Translatables! (Part 2)

This is the second installment of a list of books and writers who should be translated into English, but haven’t yet been. Part 1 (direct link here) listed a number of contemporary writers and books: Reinhard Jirgl’s Abschied von den Feinden, Patrick Roth’s Christus Trilogie, Hartmut Lange’s Das Konzert and Thomas Stangl’s Was Kommt.

Part 2 will feature more classical writers, and spans a far greater period of time, from a book published in 1767, to one, published posthumously, in 1967. With classical writers it’s hard to guess which writers, torn from the immediate cultural and linguistic context, will or could be successful, and worth reading. A lot of writers will fall by the wayside, such as Jean Paul, who is a stunning writer, possibly the best prose writer of his time, but whose extremely long epics of the bourgeois life may not connect well enough with the Anglophone reader. By the same measure I skipped a few extraordinary plays, such as H.L Wagner’s shocking Kindermörderin, a play about a young woman who, left by her lover, kills her newborn child. It’s in many ways proto-modern, laced with a complex social criticism, with images of violence (almost an onstage rape, the brutal murder of the child), and additionally, Wagner lets his heroine take the place that in his time, men occupied. It’s sensational, and both a challenging and engrossing read, but I’m not convinced that it makes as much of an impact on readers who have not read canonical plays like Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen or Schiller’s The Robbers. There are countless more books like that.

The four books below, however, should be translated. You’ll notice that 3 out of the 4 were written (though not published) at roughly the same time. That was one of the most fecund periods of German fiction, yet one of the most neglected, as far as translation are concerned. It’s a shame that these books in particular haven’t yet been Englished, and it’s a loss to Anglophone readers everywhere.

Part 2: Classics

Alfred Döblin, Berge, Meere und Giganten (1932)

Döblin was, above all, a craftsman, and, in equal measures, dedicated to literature and to his political convictions. His work, from early expressionistic stories like Die Ermordung einer Butterblume, to his three-volume epic about the November Revolution in Germany in 1918, touches on a vast array of subjects, and is written in a variety of ways. He is best known for the aforementioned story and his novel Berlin, Alexanderplatz, a mad masterpiece of a book, completely written and constructed in a montage, a technique that he had been playing around with for decades and finally perfected in Berlin, Alexanderplatz. The great amount of different registers and voices and dialects that swamp that particular book make it enormously hard to translate properly, but this one has at least been translated. Among his other masterpieces, for me, two stick out: one would be his biographical novel about Wallenstein, which provides a history of that grand character of the 30 Years’ War, imbued with social criticism and a careful awareness. Less well known than Wallenstein, however, is his gargantuan (in every sense) utopian novel Berge, Meere und Giganten. It’s set up to be a projective history of mankind. In about 600 pages, Döblin races through centuries of upheaval, and we soon notice that most of this is not earnest speculative fiction, it’s expressionistic madness. In order to make the threats understandable that the modern age holds for us, Döblin goes overboard. Civil wars, political reformations, and later, natural disasters plague humanity, until the dinosaurs (yes) walk the earth again. This isn’t a mere novel about an idea or a few ideas, this is a huge explosion of one of the best minds of German literature. One idea races the other, one plot the next and we read on, breathlessly, trying to find out what will become of humanity. This is a spectacular book, one that breaks smaller lights like Jules Verne or Alfred Kubin into pieces. It tells us about the true potential of us human beings, it’s awash with decades of thought, yet it reads like a bestseller. And below it all, the thunderous river of Döblin’s language rumbles. Break out the seat belts, get on for this ride. I mean it, you need to read this book. And I’m honestly bewildered why it hasn’t yet been translated. The scope and depth of it puts contemporary writers like William Vollmann to shame. Really. Translate it.

Additional links

Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Döblin’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Döblin’s English Wiki page? Link

Rudolf Borchardt, Jamben (1935/1967)

Borchardt is an oddity. Part of circles formed around the two masters of literature in German at the time, Stefan George and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he was both venerated and hated. He was a man of contradictions, as a Jew, who had been generally read as a proto-fascist, whose last speeches seemed to hail Hitler’s arrival from afar. A renowned cultural scholar, widely praised and admired for his titanic knowledge, he, and those like him, resurrected a German tradition that the Romantics had tried to establish first, a metaphysical German-ness; this reading of his work, however, is deficient, but many people didn’t notice this, until in 1967 his long poem, Jamben, was published. It is a series of smaller poems written in a form that can be called Jamben in German, but are usually called epodes. An epode, a carmen maledictum, is usually written to abuse or vilify someone; in modern usage, by poets such as André Chénier, it has become more vituperative, more angry, more political. Chénier called the form “l’épode vengeresse”. And so it is here as well: Borchardt’s Jamben are an all-out attack on the rising wave of hate, on the new politics in Germany. They were written to the backdrop of the Nuremberg Laws, which were declared the same year. They reveal what a complex writer Borchardt was all along, and that he was content to let contradictions simmer in the literary delicacies he cooked up. Borchardt is one of those German writers with the most intricate knowledge of the German language and German literary tradition. His work, especially his stellar Dante translation, is almost unbearably complex in purely linguistic terms. That doesn’t mean he’s hard to read, but in his work, every word seems fraught with references, puns, and ambiguities; and usually, he’s uninterested in producing a finished work of art. He started lots of projects and was content to finish them in his head; accordingly, much of what he actually published evinces a certain disregard for his audience. Not so the Jamben. They are songs of anger, and although they, again, bear the full weight of German tradition, here we see him trow it at someone, writing not because he can do it, but because he needs to. You don’t need to understand, to ‘get’ German history to ‘get’ these poems. They speak, no, they sing, scream, shout, declaim, whisper for themselves. Jamben is one of the most powerful pieces of poetry published this century, in any language, and although it needs a good translator, it can and does translate to other languages. Everyone should read it. It’s inspiring, haunting, great literature.

Additional links

Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Borchardt’s German Wiki page?  Link

Christoph Martin Wieland, Agathon (1767)

This is an incredible book, and Wieland is one of German literature’s most underrated genii. Wieland had a long productive career, and there are a few standout books in his work, but the publication of Agathon shows him at his most readable, most complex best. Fresh from having published a successful novel that was inspired by Cervantes, he wrote a book that stands among the most important and most influential German books ever written. It inspired the first extant theory of the Bildungsroman, and until Goethe published Wilhelm Meister, it was generally regarded as the pre-eminent German novel. Agathon is a novel like no other one. It contains material for several other books, as it charts a young man’s search for enlightenment in the tempestuous landscapes of Ancient Greece. There are long discussions of Greek philosophy, erotic games, politics and pirates! Agathon is the work of a writer born into the wrong period of time. Like Melville, Wieland’s complexities are astonishingly modern. Here, as in other books of his, his psychology is subtly wrought and reminds the reader of modern theories of mass and individual psychology. His characters appear to be written with Nietzsche’s philosophy in mind, and it all is written to a backdrop of sin and lust that is beyond simple bawdy games. Wieland, as we quickly see, debates modern theories of sex, gender and sexuality with the language and images of his time; Schlegel’s Florentin could not have been written about it. Wieland went on to revise it three times, softening the impact, imparting upon his narrative the wisdom he won through the years, but there’s no doubt that the first draft is the best one, the least harmoniously reconciled. Agathon is fundamentally contradictory, a book defying tradition and definition. Like Jahnn, Wieland’s other books became more expansive, more complex iterations of the ideas contained in this long but overwhelmingly dense masterpiece. If you can read German read Wieland! Or translate him. Through his heavy influence on the early German novel, he influenced world literature. It’s time the world read him!

Additional links

Read my review of Agathon? Link
Buy this book on amazon? Link
Read Wieland’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Wieland’s English Wiki page? Link
Buy another masterpiece of Wieland’s, Geschichte der Abderiten, in French translation? Link

Hans Henny Jahnn, Perrudja (1929)

I’ll just start with this: Hans Henny Jahnn is the single most underrated writer of the 20th century. Oh, yes, no doubt about it. He has written 5 truly great and mind-blowing plays and a few more very good ones. He has written two mind-blowing, game-changing novels. He has written a handful of mind-blowing shorter prose pieces. Of all that, only one play is still in print in an affordable edition in German. What translations exist into English barely scratches the surface of this man’s great work. It’s a shame. I repeat: it’s a shame. To single out one book of all them is hard, because all of them deserve to be read, translated, and passed around. However, I do understand if translator are careful when it comes to translating his opus magnum, Fluß Ohne Ufer, a sprawling trilogy of over 2000 pages, unfinished, and hard to sum up. Granted, it’s the best German novel of the past century, but that doesn’t make it easier to translate or sell. I understand that. Keeping all this in mind, however, I definitely do not understand why Jahnn’s first novel, the burning meteor that is Perrudja, has not been translated yet. Perrudja is, like Döblin’s novel, about the conditio humana, and about the threats that modernity has to offer the individual trapped in its machinery. But it takes a very different tack. Instead of looking forward, it looks backward: it’s gorged with myth and history. In Perrudja, there’s a main story, a suspenseful story at that, but there are also numerous smaller stories inserted into the main story, who elaborate upon the topics of the main story. Jahnn is an obsessive writer, obsessed with sexuality, religion, history, and violence, and Perrudja can be described as an epic of the body as it deals with all these elements inasmuch as they form part of our culture. It’s one of the most potent novels about how homosexuality is affected by the repressive modern society. Jahnn examines how our culture, behavior, history are permeated with violence, but his book isn’t bleak or negative. Jahnn believes in the potential of humanity for good, and this belief runs through every page of this incredible book. This is a book that will swallow you whole, a genuinely great read, and a great novel. Jahnn writes in a style that is both mythic and modern, and the result is a great, mad, colorful dream. Perrudja is a challenging read but an engaging one, a book that you can’t and shouldn’t miss. Read Jahnn, translate him. It’s shocking that he hasn’t already been translated.

Additional links

Read my review of Perrudja? Link
Buy this book in French translation? Link
Read Jahnn’s German Wiki page? Link
Read Jahnn’s English Wiki page? Link
Read Kebad Kenya, the only English blog dedicated to Jahnn’s work? Link

Please also read Part 1: direct link here

Translatables! (Part 1)

As I follow blogs and news, I see more and more mediocre writers in German being translated into English, whether it’s Pascal Mercier, Ingo Schulze or Thomas Glavinic; if we additionally consider how few German novels are translated at all, the fact that so many bad writers make the cut while so many good writers don’t almost amounts to a tragedy.

For what it’s worth, I decided to put up a list of writers or books who deserve to be translated into English, who deserve a wide audience, accolades and admiration, although they don’t, at the moment, get either beyond the borders of Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This list is made up of two times four writers/books. Four living, contemporary writers, and four ‘dead’, classical writers. Especially in the latter period there are countless more writers who deserve infinitely more recognition abroad than they have been getting (Christoph Martin Wieland and Jean Paul come to mind), but with these four writers and books it’s particularly appalling. I will try to keep my appeals short, in many cases they’re backed up by reviews I’ve already written for this same blog. This is Part 1 (here is part 2).

Part 1:  Contemporary Books!

Hartmut Lange, Das Konzert (1986)

Novellas have a long tradition in German literature, and nowhere in the world is this genre as highly regarded as here. From classical masters of the form like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theodor Storm, Stefan Zweig, to Nobel Prize winners Paul Heyse and Günter Grass, the novella has always been given full attention, and the writing of novellas has always been a task especially scrutinized and analyzed. The best living writer in the form is Hartmut Lange, and not only does he not have the international attention that he deserves, he’s also vastly underrated in Germany, where he has become a kind of “writer’s writer”. His writing is classically elegant, complex, yet always light and readable and his books are suffused with his concern with places, history and culture, as well as age-old problems of the human heart. He is easy to read, but hard to stomach sometimes. The same applies to what I think is his best work, the novella Das Konzert, a tale of ghosts living in modern Berlin. There are ghosts killed by the Nazis, and Nazi ghosts, who have been waiting to be forgiven, in a bunker under the earth. Lange projects a ghost Berlin over the real, modern Berlin, and demonstrates concerns with responsibility and guilt; it suggests how historical continuities, and individual, cultural ones mold a national and local consciousness. There’s not a spare line in it, but Lange writes as if he had all the time in the world. He is one of our living masters. Read him. Translate him.

Additional links

Read my review of Das Konzert? Link
Read my review of his most recent book,
Der Abgrund des Endlichen? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Lange’s Wiki page? Link

Patrick Roth, Christus-Trilogie (1991-1996)

This one requires a bit of cheating. It’s not one book. It’s three books, parts of a trilogy, they can be read individually, of course, but read together they form one of the most impressive works of art written in the German language in the 1990s. Patrick Roth blindsided me, I never noticed him, but suddenly, he was everywhere, holding the prestigious Poetics lectures in Frankfurt, publishing high-profile books about all kinds of topics: novellas dealing with Hollywood, books about movies, about identity, and, of course, the Christus Trilogie. The first of these, Riverside, subtitled “Christusnovelle”, was published in 1991, the second, Johnny Shines oder Die Wiedererweckung der Toten, in 1993 and the third, Corpus Christi, in 1996. Each of them is only about 160 pages in length, but the reader emerges from them mesmerized, reluctant, as if he was dipped into a different world. Roth manages to call up two very different registers: he writes in a very archaic kind of German, meant to imitate Lutheran tone and voice, and at the same time, in a very clear and modern kind of German. Miraculously, this really works, and envelops the reader in a linguistic tapestry that seems biblical, and yet filled with an easy, glittering suspense. The first and last of the books are concerned with Jesus himself; Riverside is about two men coming up to an eremite who reputedly has met Jesus himself, avid to find out more about that man, trying to sift truth from tradition. They are soon caught up in a net woven of language and mysteries. The same thing happens to the protagonist of the third book. Its protagonist, Judas Thomas is intent to investigate the so-called resurrection of Jesus. He finds an eye-witness and interrogates her, which develops into a discussion about truth and faith, which never becomes academical, and is completely mesmerizing. The middle one is set in Death Valley, California, and is about an oddball who regularly opens coffins, demanding the dead person inside to stand up and walk (not successfully), who becomes enmeshed in a murder and is interrogated by a police woman. Three books, three investigations. Every line shows that Roth is both a gifted writer of prose as well as of drama, maybe one of Germany’s best in the business. The rest of his fictional work is surprisingly weak, compared to the ravishing thunderstorm of Christus Trilogie. But it’s hard to compare to that singular literary achievement. It’s a shame that it hasn’t found an American translator so far. Everyone should read it, in German or in translation. It’s, and I don’t say that lightly, a masterpiece.

Additional links

Buy his books on amazon? Link1, Link2, Link3
Read Roth’s Wiki page? Link

Thomas Stangl, Was Kommt (2009)

Thomas Stangl is an Austrian writer, one of a whole range of promising young novelists, another of which would be Clemens J. Setz, who was recently nominated for the German Book Prize for his ok second novel Die Frequenzen, a sign of his diminishing skill that would only get worse in following years. The same year also saw Thomas Stangl nominated for his stupendous novel Was Kommt. With Stangl, the situation is different. Was Kommt is his third novel, and it’s proof that Stangl is one of the leading living prose writers in the German language, getting better with each book. Like many great writers, his work recounts his obsessions. With time, memory, and history, amongst other things. His prose went to the Austrian school of Bernhard, Innerhofer and Handke, but unlike the recently translated Andreas Maier, he is in full control of his style. He is able to make it work for him, perform the tricks he needs it to perform in order to convey his thinking. Stangl’s work, like Lange’s, examines historical continuities, by juxtaposing different time levels, and creating a gorgeous linguistic maelstrom that draws the reader into the histories and memories of Stangl’s characters. Stangl is a committed writer, committed to his ideas and to his places, there are few writers who can evoke places so uncannily and directly as he can, places as well as times. In Was Kommt, Stangl shines a harsh light on the 1970s, by superimposing one character’s life in the 1930s on another’s life in the 1970s, clearly highlighting connections and continuities, evoking a place and a period so precisely that he takes your breath away. He, like Lange, Roth, uses a rather simple vocabulary, but as far as syntax is concerned, his writing is very complex, and not an easy read necessarily. But an astonishing, mind-blowing one, that I’m sorry to see so many of my anglophone friends missing out on. If you can, read a book by Stangl. Or translate him. You won’t be sorry. If Stangl continues at this rate, he will become one of the language’s most important writers. Already he’s one of its best.

Additional links

Read my review of Was Kommt? Link
Buy Thomas Stangl’s book on amazon? Link
Buy Clemens J. Setz’ book on amazon? Link
Read Stangl’s Wiki page? Link
Read the official page of the German Book Prize? Link

Reinhard Jirgl, Abschied von den Feinden (1995)

This is a writer that you don’t have to introduce to book-loving Anglophone readers any more. Although he hasn’t been translated yet, his name keeps coming up in discussions of contemporary literature and debates over international awards like the Nobel Prize in Literature which he would richly deserve. Jirgl’s writing is indebted to such titans of modern German literature as Alfred Döblin, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson, but the power of his narratives, the violence of his set-ups and the raw emotion and the brilliance of his thinking are all his own. Like many of the best contemporary German writers, he meets history head-on, interrogating its narratives, and the language in which these narratives were constructed. Abschied von den Feinden is not Jirgl’s best book, but it is the first book where he fully came into his voice, into that style that he made his own ever since. It introduces many of his topics, and unlike his other books, it even contains an explanatory section for all the symbols and typographical deviations he uses. It’s comparatively short and explosive, a story of two Germanys, two brothers, and a woman’s fate in the debris of a ‘better society’. It’s not his best novel, but one of his best. If you can, read Jirgl. He is the best living German writer. And for God’s sake, translate his books. (my review of Abschied von den Feinden)

Additional links

Read my review of Abschied von den Feinden? Link
Buy his book on amazon? Link
Buy his book
Die Unvollendeten in French translation on amazon? Link
Read Francois Monti’s review of that book/translation? Link
Read Jirgl’s Wiki page? Link

Read Part 2 here.

There was such speed in her little body

John Crowe Ransom: Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

The eternally underrated, great Agrarian John Crowe Ransom. Read his poetry if and when you can. It’s not all that easy to get these days, but give it a try. The above poem is his most well known, but not his best. Let him surprise you.

Ishmael Reed: The Free-Lance Pallbearers

Reed, Ishmael (1999), The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN 1-56478-225-5

Called “a great writer” by none other than James Baldwin, Ishmael Reed’s reputation always had to contend with accusations of misogyny and with the barriers that a career of writing difficult-to-place novels involves. His writing, in all his books, straddled the divide between the experimental and postmodern fiction of Burroughs, Coover and Pynchon, and the strong political convictions and concerns of Ellison, Baldwin and Morrison. Between Coover and Morrison, there never was any real room for a writer like Reed, although his talent, his gift for writing is beyond any doubt. Reed is a black writer who does not cozy up to the expectations of topics or treatment of these same topics. His acidic style eats into both white and black narratives. There are various ways this works out in his work, but in his debut novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, published in 1967, he strikes all these chords, in a simple, almost crude way. He juxtaposes images, caricatures, quotes and screams of pain in one flame-hot bugger of a novel, which is far from flawless, but it is its numerous strengths that keep Reed’s boat afloat here.

And what a boat this is. On finishing the book, you will be both exhilarated and confused. Exhilarated because it’s a grand trip, calling up literary, cultural and political references with a surprising ease, dispatching real-life politicians and writers, as well as the debris of a whole culture in quick, tossed-off surreal snapshots of an inner-city waste land. The book sings, screams and hums with voices, music and noises, and moves from one sketched, unstable location to another. It demands your full attention, and it sets your brain in motion, constantly. This, however, especially the instability of its places and characters, leads to a good deal of confusion. There is nothing that interests Reed less than providing a realistic setting, realistic characters, living an unexamined life chartered by conventions. In his attempts to break free of these shackles, however, he has in his first novel thrown the reader into a largely unstructured sea of signs and symbols without giving him any kind of dry land to stand on.

The Free-Lance Pallbearers is the work of a jittery writer, one who burns with ideas and this book is a kind of explosion of those ideas. The plot is clearly a parody of the established plots of well-received black fiction, like Ellison’s searing Invisible Man, Wright’s Native Son or even some books by Baldwin, and it’s generous with criticism of different kinds of narratives, but it doesn’t offer a counter narrative, which has the effect of setting the reader adrift in Reeds thoughts and obsessions. At the same time, we, the reader, are not allowed to seek dry land outside of the novel, reading it dispassionately, drawing up schemes and lists, foot- and endnoting it all. If we do that, we lose much of the intended impact of the book.

It is meant to confuse the reader, it is meant to confront him with his reading habits, with his easy expectations of what a ‘black novel’ could or should be. It’s confrontational, which we see right at the beginning, in the very first paragraph which gives us an idea of the novel to come:

I live in HARRY SAM. HARRY SAM is something else. A big not-to-be-believed out-of-sight, sometimes referred to as O-BOP-SHE-BANG or KLANG-A-LANG-A-DING-DONG. SAM has not been seen since the day thirty years ago when he disappeared into the John with a weird ravaging illness.

These lines are spoken by the novel’s protagonist, Bukka Doopeyduk, who narrates the whole book until its bitter end. He lives in a country that is named after its fat white dictator Harry Sam, who refers to his own country as “ME”. Harry Sam resides on a toilet, and the state of his bowels, the consistency of his excrement, and the quality of the sewage water below him are constantly debated in the book, they are a matter of political faith, and careers, lives even, depend on the correct replies to the political catechism active in Harry Sam (the country). I never claimed that Reed’s criticism was subtle, it mostly isn’t, especially not with regard to politics. Overt recreations of political actions, debates, “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS”, are among the least subtly satirized targets, but they are also mostly a smoke-screen for the other targets and re-enactments.

Like many writers of his time, Reed seeks to locate the political in the private and expose the workings of the former by scrutinizing the structure and functions of the latter. He does not, however, try to imagine a ‘normal’ household and use the resulting images and situations as a source. Instead he staggers, no, he jumps ahead, and projects parts of everyday life onto the grotesque canvas of politics, showing one within the framework of the other, but both seen very clearly. And vice versa: what, in The Free-Lance Pallbearers, remains of regular relationships, is blown up with Reed’s satiric lens and corroded by his political thinking. It is this aspect of his work that has earned him the accusations of misogyny, because his invariably male protagonists find in relationships, especially in marriage, the mark of repression, the yoke of societal control.

The same applies to homosexuality. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Reed uses homosexuality as a negative trope, it denotes sleaziness, dishonesty, and, like women, is depicted as profoundly threatening to Bukka, Reed’s hapless protagonist. This kind of depiction is not an accident, it doesn’t happen, like so many other things, in passing, no, it’s the culmination of the book’s most powerful, and arguably most important scene in the whole book, Bukka’s confrontation with Harry Sam (the person) himself. This changes the speed and tone of the book, and it is this section that gives the book its shape, that determines what the book is ‘about’. That the negative depiction of (male) homosexuality is a central part of this section seems especially problematic.

However, to read Reed like this is to overlook the use he makes of Bukka, Bukka’s language, and beliefs and what these things say about Bukka’s relationship to his fellow black men, and about The Free-Lance Pallbearers‘ relationship to other novels dealing with ‘the black experience’. Reed purposefully eschews clever writing, or rather: writing that’s clever for the sake of being clever. Reed published this novel the same year that Pynchon published his Crying of Lot 49, which is a nice little tale, but considerably less well realized than all his other books. Interestingly, it’s major flaw, i.e. the bland, and obvious sequence of symbols, of allegories and tropes, is one of Reed’s main objects of ridicule, while at the same time they both make heavy use of some very similar tropes, symbols or images, for example waste, garbage, excrement.

The difference is that in Pynchon, it is a trope, one symbol in a series of them, one allusion of many, whereas Reed, as I just explained, uses it as a direct mirroring of real excrement, real shitting, one of the most private acts of them all, an act that even some married couples hide from each other. All this has an additional metaphorical layer, but it works first and foremost on a direct, almost literal level. His confrontations rely on the brute impact of his caricatures and parodies, not on an intellectual analysis of its symbolic structure. At the end of his book, no dog hangs from meat-hooks, it’s a human being, visited by his parents who demand to given their due. Bukka, as a character, is the only one who doesn’t fit all that; he’s clearly artificial, a literary ghost, a black Candide “cakewalking” through this waste land.

In Bukka, Reed has created a character that is both a reflection of the books, culture and society criticized, as well as the means to criticize them. Just as the book as a whole can be read as a send-up of the traditional black novel, the awakening of a black man to the social and political reality around him, the state he is in and the society that is the reason for this state, so Bukka Doopeyduk is Reed’s send-up of the idealized black protagonist, and of the clever, fashionable black writer at the same time. Parts Candide, parts Malcolm X (including, I think, direct quotes from the Autobiography), Bukka isn’t like Wright’s Bigger, because he is more than that, he’s Wright, so to say, himself. Bukka is the narrator of the book, but his language differs strongly from the language of everyone else in the book and he’s accordingly being made fun of. Bukka is straining to speak ‘proper’ English, full, well-turned sentences, devoid of dialects or sloppiness. He does not, of course, succeed, at least not completely; we notice this partly through a slightly deviant grammar, and partly through orthographical errors.

It is the latter that create the most direct link to the writers made fun of, since these mistakes are often silent ones, mistakes of writing, not of speaking. Bukka the writer is sometimes, fascinatingly, at variance with Bukka the protagonist. While Bukka the writer is in control of everything, since he tells it all, Bukka the protagonist is frequently silenced, even made to mouth speeches that he didn’t write and wouldn’t approve of. Bukka the writer wants to be clever but what he mainly does is suck up to the structure that is currently governed by Harry Sam. It is his distaste that we find in the depiction of homosexuality, of women, even of Bukka Doopeyduk himself. Indeed one could say that Bukka is betrayed by the narrator, in effect by himself. This is an ingenious mirroring of another kind of betrayal in the book, that of Bukka by some of his fellow black men, who have entered into “SHE-GOAT-SHE-ATE-SHUNS” with Harry Sam (the person) and give up their brother at the drop of a dime.

This is maybe Reed’s most powerful criticism, and his most well made point: how control is not just control of the body with punishment à la Surveillir et Punir, but how it’s also control of one’s own narrative, and how that isn’t a “choice” that we consciously make, but that that’s a narrative that’s written by a different writer, like us, but unlike us (to mangle a line by Wallace Stevens). Bukka is trying to order, to give shape to the life he encounters, but he, like the reader, is swept away by the waves of ideas that Reed blasts at us. There is no life except in a distanced, processed way here, but the tumble and chaos of Harry Sam (the country) could be a better attempt at conveying the exigencies, the contradictions and the cultural problems of that life. In an essay from 1970, Reed once related this joke:

I have a joke I tell friends about a young Black poet who relies upon other people’s systems, and does not use his head. He wears sideburns and has seen every French film in New York. While dining at Schrafft’s he chokes to death on nut-covered ice cream and dies. He approaches the river Styx and pleads with Charon to ferry him across: ‘I don’t care how often you’ve used me as a mythological allusion,’ Charon says. ‘You’re still a nigger – swim!’


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Finally! and in a brand new layout! Bookbabble Episode 57 is out, featuring yours truly, Renee, Bjorn and, of course, Donny. Here is the direct link, and here is Donny’s summary

The group discusses their best reads of the year, plus some not-so-great reads as well. Also, what books best defined the past decade, given all that has happened in the past 10 years? Plus, Renee treats us to a wonderful rendition of bad sex prose, courtesy of this year’s winner of Literary Review’s 2009 bad sex in fiction award.

Lord Jesus, please I’m ready.

Vic Chesnutt died today. He committed suicide. He was 45 years old when he died. Chesnutt makes you ashamed of even thinking of suicide. He crafted a dozen beautiful records, full of humor, sadness and gorgeousness. He’s what you’d call, I guess, a warrior, a beautiful, strong soul. On days like today it’s his music I turn to, so it was a shock to learn of his departure. Rest in Peace. We will miss you.

Nicholson Baker: The Anthologist

Baker, Nicholson (2009), The Anthologist, Simon & Schuster
ISBN 978-1-4165-7244-2

Poetry is damnably difficult to write about. As Mary Kinzie has pointed out in her excellent  Poet’s Guide to Poetry, poetry criticism often turns out to be a “sort of paraphrase”, and poetry is perhaps the one genre that can bear paraphrase and even translation least of all. Poetry critics abound, who do an injustice to the genre they write about, and this whole mess has all kinds of uncomfortable links to academically reared poetry, that has resulted in poets who learned their craft at universities and returned to teach there, a closed circle of a kind, certainly. So, even poets sometimes, and critics who earn their livelihood writing about poetry don’t necessarily do well at this game. Knowing all this, I was cautious, skeptic, even, approaching Nicholson Baker’s new novel which is written from a poets point of view and it’s about poetry:

Let’s have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it’s a poem, because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows that it’s a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they are saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good.

Baker has accrued quite a following, different prizes and a sizable reputation, in several languages, but not as a poet. Baker has written and excelled both at writing novels and nonfictional prose, and he has been known to blur the lines between these modes of writing, most recently in his strange paean to pacifism, Human Smoke, which is structured and narrated like a novel but consists of an enormous amount of documents and documented quotes and statements. A similar kind of mixture can be found in The Anthologist, his new novel, which is an enjoyable, intriguing and multi-layered read, written with a sure and accomplished hand.

It’s a pleasure to read, a book that you are soon loath to put down, which draws you in and, for me, didn’t really let up until you’ve finished all of it. The appeal, its draw, cannot be chalked up to its plot since there’s no plot to speak of, small things happen, but much of the interest stems from the protagonist’s strange and inconsistent voice that drives the whole book. The book starts with the protagonist introducing himself. “Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.” And it’s an able description of the book that follows. Where a text like Human Smoke introduced fictional elements in order to tell a story, The Anthologist contains a strong streak of nonfictional elements; in fact, the nonfictional sections could be argued to provide the bulk of the book. Baker’s protagonist is a poet and teacher, who is currently trying to assemble an anthology. He professes a strong dislike for teaching, but he’s what is usually referred to as an unreliable narrator, and his distaste for teaching turns out to be one of many inconsistencies in the book. See, although he claims to dislike it, when he runs into trouble writing the introduction to the Anthology that is supposed to be called “Only Rhymes”, he imagines himself in the midst of giving a lecture, a task that appears to help, calm him, and that usually helps him to give a shape to his slightly disjointed thoughts.

This episode is a small-scale depiction of how the whole book works which contains longer slices of an imaginary lecture about meter and rhyme in English poetry, embedded in a disjointed, largely associative narrative. Paul Chowder is making up his mind. His life is falling apart and he sits down and considers it all, as it is, his current relationships to women, relatives, and to his own art. The book is written, for the most part, in the present tense, and as Chowder thinks about his life and lectures us about poetry, we can see his life change, we see how it is transformed into something different. Not radically different but slightly. It shifts, in its rhythms and emphases, and the book charts this development. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much room for the enormous amount of development and characterization that is taking place here, since so much of the book is taken up by Chowder’s lectures. And they are lectures, not just essayistic diversions. Chowder directly addresses the reader (or hearer) of the book, talking to him, reasoning with him, and above all, constantly asking him to do something, try to keep a beat, speak something aloud. I have had a terrific teacher of contemporary poetry, and Chowder’s passionate but eccentric way of teaching reminded me of him. Chowder jumps from one end of his subject to another, drawing connections, associations, in short: making a case for his thesis.

His thesis, or rather: his attempt at a coherent statement is a restitution of rhymed and strictly metered poetry to its proper place, at the vanguard of poetry. In one of many derisory statements he refers to free verse as “pretend stanzas of chopped garbage” or “plums”. His interesting but unusual ideas on meter draw on brilliant scholars such as Derek Attridge, in fact, I was tempted, at times, to pull Attridge from my shelf to check whether some of Chowder’s raves and rants weren’t taken verbatim from his work. It’s probably not particularly riveting nor, in and of itself, helpful, to recount the specifics of Chowder’s thesis here, but it’s worth pointing out that it is based on a disdain for the conventional wisdom that would have the pentameter as the ‘natural’ English meter. Open any current introduction to the art of English poetry, from Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance to Timothy Steele’s All the fun’s in how you say a thing and this will jump at you, probably in an introductory chapter and will be repeated throughout the book. Chowder will have none of this. Not only does he propose a completely different meter as the normal or natural meter for English poetry, he also proposes a notion of rests. None of this is original, mind you, but it is unorthodox, and I’d suggest that much of it, while certainly learned and most certainly not without educational value, could be read more profitably as a symptom of Chowder’s emotional states than as something that strives for objective instruction.

This is one of Baker’s many admirable achievements in the book: he’s done an enormous amount of research, on a topic that he probably wasn’t intensely familiar with at the outset, but the results feels completely organic, so much so, in fact, that we believe the book’s premise, i.e., that the whole of it isn’t Baker’s research but Chowder’s original thought. This is different from Human Smoke, where Baker caught a lot of flak for the odd political opinions he quoted. This success in The Anthologist is partly due to the immensely passionate tone that Chowder brings to the table, his fits and quirks, his bouts of anger, his long rants about Filippo Marinetti, Ezra Pound and an assortment of modernists, and his equally long raves and tributes to writers such as his cherished Sara Teasdale, Theodore Roethke (for my own comments on Roethke, see this review), Louise Bogan and Mary Oliver, amongst others. Having the ear, or having at least the willingness to apply one’s ear to a poem, or a whole poet’s work, to look for a tone, moods, for ripples on the surface of the poem, as well as a certain reluctance to jump ahead to what a poem “really means”, this has become rare, and poetry criticism (and, arguably, poetry itself) is the poorer for it. Without criticizing theoretical approaches to poetry, the utter lack of sympathetic readings of poems, the kinds of reading that used to be called hermeneutic in Schleiermacher’s days, this, I think, really hurts the whole field, draining it of a necessary energy, making poetry less of a viable and vital force than it could, no, than it should be.

Poetry isn’t made of messages, it’s made of language, and among the major modes of literature, poetry is arguably the one that is most directly, purely even, concerned with language, and with the thinking that precedes, I think, consciousnes, envelops it in folds of language; it is, I think, uniquely equipped to describe, or deal with, “the fiction that results from feeling” (to quote Stevens) and even with what spiritual content is washed ashore. I could point to a couple of poems that make this point, but novels? By non-poets? Few and far between. The Anthologist, an extended ars poetica, is one of them. Like many of the best works of literature, it achieves this through a complex mixture of direct disquisition and subtle indirection. We are never allowed to forget that the passion isn’t Baker’s, it’s Paul Chowder’s, and the form and tone he adopts is indicative of his character and related issues. His attraction to the unorthodox, is part of a general anxiety, not Bloom’s overused “Anxiety of Influence”, but a real anxiety that Chowder understands to be part of the poetic endeavor; to highlight this, he uses the image of long ladders reaching up into the skies with every poet and critic hurrying up the rungs, up, up, up, and Chowder confesses of a feeling of exhaustion, a tiredness, in the face of the arduous ascent and the competition below, beside and above him.

This anxiety, and a heavy feeling of defeat, certainly drive his expansive remarks just as powerfully as his passion for poetry. Although his voice is always strong and present, Chowder himself appears to slip in and out of his own story, as he layers it with inconsistencies. There are things that sound false, like the poetry convention hailing the arrival of Paul Muldoon, as if Muldoon was the singer of a mildly famous rock band. There is Chowder’s obsession with the question whether he will or will not get printed in the New Yorker. More to the point, there are his gaps or contradictions inasmuch as his art and his convictions as they relate to that art are concerned. He extols rhymes, but admits to write unrhymed (not necessarily free verse) poetry himself, and among the 20th century poets he seems to admire most are poets like Elizabeth Bishop and especially Mary Oliver; Oliver is particularly interesting in that she can safely be classed as a fee verse poet, a major, complex poet making brilliant use of line and meter, but she produces just the kind of poetry he seems to spurn in other poets. On a related note, for an anthologist who claims to be well read in rhymed and metered poetry, there is his dismissal of James Merrill as merely a pretty face

She would say her heroes’ names in her gorgeous juicy accent, holding her fingers together: “Mark Strand – he is simply the top.” And I would say, Okay I’ll have to check him out. Later I did check him out, and I thought, he was fine but not great. But he was exceedingly good-looking, I could see that, a real Charlton Hestonian face, one of those hellishly handsome poets. James Merrill was another and back then I lumped W.S. Merwin in with them. But that’s not right, because Merwin has genius as well as looks.

This is profoundly baffling, since Merrill is arguably the best, most dexterous and complex American writer of formal verse in the second half of the 20th century. If you are well read enough in this area to attempt an anthology of poets and poems, you wouldn’t overlook that.

But this oversight is necessary, it’s Nicholson Baker’s way of demonstrating to us the superficial nature of Chowder’s lecture; this does not mean that Chowder doesn’t, in general, know what he’s talking about, but the whole lecture, the diversions and asides, these are red herrings, facades behind which Chowder hides his hurts, fears. Early in the book Baker, in another poetologically laden scene, tells us, that Chowder is easily distracted, that he will embrace distraction, even, in order not to deal with the task at hand: rebuilding his life. He’s constantly evading his life, dodging responsibility, putting off standing up for himself as a poet and lover. Instead, he makes a big show of fighting for his literary critical convictions, proposing and defending an unorthodox theory, and he doesn’t even wait for us to ask, to think, doubt, he launches into full teacher mode. As a teacher, his explanations are marvelous, but the contradictions, the diversions, they should make us suspicious of his actual qualities as a teacher. We are his audience but we don’t really exist, for him, there’s nothing to confront or deal with, so he can talk freely. There is no voice that halts him, that checks him, forces him to double down and think, it’s just him and his game. Baker’s incredible skill makes us understand how Chowder’s mind works, but the lack of balance in the voice and the very loose and light plotting make this an easy, a light read.

The Anthologist is in love with its narrator and although it’s written by a master stylist, the indulgences that result from this affection, serve to weaken the whole book considerably. There is too much tentativeness, too much indirection, the book is content with Chowder’s little spiel. This could have been a masterpiece, but it’s not. It’s a short book that should have been even shorter, a sarcastic book that should have been more sarcastic, a bitter book that lacks bitterness. However you look at it, it’s not enough. But, and hear me right, this is a great, great read. It’s an incredibly well written, light book about poetry, and it’s a very good book about poetry. Read it, you will not be disappointed. Judging from this book alone, Nicholson Baker is a stunning novelist.