes one angry art historian, for he is only a ‘Landesmann aus dem Osten’, an oriental.

His brothers and uncles are excoriated and his aunts, now married into the French aristocracy, are savagely parodied. All the Jewish finance houses of France are anathematised by rote: ‘Les Rothschilds, Erlanger, Hirsch, Ephrussi, Bamberger, Camondo, Stern, Cahen d’Anvers…Membres de la finance internationale’. The complex intermarriage between the clans is repeated endlessly to build up a picture of one terrible spider’s web of intrigue, a web even more tightly bound when Maurice Ephrussi marries Béatrice, the daughter of the head of the French Rothschilds, Alphonse de Rothschild. These two families now count as one.

The anti-Semites need to pull these Jews back to where they came from, to strip them of their sophisticated Parisian life. One anti-Semitic pamphlet, Ces bons Juifs, describes an imagined conversation between Maurice Ephrussi and a friend:

– Is it true that you soon have to leave for Russia?

– Within 2 or 3 days, said M. de K…

Well! Maurice Ephrussi replied, if you are going to Odessa, go to the stock exchange to tell my father some news of me.

M. de K promises, and after having finished his business work in Odessa, goes to the stock exchange and asks for Ephrussi the father.

– You know, he is told, if you want it to be done, it is the Jews you need.

Ephrussi the father arrives, an awful-looking Hebrew with long and dirty hair, wearing a pelisse which is completely covered with grease stains.

M. de K…delivers the message to the old man and wants to leave, when he suddenly feels pulled by his clothing, and hears the Ephrussi father who tells him:

– You forgot my small profits.

– What do you mean by your small profits? exclaimed M. de K…

You understood perfectly well, dear Sir, replies the father of Rothschild’s son in law, while bowing to the ground, I am one of the curiosities of the Odessa stock exchange; when strangers come to see me without doing any business they always give me a small present. My sons thus send me over 1000 visitors a year and this helps me to make ends meet.

And with a large smile, the noble patriarch adds: they know well that they will one day be rewarded…my sons!

The Ephrussi, les rois du blé, are simultaneously loathed as upstarts and fêted as patrons. One minute they are to be reminded of the Odessan grain merchant, a patriarch with his grease-stained coat and his outstretched hand. The next, Béatrice is at a society ball wearing her tiara of hundreds of slender ears of trembling golden corn. Maurice, the owner of a vast chateau at Fontainebleau, put himself down on his marriage certificate to Béatrice de Rothschild as ‘landowner’, rather than banker. This was no slip. For Jews, owning land was still a comparatively new experience: it was only since the Revolution that Jews had full citizenship, a mistake – according to some commentators – as Jews were not capable adults. Just look at how the Ephrussi lived, suggested one screed, The Original Mr Jacobs, ‘the love of bric-a-brac, of all odds and ends, or rather the Jews’ passion for possession, is often carried to childishness’.

I wonder how these brothers lived their lives in these conditions. Did they shrug their shoulders, or did it get to them, this incessant hum of vilification, mutterings about venality, the sort of constant, bubbling animosity that the narrator in Proust’s novels remembers of his grandfather: ‘Whenever I brought a new friend home my grandfather seldom failed to start humming “O, God of our fathers” from La Juive, or else “Israel, break thy chains”…The old man would call out “On guard! On guard!” upon hearing the name of any new friend and if the victim had admitted his origins, ‘then my grandfather…would look at us, humming under his breath the air of “What! Do you hither guide the feet of this timid Israelite?”’

There were duels. Though outlawed, duels were nonetheless popular amongst young aristocrats, members of the Jockey Club and army officers. Many of the quarrels were inconsequential, issues of territoriality amongst young men. A disparaging reference to an Ephrussi-owned horse in an article in Le sportstarted a quarrel with the journalist, ‘which led to an altercation and then a hostile meeting’ with Michel Ephrussi.

But some of the disputes reveal the growing, alarming fissures within Parisian society. Ignace was an accomplished dueller, but choosing not to fight was regarded as a particularly Jewish failing. A gloating report tells of one example of this when a business deal between Michel and Count Gaston de Breteuil had ended with substantial losses on the part of the count. Michel, a man of business, did not see it as a matter for a duel and failed to give satisfaction by fighting. When the count returned to Paris after the refused invitation, ‘according to the story current in club circles…he encountered Ephrussi…and twisted the latter’s nose with the bank notes representing the balance, the pin with which they were fastened together severely scratching the proboscis of the great wheat operator. He resigned from the Rue Royale Club and gave a million francs to be distributed amongst the poor of Paris…’ This is recounted as a comedy – rich Jews, gross and without honour, and their noses.

They are not above reproach: Jews just don’t know how to behave.

Michel did fight a bitter run of duels with the Comte de Lubersac on behalf of a Rothschild cousin whose honour had been impugned, and who was too young to stand up for himself. One took place on the island of the Grande Jatte, in the River Seine. ‘At the fourth onslaught, Ephrussi was wounded in the breast, the count’s sword striking a rib…The count attacked vigorously from the outset, and the combatants parted at the finish without the customary handshake. The count left the scene in a landau, and was greeted with cries of “À bas les juifs!” and “Vive l’Armée!”’

Protecting your name and your family’s honour was increasingly difficult as a Jew in Paris.

—from Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Centurty of Art and Loss, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010)

leonard michaels on telling stories


Leonard Michaels, “What’s A Story?”


Thrusting from the head of Picasso’s goat are bicycle handlebars. They don’t represent anything, but they are goat’s horns, as night is a black bat, metaphorically.

Come into the garden . . .

. . . the black bat night has flown.


     Metaphor, like the night, is an idea in flight; potentially, a story:

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.


Here, the metaphorical action is very complicated, especially in the syllables of the second line, bubbling toward the period—the way the old lady had children—reflecting her abundance and distress. The line ends in a rhyme—do/shoe—and thus closes, or contains itself. With her children in a shoe, the old lady is also contained. In effect, the line and the shoe contain incontinence; but this is only an idea and it remains unarticulated, at best implicit.

“Can you fix an idea?” asks Valery. “You can think only in terms of modifications.” Characters, place, and an action “once upon a time” are modifications deployed in rhythm, rhythmic variation, and rhyme- techniques of sound that determine the psycho-physical experience, or story, just as the placement, angle, spread, and thrust of the bicycle handlebars determine horns, a property of goat, its stolid, squat, macho bulk and balls behind, like syllables of a tremendous sentence.

Lo even thus is our speech delivered by sounds significant: for it will

never be a perfect sentence, unless one word give way when it has

sounded his part that another may succeed it.


St. Augustine means perfection is achieved through the continuous vanishing of things, as the handlebars vanish in the sense of goat, as the dancer in the dance, as the bat in the night in flight.

Here is a plain sentence from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” which is metaphorical through and through:

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps.


Those pumps walk with the weight and stride of the moral being who inhabits them, as she inhabits herself, smugly, brutally, mechanically good insofar as good is practical. The pumps vanish into quiddity of Turpin, energetic heave and thump.

Taking a grander view than mine, Nabokov gets at the flow and sensuous implication of Gogol’s story, “The Overcoat.”

The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.


No absolute elements, no plot, only an effect of passage, pattern, and some sort of change in felt-time. The temporal quality is in all the above examples; it is even in Picasso’s goat, different parts vanishing into aspects of goat, perfection of bleating, chomping, hairy, horny beast.

The transformation, in this seeing, is the essence of stories:

A slumber did my spirit seal;

     I had no human fears.

She seemed a thing that could not feel

     The touch of earthly years.


Life is remembered as a dream, her as a “thing,” and himself not feeling. Amid all this absence, is an absence of transition to the second stanza. Suddenly:

No motion has she now, no force;

     She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course;

      With rocks, and stones, and trees.


The transformational drama is deliberately exemplified, in the best writing lesson ever offered, by Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. He tells how he forces himself to remember having seen the cowardly and inept bullfighter, Hernandorena, gored by a bull. After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter’s leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the “dean, clean, unbearable cleanness” of his thigh bone. Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition—let alone transformation of Hernandorena—which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.

In this strenuous, self-conscious, grim demonstration of his art, Hemingway explicitly refuses to pity Hernandorena, and then he seizes his agony with luxurious exactitude. Though he does say “unbearable,” he intends nothing kindly toward Hernandorena, only an aesthetic and self-pitying reference to himself as he suffers the obligations of his story, his truth, or the truth.

The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of “and then”) and the latter belongs to art. Most impressive in the transformations above is that nothing changes. Hernandorena is more essentially himself with his leg opened. Wordsworth’s woman is no less a thing dead than alive. The handlebars, as horns, are fantastically evident handlebars.


In Chekhov’s great story, “The Lady with the Dog,” a man and a woman who are soon to become lovers sit on a bench beside the sea without talking. In their silence the sea grows loud:

. . .  the monotonous roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, or the eternal sleep waiting for us all. The sea had roared like this long before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, the utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of life on our planet, and its never-ceasing movement toward perfection.


But this man and woman care, through each other, about life, and they transform themselves into the creatures of an old and desperately sad story in which love is the vehicle of a brief salvation before the sound of the sea, the great disorder that is an order, resumes and caring ceases.

The man’s feelings in the story, like those of Wordsworth and Hemingway in their stories, are unavailable in immediate experience. He lets the woman go, time passes, then it comes to him that he needs her, the old story.

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from

The weight of primary noon,

The A B C of being.

The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.


He goes to the woman’s hometown, checks into a hotel, and is greeted by the sight of

 … a dusty ink pot on the table surmounted by a headless rider, holding his hat in his raised hand . . .


A metaphor. To find his heart, he lost his head. Nothing would be written (ink pot) otherwise; nothing good, anyhow, and that is the same as nothing. “There is no such thing as a bad poem,” says Coleridge. In other words, it doesn’t exist.

The best story I know that contains all I’ve been trying to say is Kafka’s:

A cage went in search of a bird.


Like the Mother Goose rhyme, it plays with a notion of containment, or containing the uncontainable, but here an artifice of form (cage rather than shoe) is in deadly pursuit of spirit (bird rather than children). A curious metaphysic is implied, where the desire to possess and the condition of being possessed are aspects of an ineluctable phenomenon. (Existence?) In any case, whatever the idea is, Kafka suggests in eight words a kind of nightmare—chilling, magnificently irrational, endless—the story-of-stories, the infinitely deep urge toward transformation. ” . . one portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring,” says Blake, a great storyteller, obsessed with cages and birds.


The ability to tell a story, like the ability to carry a tune, is nearly universal and as mysteriously natural as language. Though I’ve met a few people who can’t tell stories, it has always seemed to me they really can but refuse to care enough, or fear generosity, or self-revelation, or misinterpretation (an extremely serious matter these days), or intimacy. They tend to be formal, encaged by prevailing opinion, and a little deliberately dull. Personally, I can’t carry a tune, which has sometimes been a reason for shame, as though it were a character flaw. Worse than tuneless or storyless people are those with a gift for storytelling who, like the Ancient Mariner (famous bird murderer), go on and on in the throes of an invincible narcissism, while listeners suffer brain-death. The best storytellers hardly ever seem to know they’re doing it, and they hardly ever imagine they could write a story. My aunt Molly, for example, was a terrific story- teller who sometimes broke into nutty couplets.

I see you’re sitting at the table, Label.

I wish I was also able.

 But so long as I’m on my feet.

 I don’t have to eat.


 I went to visit her when she was dying and in bad pain, her stomach bloated by a tumor. She wanted even then to be herself, but looked embarrassed, slightly shy. “See?” she said, “that’s life ” No more stories, no more rhymes.

—from Leonard Michaels, What’s a Story?, Ploughshares, Vol. 12, No. 1/2, (1986), pp. 199-204

enrique vila-matas on robert walser

Sometimes one stops writing because one simply falls into a state of madness from which one never recovers. The best example of this is Hölderlin, who had an involuntary successor in Robert Walser. The former spent the last thirty-eight years of his life enclosed in the attic of the carpenter Zimmer, in Tübingen, writing strange and incomprehensible verses which he signed with the names Scardanelli, Killalusimeno and Buonarotti. The latter spent the last twenty-eight years of his life shut up in the mental hospitals first of Waldau and then of Herisau, engaged in a frenetic activity of microscopic handwriting, fictitious and indecipherable gibberish scrawled on minute pieces of paper.

I think it might be said that, in a certain way, both Hölderlin and Walser carried on writing. “To write,” Marguerite Duras remarked, “is also not to speak. It is to keep silent. It is to howl noiselessly.” Of Hölderlin’s noiseless howls, we have the record of, among others, J. G. Fischer, who gives the following account of his final visit to the poet in Tübingen: “I asked Hölderlin to write some lines on anyone topic, and he asked me if I would have him write on Greece, on Spring or on the Spirit of Time. I replied the last of these three. And then, with what might be described as a youthful fire burning in his eyes, he settled himself at his desk, took a large sheet of paper, a new pen, and began to write, marking the rhythm on his desk with the fingers of his left hand and expressing a hum of satisfaction at the end of each line while nodding his head in a gesture of approval … ”

Of Walser’s noiseless howls, we have the copious testimony of Carl Seelig, the loyal friend who continued to visit the writer when he ended up in the mental hospitals of Waldau and Herisau. Out of all the “portraits of a moment” (the literary genre Witold Gombrowicz was so fond of), I choose the one where Seelig caught Walser at the exact moment of truth, that instant when a person, with a gesture — Hölderlin’s nodding of the head, for example — or a phrase, reveals who they really are: “I shall never forget that morning in autumn when Walser and I were walking together from Teufen to Speichen, through a thick fog. 1 told him that day that perhaps his work would last as long as Gottfried Keller’s. He stood rooted to the spot, viewed me with utter seriousness and asked me, if I valued his friendship, never to repeat such a compliment. He, Robert Walser, was a walking nobody and he wished to be forgotten.”

Walser’s entire work, including his ambiguous silence of twenty-eight years, is a commentary on the vanity of all initiative, the vanity of life itself. Perhaps that is why he only wanted to be a walking nobody. Someone has compared Walser to a long-distance runner who is on the verge of reaching the longed-for finishing-line and stops in surprise, looks round at masters and fellow disciples, and abandons the race, that is to say remains in what is familiar, in an aesthetics of bewilderment. Walser reminds me of Pique mal, a curious sprinter, a cyclist in the sixties who suffered from mood swings and would sometimes forget to finish a race.

Robert Walser loved vanity, the fire of summer, women’s ankle boots, houses illumined by the sun, flags fluttering in the wind. But the vanity he loved had nothing to do with the drive for personal success, rather it was the sort that is a tender display of what is minimal, what is fleeting. Walser could not have been further from the heady heights, where power and prestige dominate: “Were a wave to lift me and carry me to the heights, where power and prestige are predominant, 1 would destroy the circumstances that have favoured me and hurl myself downwards, to the vile, insignificant darkness. Only in the lower regions am I able to breathe.”

Walser wanted to be a walking nobody and what he most desired was to be forgotten. He realised that every writer must be forgotten almost as soon as he has stopped writing, because the page has been lost, has literally flown away, has entered a context of different situations and sentiments, answers questions put by other men, which its author could not even have imagined.

Vanity and fame are ridiculous. Seneca claimed that fame is horrible because it depends on the judgement of many. But this is not exactly what made Walser desire to be forgotten. More than horrible, worldly fame and vanity were, to him, completely absurd. This was because fame, for example, seems to assume that there is a proprietorial relationship between a name and a text that now has an existence, yet which that pallid name can surely no longer influence.

Walser wanted to be a walking nobody, and the vanity he loved was like that of Fernando Pessoa, who once, on throwing a chocolate silver-foil wrapper to the ground, said that, in doing so, he had thrown away life.

­—from Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby & Co. (translated by Jonathan Dunne), New Directions, 2004

nasty, brutish and short fiction from the late, great Derek Raymond

The shorter man put his lips to Gust’s ear. ‘Pain,’ he whispered. ‘You got any idea what pain is?’

‘You bet,’ said Gust. ‘It’s like bad breath or an old pouf, and it hangs around too long the same way you do.

—from Derek Raymond, “Brand New Dead”















Derek Raymond (real name Robin Cook) was born to privilege and by his 20s had sunk to the bottom, whereupon he began recording the manners and mores of the English from the 1950s to the 1990s, often in the form of crime fiction. According to his Wikipedia entry, Raymond/Cook was the eldest son of a textile magnate and attended Eton, which he later characterized as “an excellent preparation for vice of any kind”.  He spent most of the 1950s abroad, including residency in the Beat Hotel in Paris, where William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were his neighbours. His entire artistic output can be summed up thusly:

Existence is sometimes what a forward artillery observer sees of enemy lines through field glasses. A distant and troubling view brought suddenly into focus with a wealth of obscene detail.

The Hidden Files, p. 121

The first and last spot to go to for information about Raymond on the Web is this excellent post from Dennis Cooper (a writer who, like Raymond, has the eye for the essential, existential detail).

Published as a stand-alone story in London Noir, ed. Maxim Jakubowski, (Serpent’s Tail, 1995), the following originally appeared in Raymond’s novel Not Till the Red Fog Rises (Time Warner Books UK, 1994).


Derek Raymond, “Brand New Dead

At about midnight two men suddenly came up and stood right beside Gust at the bar in Marly’s club, pressing against him as close as they could get. The place was packed out and after a while both of them started looking at him sidelong, nudging each other in a snide sort of way and laughing half in his direction as if his cock was hanging out or something. Only it happened to be a night when Gust didn’t want any interruptions; he had a lot to think about and so he paid no attention to the men which seemed to get them choked, because finally one of them, suppressing his laughter, gave him a good shove. Whether that was intentional or not Gust couldn’t say, it could have been just the domino effect of various drunken dancers, but Gust took a hard look at the man all the same whereupon they both turned away, but not in a manner to indicate they were bothered.

Gust reckoned that in their place he would have been bothered on the whole, even though they both looked heavy. One of them was taller than the other with red hair, a rash and love/hate tattoos across his knuckles; the other had straight brown hair and eyebrows that met across the bridge of his nose like Hess. They both wore tired blue jeans, their boots were on their second lap round the clock and Gust had never seen either of them before; the only thing he was certain of was that they had both done bird.

The taller man nudged Gust again and this time he actually said something. He said: ‘Is your name Gust?’

‘Yes that’s me all right,’ said Gust pleasantly, ‘what about it?’

‘Well it’s this,’ said the man. ‘We’d like to let you live if we could, we’ve no personal grudge, see, only we can’t, so instead we’re going to give you a terrific beating and then you’re going to die outside round the back would you believe?’

‘Sounds great,’ said Gust, ‘cheaper than going down to the gym for a work-out anyway.’ He didn’t move except to set down his glass; he always liked to see what other people did first in case what they did was a mistake. Anyway there was no room for him to move yet; a dozen bottoms were squeezing hotly into the three of them and everyone was drinking and looking at the dancers and the music. The music was blasting out in a way fit to rupture an eardrum; you couldn’t have heard a lion roar six inches away.

The shorter man put his lips to Gust’s ear. ‘Pain,’ he whispered. ‘You got any idea what pain is?’

‘You bet,’ said Gust. ‘It’s like bad breath or an old pouf, and it hangs around too long the same way you do.’

The taller man stared at Gust. ‘You’ve just asked to be taken apart,’ he whispered. A reverent look came over him. ‘Massacred.’ He had large dark eyes like pits with a lot of shit floating at the bottom of them.

Around them, meantime, life in the place was cheerfully continuing the way it does. Marly was singing, and two travelos up on the stage were having a cuddle against the gold tinsel curtain behind the piano, one of them with the seams of his net stockings askew. Someone photographed them from the floor; the flash and a champagne cork popped together. Marly was drunk; the crazy song he was singing chain-sawed through the crowd, and the minute he finished it he sat down with a bump by the piano. Someone got barred on the door and burst into tears on a gorilla’s chest; outside in Brewer Street a squad car screamed its way through a siren and a set of tyres and a Colombian crack dealer left suddenly with his driver. The scene was set; the music was turned all the way up for trouble.

The phone on the bar rang. One of the naked waiters scooped it up and stood on tiptoe, looking inquiringly over two hundred or so heads. ‘Chris?’ he trilled in a high contralto. ‘Is there anybody here called Chris? Phone call for Chris.’ No one wanted to know, so he banged the phone down. He said to an old queen: ‘My poor voice, this sort of work is agony for it, my voice is the same as it was when I was ten, did you know, it’s simply never broken.’

‘Working in here’ll break your fucking heart, darling,’ said the old has-been, ‘never mind your voice.’

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on utilitarianism, quentin tarantino, john rawls, and mr blonde

Stuck in the Middle with You: Mr. Blonde and Retributive Justice

Joseph Ulatowski

If they hadn’t done what I told ’em not to do, they’d still be alive.

Mr.Blonde, Reservoir Dogs (1991)

Whoever has committed Murder, must die.

Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals (1797)

None of the memorable scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs have affected viewers so much as the one in which Mr.Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a cop while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel. Some viewers have argued largely on the basis of this scene that the violence in Reservoir Dogs is entirely gratuitous and that the film is thus morally indefensible as a work of art (call this the “orthodox view”). Oliver Conolly writes:

The infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs in which someone’s ear is cut off is not of any interest in terms of any insight into the psychology of the characters in the film. It is hard to see how it could interest anyone except someone with a particular interest in that particular form of torture.69

We can easily see that this must be mistaken. The fact that a person would gleefully cut off someone’s ear gives us a great deal of insight into that person’s psychology, just as the differing reactions of the other members of the gang to this action give us insights into theirs.

We may also learn something about the moral universe of the movie by thinking about the reasons given by the other characters for why Blonde’s treatment of Marvin the cop either is or isn’t a cause for concern. If we look at the perspective of the characters for whom it is not a problem, we may find that their acceptance of his brutal behavior has larger repercussions for our understanding of real-world philosophical problems. In particular, we may discover that some of the “gratuitous” attitudes toward violence displayed by these criminals are not all that different from some of the attitudes that underlie certain widely-accepted theories of justice and punishment.

In contrast to some film critics and philosophers of film, I maintain that Blonde is a far more complex character than someone who just enjoys shooting—and presumably killing—people. The naive belief that Blonde is nothing more than a psycho torturing for the fun of it stems from the critics’ assumptions about the correct theory of punishment. Given a different theory of punishment, we can make better sense of Blonde’s actions.

Let’s look at two theories of punishment: the utilitarian theory, probably held by the critics who misunderstand Blonde’s actions, and the retributive theory, which makes those actions appear more understandable.

But first, what is a theory of punishment?

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from jerzy kosinski’s steps



Work was scarce during the war; I was too thin to work in the fields, and the peasants preferred to use their own children or relatives on the farms. As a vagrant, I was everybody’s victim. To amuse himself the former with whom I was finally boarded would take hold of me by my collar, drag me up close and then strike me. Sometimes he would call his brother or his friends to share in a game in which I had to stand still—staring ahead with open eyes—while they stood a few paces in front of me and spat at my face, betting on how often they could hit me in the eye.

This spitting game became very popular in the village. I was a target for everyone—little boys and girls, farmers and their wives, sober men and drunkards.

One day I attended the funeral of a child who had died of mushroom poisoning, the son of one of the richest farmers in the village. Everybody who came to the funeral was dressed in his Sunday best, looking meek and humble.

I watched the mourning father as he stood at the open grave. His face was yellow as the newly turned earth, his eyes red and swollen. He leaned on his wife, his legs unsteady, barely able to bear his weight. When the coffin was brought to the graveside he threw himself on the polished lid, babbling and kissing it as though it were his child. His cries and those of his wife broke the silence, like a chorus on an empty stage.

It became clear to me that the peasants’ love for their children was just as uncontrollable as an outbreak of fever among the cattle. Often I saw a mother touching her child’s soft hair, a father’s hands flinging the child into the air and catching it safely again. Frequently I watched the small children wobbling on their plump legs, stumbling, falling, getting up again, as though borne up by the same force that steadies sunflowers buffeted by the wind.

Then one day I saw a sheep writhing convulsively in a slow death, its desperate bleating bringing terror to the entire flock. The peasants claimed that the animal must have swallowed a fishhook or a shard of glass in its feed.

Months passed. One morning a cow from the herd in my charge strayed onto a neighbor’s property, damaging the crops. This was reported to my master. Upon my return from the fields, the farmer was waiting for me. He pushed me into the barn and whipped me until the blood oozed from my legs. Bellowing with rage he finally hurled the leather thong into my face.

I began to collect discarded fishhooks and bury them behind the barn. After the farmer and his wife left for church I slipped into my hiding place and kneaded a couple of fishhooks and crushed glass into balls of fresh bread which I had torn out of the day’s newly baked loaves.

I liked to play with the youngest of the farmer’s three children. We often met in the farmyard, and she would laugh uproariously while I imitated a frog or a stork.

One evening the little girl hugged me. I dampened a ball of bread with my saliva and asked her to swallow it in one piece. When she hesitated, I took a piece of apple, put it into the back of my mouth, and pushing it with my forefinger, instantly swallowed it The girl imitated me, swallowing the balls, one after another. I looked away from her face, forcing myself to think only of the burning of her father’s whip.

From then on I gazed boldly into my persecutors’ eyes, provoking their assault and maltreatment. I felt no pain. For each lash I received my tormentors were condemned to pain a hundred times greater than mine. Now I was no longer their victim; I had become their judge and executioner.

There were no doctors or hospitals in the area—the nearest railway only carried an occasional freight train. At dawn crying parents carried their gasping children to the church so the priest could purify them with holy water. But at dusk, in a more desperate mood, they took the dying to the distant huts of the local witches who practiced sorcery and healing.

But death continued to levy its toll, and children went on dying. Some of the peasants blasphemed God, whispering it was He Himself who had dispatched His only son, Jesus, to inevitable crucifixion, in order to redeem His own sin of creating so cruel a world. Others insisted that Death had come to dwell in the villages to avoid the bombed cities, and the war, and the camps where the furnaces smoked day and night.

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at long last, selected short fiction from joseph mcelroy

Not as well known as DeLillo and Barth and other figures in the American postmodern pantheon, but arguable more talented than any of then, Joseph McElroy is in large part the great secret of American literature. Now some of McElroy’s short stories have been collected in Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive, 2011).  James Gibbons in Bookforum has described these stories as “awash in fragmentary stimuli” and notes that:

It’s best to read Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul slowly, warily even, because you’re never far from an unexpected swerve, a surprising shift of gears, or a disclosure of inconspicuous import. Not all these sly, oblique, yet affecting stories are set in the city, but the mode is always urban to the core—a crowding together of impressions and perceptions not necessarily in harmony, and just as likely to deepen ambiguity as to clarify. Take this portrait of an aggressive stranger on the subway who accosts a fellow New Yorker in “Silk, or the Woman with the Bike”: “To hear her speak, she was quite unafraid. Or it was where she was coming from, a woman almost haggard, almost beautiful. Irritable. Short with him. Not just your blunt city person in passing, and not passing but arrived like a coincidence.” Beautiful or haggard, or both, or neither: The woman’s portrait keeps shifting, revising itself as the agitated phrases trip forward. Yet the description’s fuzziness is precisely what gives it its power, uncanny as the feeling of “coincidence” called forth by the woman. (“Into The Wild”, Bookforum Dec/Jan 2011)

A couple of the stories are available online:

Night Soul” and “Character.”

“Christine was #3. She was a zit freak more than a sex freak. We coupled in early ’71.”


james ellroy once joked that he was the only person not to get laid during the “summer of love” . . . here he hits rock bottom in late ’60s, early ’70s L.A. . . .

I woke up. I was naked, she was naked, I didn’t know where I was.

We were under bedsheets. She was still asleep. I didn’t know who she was.

I rubbed my face. It felt like a four-day growth. I was clean-shaven at my last recollection.

You sold blood plasma downtown. You hitchhiked to the beach. You met your pal Randy and started drinking. You argued with some hippies. You stood on the Palisades and fulminated. Your tory worldview appalled them. You stormed off then.

Booze blackout—age 23.

I was a fit 160. The woman weighed three bills easy. I looooved voluptuousness. My standards were permissive. These were curves I could not condone.

A memory burst hit me. I still had nine bucks left from the blood bank.

My clothes were on the bedside floor. My glasses and wallet were safe. Two twenties were tucked in the billfold.

The woman snored on. Maybe she paid me for it. That would mark a first.

I got up, got dressed and stealth-walked out of the pad. Stairs led down to a ground-floor landing. I stepped outside. I was on Fell Street in San Francisco.

•    •    •

She was the fourth. Keeping track was easy then. Susan was #1. She was 29 to my 20. She needed a roof and fucked me in the Spirit of Revolution. She caught me jacking off on uppers the night RFK got shot. She defamed me as a perv, a bum lay and a fascist. She turned dyke for political reasons and the valid motive of inclination.

I was an especially puerile 20 and malleable in the extreme. I was months into a run of sobbing fits out of pure sex hunger/angst. Susan had a ’60s-zeitgeist spiel down pat. I believed all of it when we were stoned and none of it when we were clean. Susan knew a high school pal of mine and fucked him just as callously. He was even more pliable than I was and had an even more roach-ridden apartment. His cystic acne was worse than mine. I could steal drugs from stores and rich people’s houses. He was afraid to. I boded as a better doormat/pity fuck.

Susan and I guzzled cough syrup and pills swiped from medicine chests all over Hancock Park. We talked classical music shit endlessly. We got bombed and played Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter. We defamed rock and roll as counterrevolutionary pap. Susan endured Beethovian mood swings and treated me as her mongoloid kid brother and dope-thief-on-command. All that tsuris got me four peremptory fucks. My zits popped in the throes of my real and her feigned passion. Susan held the line at fuck #5. My technique had not improved to her specifications. My social skills were sub-zero. I was staggeringly uncool and required deep pore cleansing and dermabrasion. Besides—she’d just met a groovy chick with a cool pad in the Hollywood Hills.

Charlotte was #2. It was late ’69. She was an affluent Palos Verdes girl on post-college hiatus. My booze-brave approach charmed her. She bought my great-writer-in-waiting act for three months and wised up. Her inclination: postpone sex for marriage to a real man. Why I got it: the era mandated pre-marital sex as an experiment. We were next-door neighbors and met on the Wilshire Boulevard bus. I held down temp jobs as I brain-broiled the world’s greatest unwritten novel. Charlotte thought I drank too much. I pried open movie-house back doors and glommed us free double features. Charlotte thought that was cool and très ’69. Charlotte found me too emotional and sex-crazed. Sex was not all day and all night. Sex was a special occasion. Charlotte came to view me as a dubious experiment.

The experiment full-on tanked. Charlotte gave me a withering look and skedaddled. The look has since become familiar. It means, You’ve lied to me and you’re not who you say you are.

Christine was #3. She was a zit freak more than a sex freak. We coupled in early ’71 and hooked up periodically. I got in fistfights with her numerous boyfriends. Chris was a poetess and a dermatologist manqué. My acne-assaulted back delivered her delighted. She studied cross sections of the human dermis for hours. She bit my right-middle knuckle down to the bone to scope out the cartilage. I’ve still got the scar. She popped my pimples and examined the pus under a microscope. My first three women treated me as a lab-rat lover.

I stole a pint of vodka and hopped a bus, Frisco back to L.A. I lived in Robert Burns Park that summer. It was Hancock Park–adjacent. The girls I loved and stalked were off in grad school or married to stiffs. They had fulfilled the dashed promise of their mothers at that dance party. Money and safety were horrible temptations. They should have waited for me. I knew I’d sort my shit out at some point in the future.

The ’60s sizzled all around me. I remained nonplussed. My shit solidified and fossilized. I was well into a loooooooong tailspin.

My dad died in ’65. I got kicked out of high school and psych-discharged from three months in the army. I held down minimum-wage jobs and flopped in dive hotels and parks. I smoked weed and scored uppers from dubious physicians. I shoplifted and full-time fantasized. I kept a bust of Beethoven stashed in a bush at Burns Park. I did lightweight jolts in the L.A. County jail system. I was too thin and was developing a chronic cough.

Booze and dope regulated my fantasy life. The theme had only intensified. I remained consumed by women. It was pushing me toward insanity and death.

Tenderness in no way marked my short liaisons. I grasped with suffocating force and trawled for the next image with real women present. I couldn’t let go of the hurt or stop telling myself stories. I couldn’t stop looking at women and beseeching them to smash my stories and talk back to me.

The only love I knew was pornography self-created. The only lovers I desired radiated a distrust of men that would always exclude me. I succumbed to fantasies of Jean Hilliker and had her for a few dope-depraved seconds. Evil boy, piety lost, unredeemable searcher.

The American ’60s: even extreme self-indulgence carried limits.

Booze and downers fueled my great-writer fantasies. I read crime books and historical tomes in public libraries. Amphetamines gave me SEX. Dexedrine, Biphetamine, Desoxyn. A gonad-goosing triad. Dick-depleting substances. Eroticizing and not counterproductive. There were no women. They were all in my head.

The Hancock Park girls. Their mothers. Guest-star actresses on The Fugitive. Women glimpsed on my obsessive window peeps.

The fantasies were raw and loving. I holed up in dive pads, gas-station men’s rooms and dark public parks. I saw faces, faces and faces. I saw Her, She, Them. There can only be One. The cavalcade of faces must lead to one woman revealed.

I masturbated myself bloody. I brain-screened faces for stern beauty and probity. The dope drizzled out of my system. I drank myself comatose and woke up in random shrubbery and jails. I never questioned the validity of my mission. I never questioned my sanity or the religiousness of my quest. I did not subscribe to the notion of the American 1960s as the sine qua non of all behaviors in extremis. I was tracing the arc of The Hilliker Curse. I wanted One Woman or All Women to be Her. The horribly looming price of insanity or death in no way deterred me.

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