the opening of yu hua’s 640-page satire on chinese capitalism

I will go out on a limb and assert that Yu Hua’s Brothers must be the best novel ever written by a Chinese dentist. Pynchon’s interest in the Freudianism of Norman O. Brown both of whom had much to say about the connections between matters capital and excremental   seems to be captured in the opening chapter, in which future tycoon Baldy Li is caught lurking inside the village latrine, gazing up at the urinating women . . . for that matter, is “Baldy Li” meant to be a faint echo of “Leopold Bloom,” modern fiction’s famously first toilet user?  At any rate, in 2002, Yu Hua became the first Chinese writer to win the prestigious James Joyce Foundation Award.    


Chapter 1

Baldy Li, our Liu Town’s premier tycoon, had a fantastic plan of spending twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space. Perched atop his famously gold-plated toilet seat, he would close his eyes and imagine himself already floating in orbit, surrounded by the unfathomably frigid depths of space. He would look down at the glorious planet stretched out beneath him, only to choke up on realizing that he had no family left down on Earth.

Baldy Li used to have a brother named Song Gang, who was a year older and a whole head taller and with whom he shared everything. Loyal, stubborn Song Gang had died three years earlier, reduced to a pile of ashes. When Baldy Li remembered the small wooden urn containing his brother’s remains, he had a million mixed emotions. The ashes from even a sapling, he thought, would outweigh those from Song Gang’s bones.
Back when Baldy Li’s mother was still alive, she always liked to speak to him about Song Gang as being a chip off the old block. She would emphasize how honest and kind he was, just like his father, and remark that father and son were like two melons from the same vine. When she talked about Baldy Li, she didn’t say this sort of thing but would emphatically shake her head. She said that Baldy Li and his father were completely different sorts of people, on completely different paths. It was not until Baldy Li’s fourteenth year, when he was nabbed for peeping at five women’s bottoms in a public pit toilet, that his mother drastically reversed her earlier opinion of her son. Only then did she finally understand that Baldy Li and his father were in fact two melons from the same vine after all. Baldy Li remembered clearly how his mother had averted her eyes and turned away from him, muttering bitterly as she wiped away her tears, “A chip off the old block.”
Baldy Li had never met his birth father, since on the day he was born his father left this earth in a fit of stink. His mother told him that his father had drowned, but Baldy Li asked, “How? Did he drown in the stream, in the pond, or in a well?” His mother didn’t respond. It was only later, after Baldy Li had been caught peeping and had become stinkingly notorious throughout Liu Town—only then did he learn that he really was another rotten melon off the same damn vine as his father. And it was only then that he learned that his father had also been peeping at women’s butts in a latrine when he accidentally fell into the cesspool and drowned. Everyone in Liu Town—men and women, young and old—laughed when they heard about Baldy Li and couldn’t stop repeating, “A chip off the old block.” As sure as a tree grows leaves, if you were from Liu Town, you would have the phrase on your lips; even toddlers who had just learned to speak were gurgling it. People pointed at Baldy Li, whispering to each other and covering their mouths and snickering, but Baldy Li would maintain an innocent expression as he continued on his way. Inside, however, he would be chuckling because now—at that time he was almost fifteen—he finally knew what it was to be a man.

Nowadays the world is filled with women’s bare butts shaking hither and thither, on television and in the movies, on VCRs and DVDs, i advertisements and magazines, on the sides of ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters. These include all sorts of butts: imported butts, domestic butts; white, yellow, black, and brown; big, small, fat, and thin; smooth and coarse, young and old, fake and real—every shape and size in a bedazzling variety. Nowadays women’s bare butts aren’t worth much, since they can be found virtually everywhere. But back then things were different. It used to be that women’s bottoms were considered a rare and precious commodity that you couldn’t trade for gold or silver or pearls. To see one, you had to go peeping in the public toilet—which is why you had a little hoodlum like Baldy Li being caught in the act, and a big hoodlum like his father losing his life for the sake of a glimpse.

Public toilets back then were different from today. Nowadays you wouldn’t be able to spy on a woman’s butt in a toilet even if you had a periscope, but back then there was only a flimsy partition between the men’s and women’s sections, below which there was a shared cesspool. On the other side of the partition the sounds of women peeing and shitting seemed disconcertingly close. So instead of squatting down where you should, you could poke your head under the partition, suspending yourself above the muck below by tightly gripping the boards with your hands and your legs. With the nauseating stench bringing tears to your eyes and maggots crawling all around, you could bend over like a competitive swimmer at the starting block about to dive into the pool, and the deeper you bent over, the more butt you would be able to see.

That time Baldy Li snared five butts with a single glance: a puny one, a fat one, two bony ones, and a just-right one, all lined up in a neat row, like slabs of meat in a butcher shop. The fat butt was like a fresh rump of pork, the two bony ones were like beef jerky, while the puny butt wasn’t even worth mentioning. The butt that Baldy Li fancied was the just-right one, which lay directly in his line of sight. It was the roundest of the five, so round it seemed to curl up, with taut skin revealing the faint outlines of a tailbone. His heart pounding, he wanted to glimpse the pubic area on the other side of the tailbone, so he continued to lean down, his head burrowing deeper under the partition. But just as he was about to catch a glimpse of her pubic region, he was suddenly nabbed.

A man named Victory Zhao, one of the two Men of Talent in Liu Town, happened to enter the latrine at that very moment. He spotted someone’s head and torso burrowing under the partition and immediately understood what was going on. He therefore grabbed Baldy Li by the scruff of his neck, plucking him up as one would a carrot. At that time Victory Zhao was in his twenties and had published a four-line poem in our provincial culture center’s mimeographed magazine, thereby earning himself the moniker Poet Zhao. After seizing Baldy Li, Zhao flushed bright red. He dragged the fourteen-year-old outside and started lecturing him nonstop, without, however, failing to be poetic: “So, rather than gazing at the glittering sea of sprouted greens in the fields or the fishes cavorting in the lake or the beautiful tufts of clouds in the blue sky, you choose instead to go snooping around in the toilet. . . .”

Poet Zhao went on in this vein for more than ten minutes, and yet there was still no movement from the women’s side of the latrine. Eventually Zhao became anxious, ran to the door, and yelled for the women to come out. Forgetting that he was an elegant man of letters, he shouted rather crudely, “Stop your pissing and shitting. You’ve been spied upon, and you don’t even realize it. Get your butts out here.”

The owners of the five butts finally dashed out, shrieking and weeping. The weeper was the puny butt not worth mentioning. A little girl eleven or twelve years old, she covered her face with her hands and was crying so hard she trembled, as if Baldy Li hadn’t peeped at her but, rather, had raped her. Baldy Li, still standing there in Poet Zhao’s grip, watched the weeping little butt and thought, What’s all this crying over your underdeveloped little butt? I only took a look because there wasn’t much else I could do.

A pretty seventeen-year-old was the last to emerge. Blushing furiously, she took a quick look at Baldy Li and hurried away. Poet Zhao cried out for her not to leave, to come back and demand justice. Instead, she simply hurried away even faster. Baldy Li watched the swaying of her rear end as she walked, and knew that the butt so round it curled up had to be hers.

Once the round butt disappeared into the distance and the weeping little butt also left, one of the bony butts started screeching at Baldy Li, spraying his face with spittle. Then she wiped her mouth and walked off as well. Baldy Li watched her walk away and noticed that her butt was so flat that, now that she had her pants on, you couldn’t even make it out.

The remaining three—an animated Poet Zhao, a pork-rump butt, and the other jerky-flat butt—then grabbed Baldy Li and hauled him to the police station. They marched him through the little town of less than fifty thousand, and along the way the town’s other Man of Talent, Success Liu, joined their ranks. Like Poet Zhao, Success Liu was in his twenties and had had something published in the culture center’s magazine. His publication was a story, its words crammed onto two pages. Compared with Zhao’s four lines of verse, Success Liu’s two pages were far more impressive, thereby earning him the nickname Writer Liu. Liu didn’t lose out to Poet Zhao in terms of monikers, and he certainly couldn’t lose out to him in other areas either. Writer Liu was on his way to buy rice when he saw Poet Zhao strutting toward him with a captive Baldy Li, and Liu immediately decided that he couldn’t let Poet Zhao have all the glory to himself. Writer Liu hollered to Poet Zhao as he approached, “I’m here to help you!”

Poet Zhao and Writer Liu were close writing comrades, and Writer Liu had once searched high and low for the perfect encomia for Poet Zhao’s four lines of poetry. Poet Zhao of course had responded in kind and found even more flowery praise for Writer Liu’s two pages of text. Poet Zhao was originally walking behind Baldy Li, with the miscreant in his grip, but now that Writer Liu hustled up to them, Poet Zhao shifted to the left and offered Writer Liu the position to the right. Liu Town’s two Men of Talent flanked Baldy Li, proclaiming that they were taking him to the police station. There was actually a station just around the corner, but they didn’t want to take him there; instead, they marched him to one much farther away. On their way, they paraded down the main streets, trying to maximize their moment of glory. As they escorted Baldy Li through the streets they remarked enviously, “Just look at you, with two important men like us escorting you. You really are a lucky guy.” Poet Zhao added, “It’s as if you were being escorted by Li Bai and Du Fu. . . .”

It seemed to Writer Liu that Poet Zhao’s analogy was not quite apt, since LiBai and Du Fu were, of course, both poets, while Liu himself wrote fiction. So he corrected Zhao, saying, “It’s as if Li Bai and Cao Xueqin were escorting you. . . .”

Baldy Li had initially ignored their banter, but when he heard Liu Town’s two Men of Talent compare themselves to Li Bai and Cao Xueqin, he couldn’t help but laugh. “Hey, even I know that Li Bai was from the Tang dynasty while Cao was from the Qing dynasty,” he said. “So how can a Tang guy be hanging out with a Qing guy?” The crowds that had gathered alongside the street burst into loud guffaws. They said that Baldy Li was absolutely correct, that Liu Town’s two Men of Talent might indeed be full of talent, but their knowledge of history wasn’t a match even for this little Peeping Tom. The two Men of Talent blushed furiously, and Poet Zhao, straightening his neck, added, “It’s just an analogy.”

“Or we could use another analogy,” offered Writer Liu. “Given that it’s a poet and a novelist escorting you, we should say we are Guo Moruo and Lu Xun.” The crowd expressed their approval. Even Baldy Li nodded and said, “That’s more like it.”

Poet Zhao and Writer Liu didn’t dare say any more on the subject of literature. Instead, they grabbed Baldy Li’s collar and denounced his hooligan behavior to one and all while continuing to march sternly ahead. Along the way, Baldy Li saw a great many people tittering at him, including some he knew and others he didn’t. Poet Zhao and Writer Liu took time to explain to everyone they met what had happened, appearing even more polished than talk-show hosts. And those two women who had had their butts peeped at by Baldy Li were like the special guests on their talk shows, looking alternately furious and aggrieved as they responded to Poet Zhao and Writer Liu’s recounting of events. As the women walked along, the one with a fat butt suddenly screeched, having noticed her own husband among the spectators, and started sobbing as she complained loudly, “He saw my bottom and god knows what else! Whip him!” 

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morley callaghan: the turgenev of toronto? the chekhov of canada?


The great American critic Edmund Wilson observed that “The Canadian Morley Callaghan, at one time well known in the United States, is today perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world. . .”

 And: “The reviewer, at the end of this article, after trying to give an account of these books, is now wondering whether the primary reason for the current underestimation of Morley Callaghan may not be simply a general incapacity—apparently shared by his compatriots—for believing that a writer whose work may be mentioned without absurdity in association with Chekhov’s and Turgenev’s can possibly be functioning in Toronto.”  

—from Edmund Wilson, O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture (1960)  

Some comments on Callaghan, recently found online:


Book Lover July 10, 2009, 8:05 P.M. ET

 Why Do Some Writers Disappear?

 By Cynthia Crossen

Morley Callaghan is my favorite 20th-century novelist. His “That Summer in Paris” is among the best of memoirs. His writing is splendid, but he is forgotten. Every book lover can list authors who were wonderful and maybe even great (John Marquand, John Dos Passos, Erico Verissimo) but who are gone. Why do exceptional writers disappear?

—John Adams, Mobile, Ala.


For those (like me) who had never heard of him, Morley Callaghan was a prolific, commercially successful Canadian author who died in 1990 at the age of 87. Among his friends were F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, whom he is said to have flattened once in a boxing match.

Yet even in the 1960s, Mr. Callaghan was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world,” wrote Edmund Wilson, who hypothesized that Mr. Callaghan might have been the victim of geographical snobbery. Critics seemed to doubt that even a literary genius comparable to Chekhov or Turgenev “could possibly be functioning in Toronto.”

Margaret Atwood (another great Canadian author) also tried to make sense of Mr. Callaghan’s literary oblivion. He was “a literary misfit,” she wrote; “people never knew what to make of him.” He was also something of a prodigy—he published three novels before the age of 30—which can start a dangerous trajectory of expectations.

While Mr. Callaghan may seem invisible now, paradoxically he may never have been so accessible. Many of his novels can be sampled on Google Books, and many online book dealers have used copies for sale. So Mr. Callaghan isn’t gone. It’s just that he was once one of a few thousand published authors, and now he’s one of millions. He’s invisible the way Waldo is in the pages of “Where’s Waldo?” — lost in a crowd.

For other examples of lost treasures, see “100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read” by Karl Bridges. I was happy Mr. Bridges’ list included “The Wrong Case” by James Crumley; “Professor Romeo” by Anne Bernays; and “Stones for Ibarra” by Harriet Doerr, but most of his suggestions were new to me. “What America Read” by Gordon Hutner also offers an interesting analysis of how the literary academy decides which books will be remembered.

A very fine Web site,, has many links to lists of lost classics as well as its own ruminations on the subject. But a site search showed not a trace of Morley Callaghan.

—from The Wall Street Journal



update from the international necronautical society!

Interim Report on Recessional Aesthetics







Official Document


Authorized: First Committee, INS

Authorization Code: TMcCSC140109


Document follows




We begin by congratulating the Obama Administration on commissioning this report from the INS. Turning to an organization whose thinking is steeped in literature, philosophy, and the arts in the hope of acquiring insight into the economic recession and suggestions as to how this hardship might be overcome may to some smack of desperation. Yet the INS commends the administration’s decision to do so as both courageous and enlightened. In (implicitly) acknowledging the critical role played by art in creating (and subverting) value, President Obama has, symbolically at least, righted the wrong done to the poet Seanchan in W. B. Yeats’s play The King’s Threshold. Seanchan is denied a place at the king’s table on the grounds that poetry does not constitute the “proper” business of state—to which he retorts

that the King’s money would not buy,

Nor the high circle consecrate his head,

If poets had never christened gold, and even

The moon’s poor daughter, that most whey-faced



Seanchan’s argument is incisive. As we hope to show, not only is art (as any second-rate Marxist literature professor will tell you) haunted by the language of economics, but economics is also haunted by art—that is, by aesthetic processes of creation, narration, speculation, value-generation, skillful condensation, occlusion, and just plain old lying. On behalf, therefore, of Seanchan and all the other barred poets in history for whom he stands, we accept the president’s invitation with a sense of entitlement and also with trepidation: the length of our spoon has yet to be determined. Below, then, we present four interim findings, which hint at the content of the full report, scheduled for delivery in April 2010.


1. I Owe Therefore I Am


It is the INS’s resolute conviction that there is not a single aspect of the current crisis that is not anticipated in The Merchant of Venice. For Shakespeare, credit is the economic judgment on the morality of man. In the credit system, man is transformed into money, and money has literally been incorporated into him, into his blood and pounds of flesh. When Shylock says that Antonio is “a good man” and Bassanio asks if he has heard otherwise, Shylock replies,


Ho no, no, no, no: my meaning, in saying he is a
good man, is to have you understand me that he
is sufficient.


That is, Antonio has a sound credit rating and is therefore “good.” Antonio echoes this moral judgment when, in speaking to the object of his desire, Bassanio, he elides the words “purse” and “person”:


My purse, my person, my extremest means
lie all unlock’d to your occasions.


Personality is pursonality. The problem is that Antonio’s purse is empty, for his argosies with portly sail are far-flung, all abroad, to the Indies, England, andthe whole globalized geography of the commercial orb for which the urbs of Venice is both the mirror and the marketplace. The trading floor of the Rialto is the prospect of what Shakespeare’s Elizabethan London might turn into and a fortiori the latter’s hypertrophy in New York some centuries later. Its economic logic is one not of self-sufficiency in the here and now but rather of overstretched indebtedness with promises of returns to come in the future. The cash-strapped Bassanio’s hoped-for acquisition of Portia’s inheritance helps solicit Antonio’s loan, which itself is “guaranteed” by his own ships’ prospective return, which in turn secures a new, three-month loan underwritten by his body—a set of deferrals and suspensions, of withdrawals and disappearances as joined up and mutually dependent as the networks of global capital itself.


Not only is Shakespeare’s Venice, like Madoff’s New York, a giant speculative system, steeped in avarice and expectations and underpinned by assurances that are themselves far from solid; beyond this, attraction itself is an economy to be both experienced and expressed in purely economic terms. What is going on in the drama of The Merchant of Venice is the transformation of the language of courtly love into that of commerce, the moneying of desire. And when it all goes wrong, then (as now) some Jew is going to have to pay.


2. Then Must the Jew Be Merciful


Sticking with Shakespeare’s play for a while: when Shylock calls the whole caboodle in, returning the speculation-based Venetian economy to its gold (or, rather, flesh) standard, disaster looms. The strategy initially advanced to avert disaster is not a sudden injection of resources but rather the invocation of a bottomless reserve of mercy. Portia, cross-dressed as the young lawyer Balthazar, announces a mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”—that is, without measure, infinitely. Portia (an impostor, let’s not forget) supplants economic law with a “higher,” moral order. And yet Shakespeare, good etymologist that he is, is all too aware that the mercy that cannot be strained, that should season justice, that the Jew Shylock should show, and that is even—according to Portia—an attribute of God himself, is derived from merces, meaning “payment,” “price,” or “fee.” Mercantile revenue is revenu in moral talk of mercy. Christianity (and, by extension, the moral rhetoric of liberalism into which it has mutated) is the hypocritical spiritualization of the originally material.


To avoid such Portian impostures, which, besides masking brutality (Shylock, it will be recalled, is viciously dispossessed by the court’s judgment), merely reboot the cycle of credit and bust by reinstituting its founding lie, we would urge the president to abandon his unconvincing Christian faith and embrace instead the doctrine of necronautical materialism expounded by the INS in numerous platforms and on numerous occasions.


3. Joyce’s Pawnography


There is an anti-monetary tradition in philosophy that extends from Aristotle’s Politics to Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, wherein money is the principle of corruption of all social relations (an ideal communist society would be one purged of money altogether). Yet there is an opposing tradition, culminating in the thought of Levinas and Derrida, in which money operates, to quote the Bard again, not simply as “Thou common whore of mankind” but also as “Thou visible god,/That solder’st close impossibilities./And mak’st them kiss”—that is, as both ontological and ethical enabler. The INS celebrates this second view and finds its supreme literary expression in Finnegans Wake, which we would urge the president and his aides to keep by their bedsides at all times. Not only is Joyce’s masterpiece suffused with monetary language (“shelenks,” “haypennies” and “dogmarks,” “sylvan coyne” and “ghinees”); it is also mired in the rhetoric of debt: of pawnshops, unpaid loans, “wallstrait” crashes, and what Joyce, theo-neologizing, calls “deblinity.”


The most debt-ridden of the Wake’s characters is Shem, who “lives off loans.” Shem is both an artist and a forger. Perusing other writers’ work, he decides to


study with stolen fruit how cutely to copy all their various styles of signature so as one day to utter an epical forged cheque on the public for his own private profit


—the “cheque” in question being the text itself, the “profit” that ensues being self-evident (Joyce’s work, the most celebrated in the history of prose, not only sells decades after his death but also inspires other writers to write, criticsto publish, teachers to teach, and so on). For Joyce, then, the creative act—an act of forgery—translates the negative space of debt into positive, “epic” productivity, returning us to credit. The implication for the president is simple: far from cracking down on counterfeit currency, he should encourage its circulation, since it gives the economy the creative fillip it so badly needs.


4. Recessional Epiphany


In Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in the middle of her stunning monologue about negative space

and negational language, Addie Bundren, a dark emissary of pure negativity, of death itself,

uses the word “recessional.” Faulkner’s obtuse—indeed, jarring—use of the term here

sends a diligent reader to the dictionary, which defines “recessional” as


Of or belonging to the recession or retirement of the clergy and choir from the chancel to the vestry at the close of a service; belonging to a recess (e.g., of Parliament).


“Recess,” in its turn, is given as


The act of retiring, withdrawing, or departing; a period of cessation.



Recession, then, is temporal and spatial: an interval at once legislative and sacred; an end that guarantees a new beginning. These meanings are doubly significant in relation to the overall structure of Faulkner’s novel, which sees every action come around again, all life’s cycles repeating around Addie as she slips away, recedes. Between each cycle, at the heart of a dead woman’s silent speech, recession intercedes, a death between each life. Read allegorically, recession, like a sacristy or harem, is the intimate space at the heart of all economics, its muted truth. Celebrate it as you would the revelation of godhead itself.


Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy


—from Harper’s Magazine, June 2009























writing in the post-ulysses age: henri lefebvre on the techniques of claude simon

Word Power Books



henri lefebvre on joyce, the new novel and the writing of everyday life…


Thus it is by chance and not by chance that this particular day — a sixteenth of June at the beginning of the twentieth century — was significant in the lives of a certain Bloom, his wife Molly and his friend Stephen Dedalus, and as such was narrated in every detail to become, according to Hermann Broch, a symbol of ‘universal everyday life ‘, a life elusive in its finitude and its infinity and one that reflects the spirit of the age, its’ already almost inconceivable physiognomy’, as Joyce’s narrative rescues, one after the other, each facet of the quotidian from anonymity.


The momentous eruption of everyday life into literature should not be overlooked. It might, however, be more exact to say that readers were suddenly made aware of everyday life through the medium of literature or the written word. But was this revelation as sensational then as it seems now, so many years after the author’s death, the book’s publication and those twenty-four hours that were its subject matter? And was it not foreshadowed already in Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and perhaps others ?. . . .


Ulysses is diametrically opposed both to novel presenting stereotyped protagonists and to the traditional novel recounting the story of the hero’s progress, the rise and fall of a dynasty or the fate of some social group. Here, with all the trappings of an epic — masks, costumes, scenery — the quotidian steals the show. In his endeavour to portray the wealth and poverty of everyday life Joyce exploited language to the farthest limits of its resources, including its purely musical potentialities. Enigmatic powers preside. Bloom’s overwhelming triviality is encompassed by the City (Dublin), the metaphysical speculations of ‘amazed’ man (Stephen Dedalus), and the spontaneity of instinctive impulses (Molly); here is the world, history, man; here are the imaginary, the symbolic and the prophetic . . . .

There are many ways of interpreting what is still known as the ‘new novel’ (apart from considerations of success, failure, tediousness or interest). It can be seen as a methodical attempt to create a rational style that deliberately avoids tragedy, lyricism, confusion and controversy, aiming instead at a pure transparency of language that might almost be called spatial. This ‘objective’ clarity could be seen as a sort of projector isolating the object on a stage if one were to overlook the fact that objects must first be created; it is a product neither of the subject as creator nor of the object as creation, but only of language imitating ‘reality’. Can one even say that a story is being told? A story is no longer a story when words are reduced to bare necessities. Time is cancelled out in the process of exploring it, when the quest for a perfect recurrence, a coming and going in time, is achieved by means of pure prose, of writing reduced to its essence. The simultaneity of past, present and future merges time with space and is more easily realized in a film than in literature, where ‘novelistic’ implications are always present. Moreover it is not every subject that can be submitted to such a formal elaboration: things, people, gestures, words. And can anyone be sure that time will not intervene and disrupt such permanence? Is everyday life’s changelessness a guarantee? Films and literature use everyday life as their frame of reference but they conceal the fact, and only expose its’ objective’ or spectacular aspects. Writing can only show an everyday life inscribed and prescribed; words are elusive and only that which is stipulated remains.


Let us take an example. Shall we select for our particular example of ‘objective’ writing, the writing of strict form, a distinguished scholar or a novelist? If a novelist, who shall it be? We have made the arbitrary choice of Claude Simon in his book Flanders Road, because there is a certain affinity between this book and Ulysses notwithstanding the differences that distinguish them; an affinity that makes comparison possible while enabling us to note the contrasts. In both works short periods of time expand, dream and remembrance recreate a universal everyday life; in both we find the eternal triangle, wife, husband and lover; symbols and word-play abound. In Claude Simon there is a Blum, in Joyce a Bloom, a coincidence that suggests a connection perhaps not wholly unintentional on the part of the later author.


‘Oh yes! … ‘ Blum said (now we were lying in the darkness in other words intertwined overlapping huddled together until we couldn’t move an arm or a leg without touching or shifting another arm or leg, stifling, the sweat streaming over our chests gasping for breath like stranded fish, the wagon stopping once again in the dark and no sound audible except for the noise of breathing the lungs desperately sucking in that thick clamminess that stench of bodies mingled as if we were already deader than the dead since we were capable of realizing it as if the darkness the night …. And Blum: ‘Bought drinks?’, and I: ‘Yes. It was … Listen: it was like one of those posters for some brand of English beer, you know? The courtyard of the old inn with the dark-red brick walls and the light-coloured mortar, and the leaded windows, the sashes painted white, and the girl carrying the copper mugs … ‘


Fine. Now let us compare this to what we had noted in Ulysses.


a) Here we find no acknowledged, pre-established referential; the place is a place of desolation, a landscape laid waste by war and rain where corpses .rot in the mud and slime, a sinister collaboration of civilization and nature. The symbolism is spatial, the place being the only stable thing there is. We are never sure in what moment of time the story is situated, nor in which tense is the narrative; and we do not need to know. Memories are centred around the place, symbolized and actualized by it as they flow from the remote past. In the course of the narrative, which proceeds in cycles, men are the playthings of fate; they circle around the place and their circling leads to death or captivity at the hands of the enemy.


b) Man’s fate is not enacted here against a backdrop of normal everyday life; we are in time of war. And yet it is the quotidian that is conjured up. The past, before tragedy took over, was controlled by logic and order, or so it seemed; in reality logic and order, and meaning too, were only paving the way to tragedy (eroticism, passion and love), with its sequel of disillusions. The extraordinary in everyday life was everyday life at last revealed: deception, disappointment. . . . Passionate love turned out to be terribly similar to love without passion, the passion only accentuating the void and the hunger it was supposed to satisfy but from which it really stemmed. Could this be the cool style unambiguously replacing the hot style of the preceding period? In a cold passionless voice the author tells of passion, its illusion and its disappointments; the quotidian is unavoidable, and even those who believe they have eluded it are its victims; married couples and lovers are alike frustrated and betrayed, the first in everyday life, the others in the life of tragedy. The cycle of betrayals and frustrations spirals down from remembered time, in fact through a century and a half as the narrative passes from generation to generation; remembrance negates temporality.


c) Language becomes the only referential, as the ‘real’ referential is abolished by truth; the author has fashioned a reality from speech where the sentence conveys similarities, disparities, the order and disorder of impressions, emotions, sensations, dialogues (that are not really dialogues), solitude, in fact everything that serves to build up a ‘character’. The writing imitates speech in an attempt to purify or perhaps to exorcize it. The critic J. Ricardou calls it the ‘verso of writing’, but if he is right then this verso corresponds exactly to the recto. It is indeed the very essence of writing, a literature passed through the crucible of literalness and aiming at total precision. Though it simulates speech, speech has disappeared, the writing is a linear trajectory; and meaning too has vanished, whether proper, figurative, analogical or hermetic; everything is made explicit; signs are distinct in their difference and the difference is entirely revealed in the significance. A voice or voices? A toneless voice, a writing that is precise and pure as musical intervals fixed by pitch. Connotations? Harmonics? Yes, adjusted by pitch and thus eliminating fluidity, extensions of sound and boundlessness. Time is divided into similarities and disparities before it dissolves into memory and fate, which are almost identical. Even the word-play is exposed, stated and explained. This pure writing has attained freezing point in so far as this point is pure transparency. A comparison with atonality will perhaps make this clearer; there is no determining note (referential), therefore no repose; there are interruptions but no beginnings or endings; there are intermissions but nothing that really corresponds to anact or an event, only memories and sentences; the semantic theme has changed, it has lost the alternate tensions and easings corresponding to beginnings and endings, actions and happenings, situations that emerge and conclude. Significance, translated into an elaborate verbal form, replaces expression; the theme disintegrates and is recomposed around the literal, without ambiguity or polyphony (or polyrhythm or polyvalence). The writing aims at saying everything that can be written; the writer’s ear is attuned to depth and he rejects all that is not perfectly clear; he does not attempt to entrap depth, it is there.


At one end of this skyline dominated by important works we observed the emergence of everyday life, the revelation of its hidden possibilities; at the opposite end everyday life reappears but in a different perspective. Now the writer unmasks, discovers, unveils; everyday life becomes less and less bearable less and less interesting; yet the author manages to create an interest in this intolerable tediousness simply by telling it, by writing, by literature. Our investigation has thus exposed a definite change both in the things written about and in the way of writing. We are not concerned here with further ramifications such as the contemporary theatre (Ionesco, Beckett), poetry (Ponge), films (Resnais, Godard), etc.; nor with any attempt at generalization. We only wish to underline the metaphysical function of contemporary literature. We shall come across these problems again and again under different aspects. The ‘world’ is divided into the world of everyday life (real, empirical, practical) and the world of metaphor; metaphorical writing, or the metaphorical world of writing tends either towards artificial oppositions and illusory contradictions or towards self-destruction in the comedy of insanity (existentialism, Artaud); but this is not the place to analyse these sub-divisions.


—Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World (translated from La vie Quotidienne Dans le Monde Moderne, published in 1968 by Editions Gallimard), Paris, pp 2 – 3, 8 -11.







bloomsday: proteus in dublin, June 16, 1904

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes. No. Jesus! If I fell over a cliff that beetles o’er his base, fell through the nebeneinander ineluctably. I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do. My two feet in his boots are at the end of his legs, nebeneinander. Sounds solid: made by the mallet of Los Demiurgos. Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand? Crush, crack, crick, crick. Wild sea money. Dominie Deasy kens them a’.

Won’t you come to Sandymount,
Madeline the mare?

Rhythm begins, you see. I hear. A catalectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: deline the mare.

Open your eyes now. I will. One moment. Has all vanished since? If I open and am for ever in the black adiaphane. Basta! I will see if I can see.

See now. There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.

They came down the steps from Leahy’s terrace prudently, Frauenzimmer: and down the shelving shore flabbily their splayed feet sinking in the silted sand. Like me, like Algy, coming down to our mighty mother. Number one swung lourdily her midwife’s bag, the other’s gamp poked in the beach. From the liberties, out for the day. Mrs Florence MacCabe, relict of the late Patk MacCabe, deeply lamented, of Bride Street. One of her sisterhood lugged me squealing into life. Creation from nothing. What has she in the bag? A misbirth with a trailing navelcord, hushed in ruddy wool. The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.

Spouse and helpmate of Adam Kadmon: Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish, bulging big, a buckler of taut vellum, no, whiteheaped corn, orient and immortal, standing from everlasting to everlasting. Womb of sin.

Wombed in sin darkness I was too, made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will. From before the ages He willed me and now may not will me away or ever. A lex eterna stays about him. Is that then the divine substance wherein Father and Son are consubstantial? Where is poor dear Arius to try conclusions? Warring his life long on the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality. Illstarred heresiarch. In a Greek watercloset he breathed his last: euthanasia. With beaded mitre and with crozier, stalled upon his throne, widower of a widowed see, with upstiffed omophorion, with clotted hinderparts.

Airs romped around him, nipping and eager airs. They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.

I mustn’t forget his letter for the press. And after? The Ship, half twelve. By the way go easy with that money like a good young imbecile. Yes, I must.

His pace slackened. Here. Am I going to Aunt Sara’s or not? My consubstantial father’s voice. Did you see anything of your artist brother Stephen lately? No? Sure he’s not down in Strasburg terrace with his aunt Sally? Couldn’t he fly a bit higher than that, eh? And and and and tell us Stephen, how is uncle Si? O weeping God, the things I married into. De boys up in de hayloft. The drunken little costdrawer and his brother, the cornet player. Highly respectable gondoliers. And skeweyed Walter sirring his father, no less. Sir. Yes, sir. No, sir. Jesus wept: and no wonder, by Christ.

—from the “Proteus” episode in Ulysses

adam thirlwell’s favourite books & authors populate a novel set of narratives

Buy Miss Herbert 


Mind your language

By A.S. Byatt


November 24 2007

Miss Herbert (The Delighted States in the U.S.)
By Adam Thirlwell

Miss Herbert is a thoughtful, and frequently hilarious, study of the nature of literary translation. It is also a work of art, a new form. Juliet Herbert was the English governess of Flaubert’s niece, Caroline. She wrote a translation of Madame Bovary, which Flaubert approved, and which has disappeared, unread. This ghost is a central character in a tale of conversations between writers, languages and forms.


Flaubert’s carefully wrought style, his “mania for sentences”, makes him in one sense untranslatable. The same could be argued of James Joyce’s layered wordplay, local detail and complicated rhythms. Novelist Adam Thirlwell, the author of Politics, discusses the tension between literal translation of words and attempts to translate a “style”. He argues that — always with some slippage or accidents — styles can be translated and transmitted. He has a cosmopolitan taste in novels, and describes his own canon, ranging from Cervantes to Machado de Assis, from Italo Svevo who was taught English by Joyce, to Witold Gombrowicz and Bohumil Hrabal.


A good example of the way he proceeds is his discussion of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse, in an intricate rhyming stanzaic form. Pushkin read Tristram Shandy in a less-than-adequate French translation. Thirlwell remarks: “The first great Russian novel was a rewrite of a French travesty of an English avant-garde novel.” Later he discusses Nabokov’s ideas of translation. Nabokov came to the conclusion that a verse translation of Pushkin’s novel was theoretically impossible. He published his own literal word-by-word translation in four volumes with notes and commentary. Thirlwell decides he prefers the idea behind Nabokov’s earlier translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which changed names and references freely into Russian ones.


What does Thirlwell think makes a style, and what does he admire? A style must convey “real life”, a phrase that is constantly defined and redefined in this book. He quotes Diderot on the necessity for detail — a pox-mark on a perfect face — and gives splendid examples of precise recording, from Chekhov to Nabokov. He says: “Good novelists (or maybe more honestly the novelists I like) are often not just avant-garde in terms of technique; they are morally avant-garde as well. They are disrespectful (for one definition of cosmopolitan after all is the refusal to know one’s place).” I like this definition, partly at least because it does not use that meaningless word “subversive”. “Disrespectful” is a good word. Thirlwell also does not praise “authenticity”, sticking to more solid words such as “real” and “true”. The novelists he admires are, he says, “libertines” using that word to mean writers who record awkward or complicated truths. They are all, apart from Gertrude Stein, male and ironic. Thirlwell says somewhere that reality is ironic. I’m not sure of the meaning of that.


John Hawkes wrote that the enemies of the novel were “plot, character, setting and theme”. The novelists who are the “characters” of this novel about novels seem to believe that the true enemies are sentimentality, Romanticism, lazy derivativeness and high-mindedness. There is also a tendency to be hostile to plot as a form of unreality. Thirlwell quotes Gogol, Flaubert, Austen and Nabokov in one paragraph, which appears to end with the assertion that “life itself is plotless”. This is as untrue as it is true. Life, in my experience, is full of plots. But further down the same page Thirlwell produces another epigram: “The art of the novel centres not on authenticity but truth. And truth is a fabrication.” It is novelists, precisely, who understand that – and in a world where truth is a fabrication, there is room for plots and stories.

So what is a style? It is more than the sum of its parts — the choice of words, the speed of telling, the angle of vision. One of the pleasures of this elegantly produced book is a series of squiggles — many of them from Tristram Shandy, including Trim’s flourish with his stick which Balzac reproduced in La Peau de Chagrin — but also Hogarth’s “line of beauty”, and some twirls by Paul Klee. These flourishes, handed on from writer to writer and changed, are like musical notation. At the end of the book’s third part Thirlwell writes: “A style is not just a prose style. Sometimes it is not even a form of composition. Style is a quality of vision; a soul. This word soul is not my favourite word, it is not one I would use if I could help it, but I am not sure I have any choice.” And that kind of seriousness is very much Thirlwell’s own style.



The Delighted States

By Adam Thirwell


Chapter 1


Normandy, 1852: Two Letters from Gustave Flaubert About Style


This all begins in private, with Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence.


On 24 April 1852, Gustave Flaubert — an unpublished novelist, who had abandoned one novel, and recently begun another — wrote a hopeful letter to his mistress, Louise Colet.


‘I’ve imagined a style for myself,’ he told her, ‘a beautiful style that someone will write some day, in ten years’ time maybe, or in ten centuries. It will be as rhythmical as verse and as precise as science, with the booming rise and fall of a cello and plumes of fire’. And five years later, on 12 December 1857, after his first novel, Madame Bovary, had finally been published, Flaubert was writing to a fan, whose name was Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, and still saying roughly the same thing: ‘You say that I pay too much attention to form. Alas! it is like body and soul: form and content to me are one; I don’t know what either is without the other.’

Ever since Gustave Flaubert finally published his first novel, some novels have been explicitly as well written as poetry; they have shown the same care as poetry for style, and form. Every word in these novels has the same weight and poise as a word in a poem. And this is not without its problems.


The novel is an international art form. As soon as a novel becomes as well written as poetry, therefore, as soon as style is everything, then the translation of a novel becomes not a peripheral problem, but a central one. Or, as Milan Kundera wrote in the introduction to the fourth, but still only penultimate, English-language translation of his first novel, The Joke: ‘Once prose makes such a claim, the translation of a novel becomes a true art.’


This book — which I sometimes think of as a novel, an inside-out novel, with novelists as characters — is about the art of the novel.It is also, therefore, about the art of translation.


Chapter 2


Warsaw, 1937: Witold Gombrowicz Writes a Review


In 1937, the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz wrote a piece for a Warsaw magazine — Kurier Poranny — on the French translation of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Sorrowfully, he did not think that Ulysses was really translatable. Meditating wistfully on the happier position of the English-speaking reader, he offered his own paradoxical and contrasting position, that while the ‘perfection and power of this complex style’ made it obvious how good — even in translation — Ulysses was, the dual language gap still prevented ‘more intimate contact’. And Gombrowicz ended his piece with an irritable flourish: ‘It is annoying to know that somewhere over there, abroad, a previously unknown method of feeling, of thinking and of writing has been born whose existence renders our methods completely anachronistic, and to tell oneself that only purely technical obstacles prevent us from having a deep knowledge of so many new inventions.’


Ulysses had made Polish novelists outdated: Gombrowicz could see that: but in French, his second language, he could not precisely see how. The technical details, he argued, escaped him.


But I am not sure that this is true. If style were purely a matter of technique — if form and content, as Flaubert sometimes thought, were the same thing — then perhaps Gombrowicz might be right. But style is not purely a matter of technique, which is why translation is still possible.


That is the subject of this book.


Often, I wonder if the idea of the untranslatable is really hiding a secret wish for translation to be a perfect fit, and this wish conceals a corresponding wish for style to be absolute. Whereas there are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect styles. Something is still translatable, even if its translation is not perfect.

Like the example of Witold Gombrowicz himself.


About ten years later, Gombrowicz would be in exile — from the Nazis, and then the Communists — in Buenos Aires. In 1945, his friend Cecilia Benedit de Benedetti gave him an allowance to translate his novel Ferdydurke into Spanish. Ferdydurke, which had come out in 1937, the same year as his essay on Ulysses, had made him famous in Poland. This translation eventually became the preserve of a dedicated group, led by the Cuban novelist Virgilio Piñera and the Cuban writer Humberto Rodríguez Tomeu, as well as Gombrowicz, over eighteen months. The translation took place during sessions in the chess room on the second floor of the Café Rex, Gombrowicz’s favourite café in Buenos Aires. According to one of his early collaborators, Adolfo de Obieta, the translation was therefore inherently amusing: it was charmingly amateur — ‘transposing from Polish into Spanish the book of a Polish author who barely knew Spanish, assisted by five or six Latino-Americans who scarcely knew two words of Polish’.


No Polish-Spanish dictionary existed at the time. ‘It was an experimental translation in macaronic Spanish,’ recalled Tomeu. ‘At that time, he already knew some Spanish. Later, he spoke it well but always with a very strong accent. We therefore discussed each sentence under every one of its aspects: choice of words, their euphony, their cadence and their rhythm. Witold’s observations were always pertinent.’ The translation came out in April 1947, accompanied by a defensive note from Piñera, who worried that the unwarned Spanish reader might impute the language’s oddness to a lack of competence on the part of the translators. No no, he argued. It was all a matter of Gombrowicz’s new and different manner of envisaging language in the original Polish. (Which Piñera, of course, could not read.)


But he did not convince the public: Ferdydurke was not a success. It bemused its new Latin-American public.


The history of the novel is, simultaneously, a history of an elaborate and intricate international art form — and also a history of errors, a history of waste.



Chapter 3


Paris, 1930: James Joyce in Paul Léon’s Living Room


While Witold Gombrowicz, in Warsaw, was fretting at the French translation of Ulysses, James Joyce was making things even harder. In Paris, Joyce was completing the novel which was being serialised in the small magazine transition as Work in Progress, but which would finally be called Finnegans Wake. Famously, this novel is hardly even written in English: itself a description of a dream, Joyce wanted the English of his novel to mimic, in its language, the operations of a dream. Just as the images in dreams are dense with over-determination, so the language in Finnegans Wake, therefore, Joyce hoped, was unstable, impacted, polyglot. So that the reader of its first instalment would have been unpleasantly surprised to discover a style that made puns with more than one language, and had a sentence like this: ‘What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods!’


Maybe, with Finnegans Wake, Joyce had reached a point of stylistic density which could not survive any transition to another language – a realm of pure poetry, a nonsense style. Perhaps Gombrowicz was right. Maybe translation was finally impossible.


But maybe not.


In 1930, Joyce agreed to supervise a translation into French of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Work in Progress: the translation had been begun by Samuel Beckett and his French friend Alfred Péron. Beckett, however, had gone back to Ireland after completing a first version of the opening pages. His work was then revised by a group of Joyce’s friends: Eugene Jolas, the editor of transition; Ivan Goll, a poet; and Paul Léon.


Léon (whose wife, Lucie, was a family friend of Vladimir Nabokov) was a Russian émigré, who had left Russia in 1918: he had first gone to London, and then, in 1921, had arrived in Paris. He was a lawyer by training, and literary in his tastes. He soon became a kind of secretary to Joyce.


At the end of November 1930, after the first draft of the French translation had been completed, the French Surrealist writer Philippe Soupault was instructed to meet Joyce and Léon in Léon’s flat. At Léon’s round table, they would sit for three hours, starting at 2.30 every Thursday, and go through the translation.


(And I hope that the Léons kept this table for a while, because then it would be the same table at which, eight years later, in 1938, Nabokov would sit with Lucie — as she helped him with the English of his first novel written directly in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.)


Joyce smoked in an armchair; Léon read the English text and Soupault read the French, at the same time, breaking off to consider any problems. After fifteen of these meetings, they reached a final draft. This was sent to Jolas and Adrienne Monnier — Joyce’s friend, who had published the French translation of Ulysses — who suggested further changes. The finished translation of Anna Livia Plurabelle was published in the Nouvelle Revue Française on 1 May 1931.


There is no need to understand French to hear how talented this translation was. A lack of French is fine. Joyce shocked everyone with his care for sound over sense. In its new language, he was more concerned to preserve the form than the content.


Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep


Can’t hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can’t hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won’t moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia’s daughtersons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Tellmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!


Anna Livia Plurabelle falls asleep, this time in French


N’entend pas cause les ondes de. Le bébé babil des ondes de. Souris chance, trotinette cause pause. Hein! Tu n’est past rentré? Quel père André? N’entend pas cause les fuisouris, les liffeyantes ondes de, Eh! Bruit nous aide! Mon pied à pied se lie lierré. Je me sens vieille comme mon orme même. Un conte conté de Shaun ou Shem? De Livie tous les fillefils. Sombre faucons écoutent l’ombre. Nuit. Nuit. Ma taute tête tombe. Je me sens lourde comme ma pierrestone. Conte moi de John ou Shaun. Qui furent Shem et Shaun en vie les fils ou filles de. Là-dessus nuit. Dis-mor, dis-mor, dis-mor, orme. Nuit, Nuit! Contemoiconte soit tronc ou pierre. Tant riviérantes ondes de, courtecourantes ondes de. Nuit.


Occasionally, the sense, and its connotations, has to alter. But this is so that the rhythm of the words, the sentences’ musicality, can still remain. The style, even of this work in progress, is still there.


Yes, the history of the novel is a history of an elaborate but international art form.


—from Adam Thirwell, The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes

pro-american aristocratic ford madox ford & mystical merrie england’s john cowper powys—fast friends

"Ford seems to have felt that the Wall Street crash of 1929 was symptomatic of what was wrong with the contemporary world, and whilst he clearly maintained his long held belief that the future of English literature was to be found in the United States of America, he became increasingly pessimistic about the nature of American business methods, especially the impact these were having on the conditions of the publication of imaginative literature."

Paris, 1923: Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and John Quinn (likely the monied one)

‘A Royal Personage In Disguise’: A Meeting Between Ford and John Cowper



Stephen Rogers


I felt a curious and quite especial sympathy for him [Ford Madox Ford], the kind of sympathy that a penetrating woman would feel for a royal personage in disguise, out of whose battered skull all the ‘nonsense’ has been knocked by the buffets of fate.

—John Cowper Powys (1934)1


Ford’s contacts with the most eminent of the generation before his own (James, Hardy, Conrad) have been well-documented, as have his associations with writers of younger generations: Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Allen Tate, Basil Bunting, Robert Lowell and others. Yet among the inevitable and often intriguing gaps in the lists of names occurring in Ford’s memoirs and letters are several of his exact contemporaries. One such writer of Ford’s generation was John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), who enjoyed a career as a lecturer in America before embarking on the writing of the novels for which he is now chiefly known.2


Powys may have been close in age to Ford, but the two seem to have had little in common. Powys, although born in Derbyshire, was brought up in Somerset, where his father was vicar of Montacute.3 He attended school at Sherborne, and went on from there to Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before embarking upon his thirty years in the United States. Nonetheless, there is a record of a meeting between the two men that is worth recovering for the insight of Powys’s observation, because it gives usan all too rare glimpse of Ford at an unguarded moment and because the story is told with sympathy. It is also worth quoting for the emblematic picture it offers of Ford in New York during the late 1920s. The meeting must have taken place between 1928 and 1930, when Powys moved from Patchin Place to Hillsdale in New York State, and his account of it emphasizes Ford’s disregard or carelessness for the conventions of the social world of his time, as well as the capacity to inspire a certain openness among his contemporaries:


As a matter of fact, the only person I’ve ever met, except perhaps Cousin Ralph and Cousin Warwick, whose aristocratic manner seemed to me careless and charming instead of a morbid revenge on life, was Ford Madox Ford. I had tea with him once in Patchin Place, and although he is no reader of mine and I am no reader of his, I confess I greatly ‘cottoned’ to his noble, stately, and altogether gallant personality. I felt a curious and quite especial sympathy for him, the kind of sympathy that a penetrating woman would feel for a royal personage in disguise, out of whose battered skull all the ‘nonsense’ has been knocked by the buffets of fate; and I could see that Ford Madox Ford had a real ‘penchant’ for America, just as I have had myself. (Autobiography 547)


Powys here contrasts Ford, as an ‘aristocratic’ type, with the general attitude of Europeans to Americans at that time, which he characterizes as ‘neurotic and testy’ (Autobiography 546). According to Powys, it would seem that Ford was different. Was it that Ford was more of the world? Hardly, one imagines. Indeed, it is the carelessness of his aristocratic manner that Powys stresses. Responding positively to Ford’s personality, he emphasizes that Ford harbours no resentment against the brashness with which the emerging America of the 1920s asserts itself .


Powys was later reminded of this meeting with Ford, by his reading of Douglas Goldring’s memoir, South Lodge: Reminiscences of Violet Hunt, Ford Madox Ford and the English Review Circle (1943). The memory was especially stimulated by the mention that Goldring made of Stephen Reynolds (1881-1919), who had been a friend of Ford’s in the days of The English Review. Reynolds had also been the object of a passion by Powys’s sister, Philippa (1886-1963), who was often known as ‘Katie’, and was the author of a novel and a volume of poems.4 Reynolds had given up a promising scientific career to live with the family of a Sidmouth fisherman, an experience that resulted in his best known book, A Poor Man’s House (1908).5 Memories of these events had prompted John Cowper Powys to write to his sister in 1944 that:


Phyllis & I met Ford Madox Ford in Patchin Place. We liked him & felt great respect and great honour for him. After he’d come to rather a formal tea party there I met him by chance (almost directly after) squatting on one of those high turning stools at an ice-cream counter a very shabby one too & a little one on 6th Ave somewhere but not the great ‘Bigelows’ wh. you will doubtless recall, and there was he – with a very honest & extremely fashionable not very pretty not very young girl in fact honest nice & homely enjoying himself far more than at the rather formal literary tea-party where he had to show off with tales about Henry James.


It made me feel such a rush of sympathy for him – that the second the party was over & he had made his getaway with a good literary quip he should bolt into a tiny drug-store and treat his girl who had not been at the party to an ice-cream or one of those ‘Sundays’ they eat out of Straws! and share it with great joy – which I could not see dear old Master Henry James doing or Conrad either!6


It is undoubtedly difficult to see Henry James, or Conrad, perching on a high swivel stool at an ice-cream counter! Indeed, James’s complicated and self-consciously refined response to modern New York was explored in ‘The Jolly Corner’, a story that Ford published in The English Review in December 1908.7 What is clear from what Powys records is that Ford was a participant in the recognizable modernity of New York, and whatever his discomfort in that environment might have been, he seems to have reacted not with pomposity but rather with a realistic sense of the limits of the individual to both see and understand.


Powys’s enthusiasm for Dickens, Wordsworth, Milton, Rabelais, Dostoievsky, Whitman, Cervantes, Melville and Poe, marks out a very different temperament from Ford’s. The example of Walt Whitman is perhaps particularly instructive. Whitman was undoubtedly one of the most cherished of Powys’s literary influences, and it is telling that he should write to Philippa, ‘I think you will like my Rabelais Book Best of all my Books for it is far the most of all under the influence of Walt Whitman’.8 Ford, on the other hand, was critical of Whitman, whilst admitting that he was a great poet, stating that he nonetheless assumed ‘prophetic mantles and beards’, and chose to use ‘round-mouthed rhetoric’ for his poetry (ML 776). Whitman may have loomed rather larger in Ford’s youth. William Michael Rossetti had been the first to introduce Whitman to England, when he edited a selection of the poet’s work in 1868, and Whitman remained a favourite among the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle, including Swinburne. More significantly, perhaps, is Ford’s comparison of Hardy and Whitman:


Beside him, Whitman was a hysteric. He was not wise. The essential townsman can never be wise because he cannot see life for the buildings. Whitman saw factories rise and was excited over the future of the race. Hardy saw factories smudge his rural scene, and was merely depressed. He knew that the human heart remained the essential stamping ground of the poet. (ML 777)


Powys had met Thomas Hardy, was influenced by him and regarded him as one of the great writers.9 The point here is one of relative emphasis. Indeed, Powys would not have made the particular distinction that Ford made, because, steeped in a pantheistic conception of the world, owing much to the ancient landscapes of Sussex, Dorset and Somerset, he saw Whitman in essentially the same tradition. Powys was, moreover, as he stated in his Autobiography, ‘for all my Derbyshire rusticity and Welsh “elementalism”, as neurotic as D. H. Lawrence’ (Autobiography 546). Powys’s ‘major phase’ as a writer coincided with the end of what is generally considered to be Ford’s most significant period as a novelist. Retired from the extension lecture circuit, he began writing the first of the novels for which he is now chiefly remembered, Wolf Solent (1929). It is tempting to speculate upon the changing cultural circumstances that might have been responsible for this shift in fortunes and aesthetic ideals. It does seem that the sense of crisis occasioned a desire in the public consciousness for prophetic and didactic literature. Powys’s analysis of the qualities that he found in the works of Dorothy Richardson, perhaps were relevant in this context. He noticed her ability to ‘retain her strong, fresh, exuberant, childlike zest for the old simple great things in philosophy and literature’.10 Such a comment probably reveals as much about Powys’s state of mind as about that of the author whom he is discussing and suggests the direction he was to take in his own novels.


Ford seems to have felt that the Wall Street crash of 1929 was symptomatic of what was wrong with the contemporary world, and whilst he clearly maintained his long held belief that the future of English literature was to be found in the United States of America, he became increasingly pessimistic about the nature of American business methods, especially the impact these were having on the conditions of the publication of imaginative literature.11 Indeed, in A History of Our Own Times, Ford specifically places the arts in opposition to the prevailing materialism: ‘The Arts have bulked always so little in the public lives of Anglo-Saxondom of either branch [the United States and England] that to mention them in any History of either of the two great materialistic peoples is almost certainly to incur a suspicion, if not a charge, of frivolity’.12 So much of Ford’s career was, in spite of this awareness, an attempt to place the arts at the centre of consciousness in a public social context, and to educate the public about the importance of aesthetics. He had criticized, in The Critical Attitude (1911), the old nineteenth century Goethe-inspired novel for its concern with the solitary hero:


For, when every novel had its hero, and every picture its heroic figures, then every man was led to believe himself supported by Providence, the centre of the particular affair with which he was concerned. Such a doctrine may lead to boldness in the presence of dangers; it may confer good consciences and directness to the glance; but it takes away fortitude in the time of protracted trial.13


It was just such a fortitude that Ford felt was lacking in the early 1930s. It is significant that his artistic response to this worldwide depression and consequent failure of courage should be a novel like The Rash Act (1933), which Anthony Burgess noted, in a provocative review in 1982, was ‘so patently what fictional modernism is, or was, about’.14 Burgess’s definition of fictional modernism focuses on the problems entailed by selecting a point of view and the advantages offered by the incorporation of multiple perspectives. As a novelist, John Cowper Powys was not the type of conscious craftsman that Ford famously admired, concerned with the precise techniques and fictional devices necessary for a truthful rendering of his world; rather he was a writer who recreated it in terms of his own instinctive and intelligent imagination. It is Ford’s handling of subjective impressions and recollections that marks him out as an artist of the highest order. Between the wars, though, the upheavals and derangement of the European order resulted in a shift towards the grand sweep of a didactic vision, and no doubt this contributed to the sense in which Ford’s record of ‘how the human mind perceives the world in all its unsyntactical variety’ could be described by Burgess as ‘modernism, which died in 1939, along with Ford Madox Ford’.15


Now that modernist studies are increasingly moving away from the concern with single authors to embrace the collective collaborations of different groups within an emerging modern culture, as well as disrupting the habitual foregrounding of the acknowledged major figures,16 it is surely time to revisit Ford’s relations with some of the allegedly marginal figures of the period. Ford emphasized, in his writings and in his life, the importance of collaboration and contact, as editor and instigator, opening and maintaining lines of communication with an extraordinary number of literary figures, many of them inevitably ‘minor’. It is probable that not only they but Ford too will appear freshly enriched by a renewed examination of such associations.




1 John Cowper Powys, Autobiography [1934], London: Macdonald, 1967 – henceforth Autobiography; p. 547.


2 Powys is best remembered for his novels, Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Weymouth Sands (1934), Maiden Castle (1936), and Owen Glendower (1940).


3 His brother, Llewellyn Powys (1884-1939), who married Alyse Gregory (1884-1967), the editor of The Dial (1924-1925), had submitted some stories to the transatlantic review (1924), which Ford had rejected. See Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, vol. 2, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 160.


4 Philippa Powys published the novel, The Blackthorn Winter (1930), and the collection of poems, Driftwood (1930). She lived most her life in the village Chaldon Herring in Dorset, close to a circle of writers that included another brother T. F. Powys (1875-1955), Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine

Ackland. See Judith Stinton, Chaldon Herring: Writers in a Dorset Landscape, 2nd edition, Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2004.


5 Ford, in the English Review, noted that, ‘owing apparently to some freak of his character, or to some social malaise, Mr. Reynolds seems to have abandoned suddenly his contacts with what he calls contemptuously ‘The cultured classes’, and to have taken up his quarters in the cottage of a Devonshire fisherman.… Such a career… should at least suffice to prove that Mr. Reynolds’ nature is no ordinary one’. The English Review, 1:1 (December 1908), 163. 

6 Letter dated Feb 4, 1944. John Cowper Powys,The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Philippa Powys: Powys to Sea-Eagle, ed. by Anthony Head, London: Cecil Woolf, 1996, p. 168.


7 Spencer Brydon, James’s double, refers to ‘the modern, the monstrous, the famous things, those he had more particularly, like thousands of ingenuous inquirers every year, come over to see, were exactly his sources of dismay’. Henry James, ‘The Jolly Corner’, English Review, 1:1 (December 1908), 6.


8 Letter dated April 8, 1944: The Letters of John Cowper Powys to Philippa Powys, p. 169.


9 See John Cowper Powys, The Pleasures of Literature, London: Cassell, 1938, which lists, among its chapters, pieces on Homer’s Odyssey, The Bible, Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Dickens, Matthew Arnold, Melville and Poe, Whitman, Dostoievsky, Hardy, Nietzsche, and Proust.


10 John Cowper Powys, ‘An Essay on Dorothy Richardson’, in The Adelphi, 2:3, New Series (June 1931), 236.


11 See, for instance, his novel, When the Wicked Man (1931).

12 Ford, A History of Our Own Times, Manchester: Carcanet, 1989, p. 48. ‘A ROYAL PERSONAGE IN DISGUISE’ 127


13 Ford, The Critical Attitude, London: Duckworth, 1911, pp. 26-7.


14 Anthony Burgess, ‘Last Embers of Modernism’, The Observer, 11 April, 1982.


15 Ibid.


16 See, for instance, Robert Scholes, Paradoxy of Modernism, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.



—from Paul Skinner (ed.), Ford Madox Ford’s Literary Contacts, International Ford Madox Ford Studies, Volume 6, 1997, pp 121- 128.