Idiots, paralytics, parasites

Elizabeth Bishop: Pink Dog

Rio de Janeiro

The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.

Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair . . .
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.

Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?

(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?

Didn’t you know? It’s been on all the papers,
to solve the problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.

If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-leggéd dogs?

In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.

In your condition you would not be able
even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible

solution is to wear a fantasia.
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore. But no one will ever see a

dog in mascara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?

They say that Carnival’s degenerating
—radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.

Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!

Paul West: Rat Man of Paris

West, Paul (1993), Rat Man of Paris, Tusk/Overlook
ISBN 0-87951-502-3

Paul West is one of the least well known of major American postmodern novelists. Born in 1930, and still at it, West has written an incredible amount of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, none of which I noticed until Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. And I don’t seem to be alone in that. A quick jstor search for mentions of this novel, which, after all, is one of West’s most well known books, came up almost empty. Whenever he is mentioned, the tone is reverent and adulating, but the dearth of academical studies on West appears to me to be quite symptomatic of the shroud of oblivion that has sunken over Paul West’s vast literary endeavors. And, as so very often, this is completely and totally undeserved. Rat Man of Paris, originally published in 1986, is my first West novel and it’s an extraordinary literary success. To say it’s a well-written novel would be an unfair understatement, it’s a book that thrives on style, without ever being offputtingly obvious about it. At the same time, Rat Man of Paris is a moving and disturbing novel about a survivor of the horrors of the Second World War, and a book that is intelligent enough not to get lost in feigned gestures of witnessing and authenticity. West writes extremely well about the vagaries of an unbalanced mind trying to come to terms with a horrendous past and a confusing present. In this endeavor, West’s protagonist mirrors the European society he lives in, a society that is also still trying to come to terms with the terrible events of 20th century’s murderous first half. In order to make this work, West presents numerous tropes of talk, speech and memory, seamlessly integrated into a quick-moving (and frequently extraordinarily funny) narrative that contains sex, attempted murder and Nazi regalia. Paul West’s Rat Man of Paris may not be for everyone, but I can’t but recommend this powerful, very well written work of art. It’s a quick enough read which invites numerous re-reads, a book by a writer who, from the evidence of this, deserves to be much more famous than he is now.

The book’s maudlin protagonist is Etienne Poulsifer, roughly middle-aged, who wanders the cobbled streets of Paris shocking tourists for a living. He has a whole act, he’s the titular Rat Man of Paris, it’s his brand and has become his identity. There are vast variations in the way Poulsifer (or Poussif, in short) performs his act, although its basic rules stay the same: it is a highly formalized demonstration. He sidles up to a group of tourists, in a café or elsewhere, steps up closely and then reveals an object, a rat usually. Sometimes, especially as the novel’s events develop, he exchanges the rat for something else, a fox fur, for example. The means of presentation often change, but they always revolve around the moment of shock. Shock, that is, that is then tempered by recognition and humor. I’m dwelling on this a bit because it’s central to the way West structures his book. He uses the Rat Man’s act as a miniature model of themes and structures central to the rest of the book. Poussif doesn’t always actually shock people on the street. When the book opens, he is famous enough that people know that they are supposed to be shocked. He’s going through the motions of shocking people, in a very elaborate manner. And a formally strict one: we are told that Poussif has a very precise idea of how his act should be performed. The steps involved have to be followed exactly, and any changes are deliberated heavily and slowly. When you see the Rat Man of Paris, you know what to expect. There is certainly, even from those who know him well, a kind of pleasant frisson, encountering the sudden display of rat, but on the whole it’s a grotesque of sorts, an entertainment, removed from historical context or more conventional frames of reference. It’s an oddity, unexplained and unexplainable. A rat: c’est tout. Yet that rat, and his presentation of it, is not a job, it’s an integral part of his identity. This is what the book opens with, Poulsifer and his act. And as we read on, his future and his past start to unfold before us.

His future, that’s his relationship with a woman called Sharli, a geography teacher who gets involved with Poussif for somewhat unclear reasons.

Something in him appeals to her. […] Affectopath, she sometimes calls herself; she hungers for affection, hungers to give it, and he has sensed this, as well as the tang and glint of her.

It is not entirely plausible that this would be enough to get involved with a freak like Etienne Poulsifer, but the book doesn’t care whether we think it’s believable. She falls in love with him, and their relationship proves sturdy enough, surviving several of Poussif’s manic episodes, his rapidly disintegrating mental sanity, a gun shot and slowly transforms into something even more durable and complex. We don’t get a lot of characterization as far as Sharli is concerned; from a certain point on, she’s just present, offering comfort and lodgings to the Rat Man. On the other hand, Poulsifer isn’t drawn in great detail either. We know him through his acts, through the things he says and the manner in which he behaves: towards other people, towards his own past, and with his own person. There are many things about this book that show the careful reader what an extraordinary master Paul West is, but one of the most obvious ones is the way he presents his characters through their actions. There are a few thoughts now and then, but they are, at best, thoughts in preparation of deeds, or thoughts functioning as actions. People are not described as much as they are displayed by the things they do. West’s characters are like the Rat Man’s rats, and his art as a novelist is the art

[h]ow to expose the snout, how to make it seem to move, how to tuck it out of sight and have to wrestle with it under one or two layers of clothing.

Exposing the rat does not, as we remember, mean describing the rat, it’s showing it in an elaborate way. In writing novels, arguably. description does not directly correspond to ‘showing’. West’s characterization through action, though, does. This is not new, by all means, nor is it rare. What is, however, is the fact that West manages to combine what in many writers engenders a simpler style, with an almost feverish language. West changes rhythms like trains, from sentences front-loaded with participial constructions, to longer, more supple sentences and truly simple short phrases. Sentences can stiffen or loosen up within a single paragraph, becoming more or less formal, for example. None of this ever seems chaotic, which is also why none of this happens at the expense of readability. West is in control of his style which marries narrative economy with syntactical gluttony.

I should admit at this point that my enthusiasm for West may stem from the fact that this is the first book I read of his, but that does not make his achievement less of an achievement. Thus, while it may be sensible to subtract some hyperbole from what I say, the core point, West’s fundamental excellence, should remain untouched. And while style and literary finesse is the most obvious sign of that excellence, his treatment of the dark subject at the heart of the book is another, arguably more important one. The book’s cover in my edition, a collage by Ellen Weinstein, shows part of a photograph of the infamous Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, ‘the Butcher of Lyon’. The novel’s time-frame falls straight into the period when Barbie was incarcerated after having been extradited to France from Bolivia in 1984; Rat Man of Paris was published just before Barbie’s trial began in 1987. In the novel, it’s Barbie’s face in the Parisian newspapers that awakens Poulsifer’s madness. As it turns out, he is a survivor of a village massacre by German troops in WWII, a catastrophe that has shaped his whole adult life. He seems to have managed, however, to sublimate the fears, anger and the horrific memories; there’s no doubt that the formal exigencies of his rat act helped him to achieve this. If at all, he remembers his past empty in “dribs, drabs”. He has, one might say, struck an uneasy détente with his past, forgetting just enough to stay reasonably sane. When the pictures of Barbie turn up in the newspapers, memories rush back at him. Although Barbie was probably not present at the village massacre (the book isn’t completely clear on this), seeing this SS-Hauptsturmführer seems to force him to remember his childhood trauma, however spottily. He remembers all the central SS officers present at the massacre, except for the commanding officer, who forms a hollow, unnamed hole at the heart of his memories.

This hole Poussif fills with the images of Klaus Barbie. Entering a downward spiral of rage and obsession, he starts dressing in a Nazi uniform as part of his old act. He never abandons his formal rules, doing everything according to his own code, which, as I mentioned, even includes rules for how to adapt and change his act. Thus his act constantly evolves, getting stranger and stranger, and losing the element of shock, becoming more historically charged. At the same time, he becomes more famous by the day, plastering Paris with posters advertising his act and accusing Barbie of heinous crimes he committed and of many he did not commit, maintaining that guilt of collectively committed crimes of such magnitude falls on each individual. Thus, he enlists a variety of media to tell his story. Additionally, he is followed around by a mysterious Spanish novelist, intent on telling the Rat Man’s story. There is, in the way West portrays Poussif’s changing acts, a very clear comment on the empty, ritualistic nature of public remembrances today. Just as people gather patiently around the uniform-clad Poussif to enjoy his droll act for the few minutes that it takes, thus we also gather around our places of remembrance for the rituals of remembering. Poussif doesn’t aim for entertainment anymore. He rages against the conventional limits of street entertainment, attempting to actually shock people, incite them to action against Barbie and all the other nameless and faceless Nazis he represents. West is not actually trying to provide testimony, or to fake it. On the other hand, he does not go down the road of books like John Boyne’s unbearably sanitized Boy in the Striped Pajamas (cf. my review of that book) either. Of course, individual testimony matters. Of course accuracy matters. However, in Rat Man of Paris, we also see the need for public remembrance, public outrage, a public sense of history. Paul West takes on a difficult territory and he doesn’t cut corners. He knows the limits that separate the things he can say about history and those he can’t. Plus. there is almost no gore, no violent, shocking imagery in his book; instead, his readers are upset finding that someone has scrawled “Forget” on a sign that originally said “Remember”. Rat Man of Paris is an attempt to sort out issues of guilt and memory in a masterful way.

By displaying such care and precision in matters of history, Paul West’s harrowing little novel is an example of a postmodern novel powered by an intelligent conscience as well as style. Of course, if we look at the means employed by West, we can immediately see that he makes use of ye olde postmodern toolbox. We encounter, for example, all kinds of narrative media in the book. Television interview, newspaper articles, we find reporters, Poussif himself, and a mysterious novelist, all helping to reflect and mirror Poulsifer’s rage and indignation. The book offers to its readers a protagonist who enlists a whole city as a canvas on which to tell his story of 20th century horrors. All this is naturally part of a toolbox which has been used by all kinds of writers far inferior to West. The most egregious case is probably Paul Auster, who has reaped success for presenting a diluted, anodyne version of powerful novelists like Paul West. In West’s work, we are always aware of the weight of words and actions; in it, playacting is more than just a smart literary version of Find The Lady. Acting is a reflection of everyday acts, and is rooted in the quotidian. On every page of Rat Man of Paris, a deep affection shines through, for his characters and the possibilities inherent in them and in their language. Paul West is a humane writer, an intelligent writer and a deeply gifted stylist. Read this book.

“This issue of experimentalism is hollow to me.”

This from a long, really nice interview with the extraordinary Ben Marcus (with Colin Winnette)

This issue of experimentalism is hollow to me. I can’t figure out the actual content of the problem. I’ve never tried to write anything experimental, because I don’t even know what that would be. I’ve just written what most compels me at the time, what I’d most want to read myself. Does anyone self-identify as experimental? Anyone? When Notable came out, there were people who said it wasn’t experimental enough, and I’m sure I’ll get that again. But all I want to do is write something good, and not just return to familiar material or approaches.

It is the poems you have lost

William Empson: Missing Dates

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

Empson. ‘Nuff said. If you haven’t, so far, read this book or that one. You really can’t not read them. There’s a new-ish Empson biography out, written by John Haffenden, but I’m slightly wary of Haffenden’s work these days. Any of you read the biography?

Unabsolute, unshaped

J.V. Cunningham: Coffee

When I awoke with cold
And looked for you, my dear,
ANd the dusk inward rolled,
Not light or dark, but drear,

Unabsolute, unshaped,
That no glass can oppose,
I fled not to escape
Myself, but to transpose.

I have so often fled
Wherever I could drink
Dark coffee and there read
More than a man would think

That I say I waste time
For contemplation’s sake:
In an unencumbered clime
Minute inductions wake,

Insight flows in my pen.
I know not fear nor haste.
Time is my own again.
I waste it for the waste.

This is the third time I posted a poem by J.V. Cunningham on this blog, and it bears repeating: Cunningham is one of last century’s best American poets, he’s severely underrated, and The Poems of J.V. Cunningham, edited by TImothy Steele, is highly, highly recommended.

My Version of World Domination

This from a new illustrated post at The Width of a Line, an awesome blog about a young, incredibly talented artist from Berlin, who keeps posting amazing sketches and pages and pages of her drawings online.

When people are moving too fast, if you’re brave you can also ask them if they would mind sitting for you for a bit, which helps to avoid the pesky drawing-people-without-a-model problem. I saw her at the fleamarket with a friend, but she was moving to much and too far away to sketch. I took heart and approached her, told her I would like to draw her if she had time, and gave her one of my cards. And she actually called about an hour later, ready to be drawn! (…) So this isn’t only about drawing strangers anymore. Suddenly I’m actually talking to people about drawing, exposing myself as I usually don’t: if they agree to be drawn by me, that also means they get so see and judge the drawing. This is frightening and exciting at the same time.

What this has to do with world domination? Well, as a side effect, this teaches me a lot about illustration in general, aspects of picture-making that I didn’t have to take into account before. Over these two month there is already a development in style and skill visible, I think. Ultimately I hope this will prove fruitful in helping me make a living from drawing, which is pretty much my version of world domination.