the opening pages of david markson’s the last novel

There are six floors in Novelist’s apartment building. Then again, the paved inner airshaft courtyard is at basement level, making seven.

And then the roof.

From high up on the Sistine ceiling scaffolding, Michelangelo was known to now and then drop things — brooms, even fairly long boards.

Most frequently, it appeared, when the pope happened to be lurking below for a glimpse at his latest efforts.

When I die, I open a bordello. You know what is a bordello, no? But against every one of you — all — I lock shut the door.

Said Arturo Toscanini, to a recalcitrant orchestra.

As a talisman for the future while still young and penniless, Balzac once sketched a large blank representation of a picture frame on one of his garret walls — and designated it Painting by Raphael.

Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke.

A Frenchman in Delft in 1663, looking to purchase inexpensive art, was shown a Vermeer — on display in a pastry shop.

Almost certainly being held there as security for a debt of Vermeer’s to the baker.

Keats stayed up all night on the occasion when he actually did first look into Chapman’s Homer — and then composed his sonnet so swiftly that he was able to messenger it to a friend to read before breakfast.

Van Gogh, in a letter from Arles, some few weeks after having presented a piece of his ear to a woman in a brothel:

I went yesterday to see the girl I had gone to when I went astray in my wits. They told me that in this country things like that are not out of the ordinary.

Shelley, in a letter from Venice, on Byron’s local innamorati:

Continue reading

a new translation of vivant denon’s point de lendemain


Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow (Point de Lendemain), now translated by Lydia Davis!


The famous opening sentences, which Milan Kundera admired for "the playful elegance of repetition in the first paragraph of one of the loveliest pieces of French prose:"


J’aimais éperdument la comtesse de ——; j’avais vingt ans, et j’étais ingénu; elle me trompa, je me fâchai, elle me quitta. J’étais ingénu, je la regrettai; j’avais vingt ans, elle me pardonna; et comme j’avais vingt ans, que j’étais ingénu, toujours trompé, mais plus quitté, je me croyais l’amant le mieux aimé, partant le plus heureux des hommes.


Davis’ translation:


I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de —— ; I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old, she forgave me, and, because I was twenty years old, because I was naive—still deceived, but no longer abandoned—I thought myself to be the best-loved lover, and therefore the happiest of men.



Davis’ translation reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, November 13, 2009:


Peter Brooks opens his fascinating introduction to Lydia Davis’s translation of Vivant Denon’s novella by asserting that "No Tomorrow may be the most stylish erotic tale ever written. Erotic, while not at all pornographic". Set over the course of one night and the following morning, it is the lush account of the seduction of the twenty-year-old narrator by the beautiful Mme de T ——, who knows that he is in love with her friend the Comtesse de——. A game of love and sex played out with the consent, it emerges, of Mme de T——’s lover, closes with her parting words "Don’t give the Countess cause to quarrel with me".


Point de Lendemain was first published anonymously in 1777, five years before Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses, in which such stratagems were given a more brutal twist. Brooks refers to the "male fantasy" aspects of Denon’s libertine work, and draws profitably on Marcel Mauss’ s theory of the gift — "the eighteenth century’ s erotic version of the ‘potlatch"’. He reveals that Balzac so admired Denon’s conte that he recycled it in his Physiologie du mariage (1829). Milan Kundera, it could be added, also paid homage, in his novella La Lenteur (1993).


Vivant Denon (de Non, before the Revolution) was born in 1747 into minor French nobility. He became a favourite of Louis XV and spent seven years with the French embassy in Naples where he developed an interest in antiquities. A skilled engraver, he accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign and published his Travels through Lower and Upper Egypt in 1802. Napoleon later appointed him first Director of the Louvre. He died in 1825. Point de Lendemain is his only work of fiction.


Lydia Davis’s translation is equal to the challenges of Denon’s formal , elaborate prose, and there is little to choose between her version and the excellent one produced by David Coward in 1995. Where Denon writes "Le château ainsi que les jardins, appuyés contre une montagne, descendaient en terrasse jusque sur les rives de la Seine", Davis gives us: "The château as well as the gardens, resting against a mountainside, descended in terraces to the banks of the Seine", while Coward goes for the topographically more realistic " … built on the side of a hill, sloped down in terraces to the Seine". Elsewhere, the narrator tells us "J’étais d’ailleurs trop ému pour me rendre compte de ce que j’éprouvais"; Davis renders it "Besides, I was too moved to realize what I was experiencing", while Coward gives us "But truth to tell l was too distraught to know what I felt". Both appear to fit. This elegant edition reproduces Denon’s original text. which remains, by common consent, a masterpiece.

the slow destabilization of dread: the opening pages of brian evenson’s last days

Imagine Kafka handling company paperwork not in an insurance office but a charnel house while channelling Jim Thompson at his typewriter. An odd scenario, to be sure, but you can also be sure that Franz would hammer out memoranda in the mode of Brian Evenson’s Last Days: brutal, hallucinatory, pitiless —
and funny. If you don’t enjoy this next bit, then there is something terribly wrong with you, maybe even — should we say it? deformed . . .


The Brotherhood Of Mutilation

And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast if from thee . . .

And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee . . .

Matthew 5:29-30


It was only later that he realized the reason they had called him, but by then it was too late for the information to do him any good. At the time, all the two men had told him on the telephone was that they’d seen his picture in the paper, read about his infiltration and so-called heroism and how, even when faced with the man with the cleaver—or the “gentleman with the cleaver” as they chose to call him—he hadn’t flinched, hadn’t given a thing away. Was it true, they wanted to know, that he hadn’t flinched? That he had simply watched the man raise the cleaver and bring it down, his hand suddenly becoming a separate, moribund creature?

He didn’t bother to answer. He only sat holding the telephone receiver against his face with his remaining hand and looking at the stump that marked the end of the other arm. The shiny, slightly puckered termination of flesh, flaked and angry at its extreme.

“Who is this?” he finally asked.

The men on the other end of the telephone laughed. “This is opportunity knocking,” one of them said, the one with the deeper voice. “Do you want to be trapped behind a desk the rest of your life, Mr. Kline?”

The other voice, the one with a lisp, kept asking questions. Was it true, it wanted to know, that after he had removed his belt with his remaining hand and tightened it as a tourniquet around the stump, he then stood up, turned on one of the burners on the stovetop, and cauterized the wound himself?

“Maybe,” Kline said.

“Maybe to what?” asked Low Voice.

“I have it on authority that you did,” said Lisp. “Was it electric or gas? I would think electric would be better. But then again it would take awhile for electric to warm up.”

“It was a hotplate,” said Kline.

“A hotplate?” said Low Voice. “Good Lord, a hotplate?”

“So, electric?” asked Lisp.

“I didn’t have anything else,” said Kline. “There was only a hotplate.”

“And then, once cauterized, you turned around and shot him through the eye,” said Lisp. “Left-handed no less.”

“Maybe,” said Kline. “But that wasn’t in the papers. Who told you that?”

“I have it on authority,” said Lisp. “That’s all.”

“Look,” said Kline. “What’s this all about?”

“Opportunity, Mr. Kline,” said Low Voice. “I told you already.”

“There’s a plane ticket waiting under your name at the airport.”

“Why?” asked Kline.

“Why?” asked Lisp. “Because we admire you, Mr. Kline.”

“And we’d like your help.”

“What sort of help?”

“We must have you, Mr. Kline. Nobody else will do,” said Low Voice.

“No?” said Kline. “Why should I trust you? And who are you exactly?”

Lisp laughed.

“Mr. Kline,” Lisp said, “surely by now you realize that you can’t trust anyone. But why not take a chance?”

There was no reason to go. It was not a question, as Low Voice had suggested, of either a desk job or their offer, whatever their offer happened to be. The pension he had received was enough to live on. Plus, right after he had lost his hand and cauterized the wound himself and then shot the so-called gentleman with the cleaver through the eye, he had taken the liberty, in recompense for the loss of his hand, of helping himself to a briefcase containing several hundred thousand dollars.
This he saw as a profoundly moral act in a kind of moral, biblical, old testament sense: an eye for a hand, and a bag of money thrown in. The fact that the eye had had a brain and a skull behind it was incidental.

So, in short, there was no reason to accept the invitation. Better to stay put, have a lifelike prosthetic made to fit over the stump or, at the very least, wear and learn how to use the hooks that had been given him. Perfect a game of one-handed golf. Purchase a drawerful of prosthetics for all occasions. Buy some cigars. All of life was open to him, he told himself. Opportunity could knock all it liked.

And besides, he was having trouble getting out of bed. Not that he was depressed, but it was hard to get out of bed especially when he remembered that the first thing he’d be doing was trying to brush his teeth left-handed. So, instead, he spent more and more time rubbing the end of his stump, or simply staring at it. It seemed, the termination of it, at once a part of him and not at all part of him, fascinating. Sometimes he still reached for things with his missing hand. Most days he couldn’t even put on the hooks. And if he couldn’t bring himself to strap on the hooks, how could he be expected to leave the house? And if he didn’t leave the house, how could he be expected to go to the airport, let alone pick up the ticket, let alone board a plane?

Things will get better
, he told his stump. Someday we’ll leave the house. Things are bound to improve.

A week after the first call, they called back.

“You missed it,” said Lisp. “You missed the flight.”

“Is it because of fear?” asked Low Voice. “Are you afraid of flying?”

“How can you say that to him?” Lisp asked Low Voice. “A man who cauterizes his own stump isn’t going to let a little something like that get to him, is he?”

“So he missed the flight,” said Low Voice. “He didn’t allow for enough time. Got held up at security, maybe.”

“Yes,” said Lisp. “That’s sure to be it.”

They both fell silent. Kline kept the receiver pressed against his ear.

“Well?” asked Lisp.

“Well what?” asked Kline.

“What happened?” asked Lisp.

“I didn’t go.”

“He didn’t go,” said Low Voice.

“We know that,” said Lisp. “We know you didn’t go, otherwise you’d be here. If you’d gone we wouldn’t be calling you there.”

“No,” said Kline.

The phone was silent again. Kline listened to it, staring at the veiled window.

“So?” said Low Voice.

“So what?”

“Goddammit,” said Lisp. “Do we have to go through this again?”

“Look,” said Kline. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“We already told you who we are,” said Lisp.

“We’re opportunity,” said Low Voice. “And we’re knocking.”

“I’m going to hang up,” said Kline.

“He’s hanging up,” said Low Voice, his voice sounded worn out and exhausted.

“Wait!” said Lisp. “No!”

“Nothing personal,” said Kline. “I’m just not your man.”

Continue reading

lines from the pulps: “her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her”

The opening chapter of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:


They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

That was when I hit this Twin Oaks Tavern. It was nothing but a roadside sandwich joint, like a million others in California. There was a lunchroom part, and over that a house part, where they lived, and off to one side a filling station, and out back a half dozen shacks that they called an auto court. I blew in there in a hurry and began looking down the road. When the Greek showed, I asked if a guy had been by in a Cadillac. He was to pick me up here, I said, and we were to have lunch. Not today, said the Greek. He layed a place at one of the tables and asked me what I was going to have. I said orange juice, corn flakes, fried eggs and bacon, enchilada, flapjacks, and coffee. Pretty soon he came out with the orange juice and the corn flakes.

"Hold on, now. One thing I got to tell you. If this guy don’t show up, you’ll have to trust me for it. This was to be on him, and I’m kind of short, myself."

"Hokay, fill’m up."

I saw he was on, and quit talking about the guy in the Cadillac. Pretty soon I saw he wanted something.

"What you do, what kind of work, hey?"

"Oh, one thing and another, one thing and another. Why?"

"How old you?"


"Young fellow, hey? I could use young fellow right now. In my business."

"Nice place you got here."

"Air. Is a nice. No fog, like in a Los Angeles. No fog at all. Nice, a clear, all a time nice a clear."

"Must be swell at night. I can smell it now."

"Sleep fine. You understand automobile? Fix’m up?"

"Sure. I’m a born mechanic."

He gave me some more about the air, and how healthy he’s been since he bought this place, and how he can’t figure it out, why his help won’t stay with him. I can figure it out, but I stay with the grub.

"Hey? You think you like it here?"

By that time I had put down the rest of the coffee, and lit the cigar he gave me. "I tell you how it is. I got a couple of other propositions, that’s my trouble. But I’ll think about it. I sure will do that all right."

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

"Meet my wife."

She didn’t look at me. I nodded at the Greek, gave my cigar a kind of wave, and that was all. She went out with the dishes, and so far as he and I were concerned, she hadn’t even been there. I left, then, but in five minutes I was back, to leave a message for the guy in the Cadillac. It took me a half hour to get sold on the job, but at the end of it I was in the filling station, fixing flats.

"What’s your name, hey?"

"Frank Chambers."

"Nick Papadakis, mine."

We shook hands, and he went. In a minute I heard him singing. He had a swell voice. From the filling station I could just get a good view of the kitchen.

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


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

Every night is Christmas Eve on old East Main,

Sailors and their sweethearts all agree.

Neon signs of red and green

Shine upon the friendly scene,

Welcoming you in from off the sea.

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

Nickel beers that sparkle like champagne,

Barmaids who all love to screw,

All of them reminding you

It’s Christmas Eve on old East Main.

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

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

V. (1963)

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

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

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

The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)

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

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

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

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

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

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

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

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

Vineland (1990)

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

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

Mason & Dixon (1997)

Now single up all lines!"

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

"Windy City, here we come!"

"Hurrah! Up we go!"

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

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

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

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

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

Against The Day (2006)

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

"That you, Shasta?"

"Thinks he’s hallucinating."

"Just the new package I guess."

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

"Need your help, Doc."

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

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

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

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

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

"There’s this guy," she was saying.

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

"Okay, Doc. He’s married."

"Some . . . money situation."

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

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

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

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

Inherent Vice (2009)

the opening chapter of claude lévi-strauss’ tristes tropiques (the great french non-fiction novel?)


1    Departures

Travel and travellers are two things I loathe—and yet, here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions. But at least I’ve taken a long while to make up my mind to it: fifteen years have passed since I left Brazil for the last time and often, during those years, I’ve planned to write this book, but I’ve always been held back by a sort of shame and disgust. So much would have to be said that has no possible interest: insipid details, incidents of no significance. Anthropology is a profession in which adventure plays no part; merely one of its bondages, it represents no more than a dead weight of weeks or months wasted en route; hours spent in idleness when one’s informant has given one the slip; hunger, exhaustion, illness as like as not; and those thousand and one routine duties which eat up most of our days to no purpose and reduce our ‘perilous existence’ in the virgin forest to a simulacrum of military service . . . That the object of our studies should be attainable only by continual struggle and vain expenditures does not mean that we should set any store by what we should rather consider as the negative aspect of our profession. The truths that we travel so far to seek are of value only when we have scraped them clean of all this fungus. It may be that we shall have spent six months of travel, privation, and sickening physical weariness merely in order to record in a few days, it may be, or even a few hours an unpublished myth, a new marriage-rule, or a complete list of names of clans. But that does not justify my taking up my pen in order to rake over memory s trash-cans: ‘At 5.30 a.m. we dropped anchor off Recife while the seagulls skirled around us and a flotilla of small boats put out from the shore with exotic fruits for sale. . . .’

And yet that sort of book enjoys a great and, to me, inexplicable popularity. Amazonia, Africa, and Tibet have invaded all our book stalls. Travel-books, expeditionary records, and photograph-albums abound; and as they are written or compiled with an eye mainly for effect the reader has no means of estimating their value. His critical sense once lulled to sleep, he asks only to be given ‘more of the same’ and ends by devouring it in unlimited quantity. Exploration has become a profession; not, as one might suppose, that it’s a matter of unearthing new facts in the course of several years’ laborious study — not at all! Mere mileage is the thing; and anyone who has been far enough, and collected the right number of pictures (still or moving, but for preference in colour), will be able to lecture to packed houses for several days running. Platitudes take shape as revelations once the audience is assured that the speaker has sanctified them by travelling to the other side of the globe.

For what do these books, these lectures, amount to? A luggage-list, a story or two about the misdemeanours of the ship’s dog, and a few scraps of information — scraps that have done a century’s service in every handbook to the region. Only the speaker’s impudence and the ignorance and naivety of his hearers could cause them to pass as an ‘eye-witness account’ or even, for all I know, as ‘an original discovery.’ Doubtless there are exceptions; every age has its authentic travellers, and among those who today enjoy the public s favours I could point to one or two who deserve the name. My aim, however, is neither to expose the one nor to authenticate the other, but rather to understand a moral and social phenomenon which is peculiar to France and is, even there, of recent origin.

Not many people travelled professionally in the 1930s, and those who returned to tell their tales could count not on five or six full \houses at the Salle Pleyel, but on a single session in the little, dark, cold, and dilapidated amphitheatre that stood in a pavilion at the far end of the Jardin des Plantes. Once a week the Society of Friends of the Museum organized — and may still organize, for all I know — a lecture on the natural sciences. Lantern lectures, they were; but as the screen was too large for the projector, and the lamp too weak for the size of the hall, the images thrown were intelligible neither to the lecturer, who had his nose immediately beneath them, nor to the audience, who could with difficulty distinguish them from the huge patches of damp that disfigured the walls. A quarter of an hour before the appointed time there was always doubt as to whether anyone would come to the lecture, apart from the handful of habitués who could be picked out here and there in the gloom. Just when the lecturer was losing all hope, the body of the hall would half fill with children, each accompanied by mother or nanny, some delighted by the prospect of a free change of scene, others merely craving relief from die dust and noise of the gardens outside. This mixture of moth-eaten phantoms and impatient youngsters was our reward for long months of struggle and hardship; to them we unloaded our treasured recollections. A session of this sort was enough to sever us forever from such memories; as we talked on in the half-light we felt them dropping away from us, one by one, like pebbles down a well.

If this, our return, had its funereal side, as much could have been said of our departure, which was signalized by a banquet held by the Franco- American Committee in a disused private house in what is now the Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. A caterer, hired for the occasion, had arrived two hours earlier and set up his apparatus of hot-plates and china and table-silver: too late, however, for a hasty ‘airing’ to blow away the stench of desolation.


No less unfamiliar to us than the solemnity of our surroundings was the aroma of fusty tedium with which they were permeated. There had been just time, quite clearly, to sweep clean the centre of the enormous saloon in which we were to dine, and it was at the table — dwarfed, like ourselves, by its environment — that we made one another’s acquaintance for the first time. Most of us were young teachers who had only just begun work in provincial lycées; there had stretched before us a damp winter, with lodgings in a second-rate hotel in a market-town and an all-pervading smell of grog, cellars, and stale wine. And now, George Dumas’ slightly perverse whimsies were to whisk us away from all that and set us down in luxury-liners headed for the tropical seas: an experience which was to bear only the most distant resemblance to the stock notions of travel which were already forming within us.


I had been one of Georges Dumas’ students at the time of the Traité de Psychologie. Once a week — Thursday or Sunday morning, I can’t remember which — the philosophy students would go and hear him in one of the lecture-halls at the Hôpital Sainte-Anne. The walls feeing the windows were covered with hilarious paintings by madmen; these set, from the very beginning, a peculiarly exotic note. Dumas was robustly built, with a body like a billhook and a great battered head that looked like a huge root which had been whitened and pared down by a sojourn on the sea-bed. He had a waxy complexion that unified his whole face with the white hair that he wore very short and en brosse and the little beard, also white, that grew in all directions at once. A curious fragment of vegetable matter, one would have said, with its rootlets still adhering to it, had not the coal-black gaze affirmed that it was beyond doubt a human being. The antiphony of black and white recurred in the contrast between the white shirt, with its starched and downturned collar, and the large-brimmed black hat, the black tie with its flowing knot, and the unvarying black suit.


We never learnt much from his lectures. He never ‘got them up’ in advance, because he knew that he never failed to cast a spell over his hearers. His lips, though deformed by a continual rictus, were marvellously expressive; but it was above all the hoarse and melodious voice that did the trick. It was a veritable siren s voice, with strange inflections that took us back not only to his native Languedoc but to certain ancient modes of speech, musical variants that went beyond all regional considerations and partook of the quintessential music of spoken French. In voice, as in looks, Dumas evoked a particular style, at once rustic and incisive: the style of the French humanists of the sixteenth century — the doctors and philosophers of whom he seemed to be the mental and bodily perpetuation.


A second hour, and sometimes a third, was devoted to the presentation of individual ‘cases.’ Often they were veterans who knew exactly what was wanted of them, and we would then witness astonishing displays of virtuosity in which they and the lecturer would vie with one another in cunning and guile. Some would produce their symptoms at exactly the right moment; others would offer just enough resistance to call for a display of bravura from the lecturer. The audience, though not taken in by these demonstrations, found them entirely fascinating. Those who won the maestro’s particular favour were allowed a private interview with one or other of the patients. And never, in all my experience of primitive Indian tribes, was I as intimidated as I was by the morning I spent with an old woman who told me, from within her enveloping shawls, that she likened herself to a rotten herring buried deep in a block of ice: intact to all appearances, that is to say, but menaced with disintegration should the protective cover turn to water.


Dumas was not above mystification; and the general syntheses of which he was the sponsor had, for all their ample design, a substructure of critical positivism which I found rather disappointing. And yet, as was to be proved later, he was a man of great nobility. Just after the armistice of 1940, and not long before his death, when he was almost blind and in retirement in his native village of Ledignan, he made a point of writing me a discreet and considerate letter, with no other object than to put himself firmly on the side of those who had been the first to suffer from the turn of events.


I have always regretted not knowing him in his first youth, when the scientific perspectives opened up by nineteenth-century psychology had sent him off, wild with excitement and bronzed as a conquistador, to make the spiritual conquest of the New World. Between Dumas and Brazilian society it was to be a case of love at first sight: a mysterious phenomenon, in which two fragments of a four-hundred-year-old Europe met and recognized one another and were all but joined together again. Certain essential elements had remained intact in both cases: in a southern Protestant family, on the one hand, and on the other in a fastidious, slightly decadent bourgeois society that was turning over at half speed in the tropics. George Dumas’ mistake was that he never grasped the authentically archaeological character of this conjunction. The Brazil that he wooed and won was only one of the possible Brazils, although it later seemed, when it came momentarily to power, to be the real one. In Dumas’ Brazil the ground landlords were steadily moving their capital into industrial holdings financed from abroad; seeking for an ideological cover of some sort, they settled for a right-thinking parliamentarianism. Our students, meanwhile, were the offspring of recent immigrants or squireens who lived by the land and had been ruined by fluctuations in world prices; to them, Dumas’ friends were the grao fino — a bitter phrase that meant ‘the smart set’. Oddly enough, the foundation of the University of São Paulo, which was Georges Dumas’ greatest achievement, made it possible for people of modest station to begin to climb up the ladder by obtaining the diplomas which allowed them access to the civil service. Our academic mission did, in fact, help to form a new elite. But neither Dumas nor, later, the Quai d Orsay would realize that this 61ite was a very valuable creation. As a consequence it drew steadily clear of our influence. It aimed, of course, to do away with the feudal structure which we had introduced into Brazil; but we had, after all, introduced it partly as a surety for good behaviour, and partly as a way of passing the time.


But, on that evening of the Franco-American dinner, neither my colleagues nor I — and that goes, of course, for our wives, who were to accompany us — had any idea of the role which we were to play, however involuntarily, in the evolution of Brazilian society. We were too busy taking stock of one another and avoiding, in so far as we could, the fatality of social error. Georges Dumas had just warned us that we must be prepared to lead the same life as our new masters: the life, that is to say, of Automobile Club, casino, and race-course. This seemed quite extraordinary to young teachers who had been earning twenty-six thousand francs a year; more recently — so few were those who applied to go abroad — our salaries had been tripled.


‘Above all’, Dumas had said, ‘you must be well dressed.’ And as he wanted to reassure us he added, with rather touching candour, that it could be done at no great expense, not far from the Halles, at an establishment called À La Croix de Jeannette, where they had fitted him out very acceptably when he had been a young medical student in Paris.


—from Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

the opening of donald barthelme’s snow white

Bookseller Photo 


SHE is a tall dark beauty containing a great many beauty spots: one above the breast, one above the belly, one above the knee, one above the ankle, one above the buttock, one on the back of the neck. All of these are on the left side, more or less in a row, as you go up and down:

















The hair is black as ebony, the skin white as snow.




BILL is tired of Snow White now. But he cannot tell her. No, that would not be the way. Bill can’t bear to be touched. That is new too. To have anyone touch him is unbearable. Not just Snow White but also Kevin, Edward, Hubert, Henry, Clem or Dan. That is a peculiar aspect of Bill, the leader. We speculate that he doesn’t want to be involved in human situations any more. A withdrawal. Withdrawal is one of the four modes of dealing with anxiety. We speculate that his reluctance to be touched springs from that. Dan does not go along with the anxiety theory. Dan does not believe in anxiety. Dan speculates that Bill’s reluctance to be touched is a physical manifestation of a metaphysical condition that is not anxiety. But he is the only one who speculates that. The rest of us support anxiety. Bill has let us know in subtle ways that he doesn’t want to be touched. If he falls down, you are not to pick him up. If someone holds out a hand in greeting, Bill smiles. If it is time to wash the buildings, he will pick up his own bucket. Don’t hand him a bucket, for in that circumstance there is a chance that your hands will touch. Bill is tired of Snow White. She must have noticed that he doesn’t go to the shower room, now. We are sure she has noticed that. But Bill has not told her in so many words that he is tired of her. He has not had the heart to unfold those cruel words, we speculate. Those cruel words remain locked in his lack of heart. Snow White must assume that his absence from the shower room, in these days, is an aspect of his not liking to be touched. We are certain she has assumed that. But to what does she attribute the "not-liking" itself? We don’t know.




"OH I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!" Snow White exclaimed loudly. We regarded each other sitting around the breakfast table with its big cardboard boxes of "Fear," "Chix," and "Rats." Words in the world that were not the words she always heard? What words could those be? "Fish slime," Howard said, but he was a visitor, and rather crude too, and we instantly regretted that we had lent him a sleeping bag, and took it away from him, and took away his bowl too, and the Chix that were in it, and the milk on top of the Chix, and his spoon and napkin and chair, and began pelting him with boxes, to indicate that his welcome had been used up. We soon got rid of him. But the problem remained. What words were those? "Now we have been left sucking the mop again," Kevin said, but Kevin is easily discouraged. "Injunctions!" Bill said, and when he said that we were glad he was still our leader, although some of us had been wondering about him lately. "Murder and create!" Henry said, and that was weak, but we applauded, and Snow White said, "That is one I’ve never heard before ever," and that gave us courage, and we all began to say things, things that were more or less satisfactory, or at least adequate, to serve the purpose, for the time being. The whole thing was papered over, for the time being, and didn’t break out into the open. If it had broken out into the open, then we would really have been left sucking the mop in a big way, that Monday.




THEN we went out to wash the buildings. Clean buildings fill your eyes with sunlight, and your heart with the idea that man is perfectible. Also they are good places to look at girls from, those high, swaying wooden platforms: you get a rare view, gazing at the tops of their red and gold and plum-colored heads. Viewed from above they are like targets, the plum-colored head the center of the target, the wavy navy skirt the bold circumference. The white or black legs flopping out in front are like someone waving his arms over the top of the target and calling, "You missed the center by not allowing sufficiently for the wind!" We are very much tempted to shoot our arrows into them, those targets. You know what that means. But we also pay attention to the buildings, gray and noble in their false architecture and cladding. There are Tiparillos in our faces and heavy jangling belts around our waists, and water in our buckets and squeegees on our poles. And we have our beer bottles up there too, and drink beer for a second breakfast, even though that is against the law, but we are so high up, no one can be sure. It’s too bad Hogo de Bergerac isn’t up here with us, because maybe the experience would be good for him, would make him less loathsome. But he would probably just seize the occasion to perform some new loathsome act. He would probably just throw beer cans down into the street, to make irritating lumps under the feet of those girls who, right this minute, are trying to find the right typewriter, in the correct building.


—the opening of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White