Where to begin? Perhaps the best way is to mention that an entire book was written (Jack Green, Fire the Bastards, Dalkey Archive Press) excoriating the book reviewing industry for their neglect of Gaddis’ masterpiece “The Recognitions” from when it was first published in 1955 and in subsequent years as it became more well known, providing verbatim quotes from actual reviews and tearing them apart, stating that these proved the authors had either not read it, were making things up, or outright lying, all the while damning it with faint praise or dismissing it as too difficult, too obscure. Difficult it is I will admit, and my initial inclination on my first read (shocked to discover my library actually had a copy of the original edition) was to take copious notes on the encyclopedic references seemingly crammed into each page, but finally abandoned as an impossible task that would preclude my ever finishing the book, deciding instead to lie back and enjoy it. 956 astounding pages and around half a million words later I knew my latest discovery was the most important I’d made in many years and was bursting to tell other people about it. At the time I was working in a library at a small Catholic school, which provided a good opportunity to poll various members of the English Department faculty as they checked out their books. The results were quite surprising as not one had read it and furthermore had not even heard of it. I had just discovered it through a front page article in the New York Times Book Review and assumed most of them must at least have read that but obviously that wasn’t the case. I sang its praises to anyone who would listen, calling it the American Ulysses, describing it as a book about art forgery, music, counterfeiting, gnosticism, and a damning history of the Christian Church set in the East Village of the late forties, with unforgettable characters (I even based a short story on one) and dialogue not set off by quotation marks but rather dashes, and so much more. No one ever got back to me about it. In the meantime I was so besotted by it I was going to undertake the labor of love of tracking down all those references one by one, until I fortuitously discovered that Stephen Moore had recently saved me the trouble with his A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which enabled me among other things to immediately track down a Thoreau quote he had used in it that I had despaired of ever finding. Gaddis, who had spent a decade writing it didn’t publish another book for twenty years. In the meantime there were all sorts of rumors as to who he really was, some saying he was actually Thomas Pynchon writing under a pseudonym, their lives were so reclusive there was little to no information about them, and their works so similar in their density and complexity. He gradually gained more recognition, winning two National Book Awards as well as prestigious grants and fellowships but never what he deserved in his lifetime. Here is a link to an award-winning website devoted to him: http://www.williamgaddis.org/ In spite (or maybe because) of my proselytizing I only know of two other people who have actually read it, but I promise you if you do take the plunge the time spent doing so will be richly rewarded.
Woke up this morning and my first thought was I want to read some William Carlos Williams stories. I’m sure you’ve had that same thought yourself (not specifically about Williams but you know what I mean) and you want to act on it right away. I’m sure I first discovered him while perusing the Adult fiction section in my local public library as a kid so it was as a fiction writer I knew him before I had any idea he was a “famous American poet.” The first place I would normally go to is my bookcase but I knew he was woefully underrepresented there as I only had Paterson. Next place I check are the area libraries and I found out that was the case there also. I put a hold on The Farmer’s Daughters (a collection of his stories) at one of the libraries but it takes three days and that wasn’t good enough as I realized I needed something of his in my hot little hands right away. I don’t and probably will never have a Kindle (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and don’t feel like reading anything of his online (Re: hot little hands and that many of the print editions are those legendary New Directions paperbacks) so I guess I’ll head to the nearest B&N store later (I wont even bother calling ahead as from previous experience I know they will have difficulty looking up so complicated a name as his) and peruse its shelves to see what of his they have which I suspect (again from previous experience) will be a wasted trip. But who knows, I might be pleasantly surprised. I’ll let you know. On a personal note when I worked at the Poetry Collection (think of it as the Library of Congress for poetry) at the University of Buffalo while getting my MLS I discovered we had his writing desk and many of his manuscripts, and Paul Mariani came there while he was working on his authoritative biography of the man, so I had the once in a lifetime pleasure of being his gofer, bringing any primary materials he wanted, gaining a familiarity with him I never would have otherwise had. I always meant to check the book to see if he had included me in the Acknowledgements as he said he would but never did. Some of you may be thinking at this point I thought he was mainly a poet and you are right but he also happens to be an extraordinarily diverse writer (essays, poetry, stories, novels, plays) who it seems is mostly unread today. His work is a constant pushing of the boundaries between poetry and prose creating a fascinating hybrid unlike any other I’ve come across. He says it best himself in some lines from the poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower in which he wrote:
“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Where to begin when considering his work? There is of course his most famous work Paterson, a five-book epic poem delineating a city as a man, considered controversial by most and read by few, undeservedly so. It is so worth the effort if you give it a chance. His book In the American Grain, totally unique in all of American literature and perhaps the finest prose work of same, is a fresh imaginative rendering of the history and myth of American figures and events. Coincidentally (or not), a similar method was applied to a history of American Lit as recently as 2009 in a book entitled A New Literary History of America, by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors. The book Spring and All is perhaps the best illustration of his hybrid method, consisting of alternating sections of prose and free verse, best characterized as “a manifesto of the imagination.” Difficult to find on its own it appears in its entirety in The William Carlos Williams Reader. Finally, I return to the story collection The Farmer’s Daughters, which gathers together fifty-two stories from earlier books, The Knife of the Times (1932), Life Along the Passaic River(1938), and Make Light of It (1950), and includes as well the great long story, The Farmers’ Daughters, completed in 1956. A dozen or more stories included here are true masterpieces, but in all of Williams’ stories there is a vitality and an immediacy unique in American fiction.
Currently I am reading “Blasphemy”, a collection of new and selected stories by the contemporary Native American writer Sherman Alexie. If you don’t know him, this short story title should suffice to show what you can expect from him: “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock.” The story is heart-breaking. You wouldn’t think this was possible with such a whimsical title but that is what Alexie does, walking a tightrope deftly between the shams (no, not shamans) of both Native American and American culture, presenting the plight of each in juxtaposition objectively and without sentimentality on the cusp of the twenty-first century. He is in his mid-forties, has written over 20 books of novels, stories, and poems, the latter two being a very intermingling hybrid in his hands. He has won all kinds of awards, has written a screenplay based on one of his stories that was made into a successful full-length movie, has written music and formed his own band, but that isn’t why I love him. I love him because he is so honest (brutally at times), yet outrageously funny while dealing with very difficult subjects, among them miscegenation, alcoholism, poverty, geneocide, and suicide in the most poignant way I have ever encountered. In the end he somehow manages to magically show that both our plights are intertwined without any polemics or trace of dogma. I recommend his earlier books (mostly because I happen to own them and know them best): “The First Indian on the Moon” (the hybrid poetry I mentioned before), “Toronto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven” (stories, the title story of which was the one the movie was made about), and “Reservation Blues,” a novel with a bedeviling premise. He is a delight to read and you are in for a real treat if you do. I would be very appreciative if you really enjoy a book of his I have not mentioned and get back to me about how much and why.
Eureka! I finally found someone who can express much better than I my purpose for this blog, none other than Virginia Woolf. Yesterday while perusing the book seller’s tables lining the sidewalk along 4th Ave. interspersed among the food vendor’s carts near the NYU Bobst Library, I came upon this book, which I discovered at just the right time, something which indeed makes life worth living. I immediately snapped it up for $4, but will provide you with an electronic link so you can take a look for yourself:
Enjoy, and let me know what you think if you have a mind to.
P.S. Upon rethinking this entry, lest you think I would have the audacity to put myself in the same atmosphere as Ms. Woolf, whose literary acumen is exponentially greater than mine, perhaps I should rename my entry “The Commoner Reader.”
This is not so much about a writer as a book, as not a lot has been written about John Williams, although I imagine that soon will change. In one of those literary miracles that occur every decade or so his novel Stoner, originally published in 1965 and republished in 2006 as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, (which republishes relatively unknown or largely forgotten books much like The Dalkey Archive Press) became an overnight sensation. It was another case of a prophet not being recognized in his own country; when originally published the book sold 2,000 copies and received little notice in the literary press, but its reputation was kept alive by word of mouth and the occasional review appearing over the years. When it was republished in 2006 it received glowing reviews and sold modestly at first, when Anna Gavalda, a best-selling French novelist read it and was so impressed she asked her publisher to buy the rights so she could translate it herself into French. The book took off in Europe because of her reputation and then acquired a huge audience on its own merits.
I suppose I had read about it somewhere or maybe heard the piece about it on NPR and immediately went out and bought a copy and was instantly hooked. That summer I read it on my lunch breaks in Forest Lawn Cemetery, a beautifully designed Olmsted project, sitting on a bench on a slight rise under a shade tree to shield myself from the relentless summer sun, and found that I enjoyed it so much it became one of those rare books you don’t ever want to end. I read much more slowly than normal, reflecting on what I had read each day, savoring each page, finally finishing it on the last day of summer on a golden day suffused in sunlight. Even then I was reluctant to go back to work but lingered a while longer in the shade, knowing this was a once in a lifetime experience. To describe what its about, the simple story of a man’s life, doesn’t do it justice, or explain why I felt immediately upon finishing it that it was the perfect novel, that I might even be able to write something like it myself because it seemed perfectly effortless, that anyone could do it, though I knew that was far from the case, but something to forever strive for. John Williams is an example of a writer’s writer par excellence, having published four novels and two books of poetry; alongside Stoner I highly recommend Augustus (which shared the 1972 National Book Award), and Butcher’s Crossing, published in 1960. He is why writers write, and it’s so fitting his work has been kept alive in the old way, via the oral tradition.
Just when I think I’m never going to discover a new writer again it usually happens that I do. And there is no better feeling, renewing my faith in the world. Such was the case with Richard Yates. I was getting acquainted with a co-worker of mine and, is my wont, was grilling her about literature. It turned out her son had attended Boston University in the early 80’s and had Yates as a teacher, another noteworthy teacher of his being the writer Jayne Anne Phillips. This was the first mention of Richard Yates and when I looked him up in the catalog Eleven Kinds of Loneliness struck my fancy and I was bowled over, initially by “Jody Rolled the Bones” and later much more so by the first story “Doctor Jack O’Lantern.” If Vincent Sabella isn’t one of the greatest characters in American literature I don’t know who is. Every story in the collection is a gem. It reminded me a lot of The Dubliners and, sure enough, when I went back to read reviews that was the overwhelming comparison. While I was at it I checked out Phillips’ Black Tickets and was also very impressed, especially by the haunting story “Gemcrack.” I bought both books and then went on to other things, re-reading them every so often. Then, in the 90’s, I was searching in the Fiction Catalog for fiction dealing with the subject of marriage (particularly bad ones) and came across Yates’ Revolutionary Road, which I immediately read, and bought a copy for myself because I knew I’d read it again. Imagine my surprise when, over a decade later, I read that a movie was being made based on the novel. While I know ahead of time the movie can never be as good as a great book, I had to see it for myself, excited that it was even being made. It was a disappointment of course as it could never portray the psychological nuances that were an integral part of the narrative, so it seemed a series of disjointed episodes with barely any coherence. I was glad I went and very glad they made the attempt because it gained Yates many readers, something he never had during his lifetime. An interesting (or not) sidenote was that Yates’ daughter went out with Larry David and Elaine Benes’ character was loosely based on her; in addition the Seinfeld episode “The Jacket” was based on David’s first meeting with the writer/father, just as Elaine’s father, Alton Benes’ character, was inspired by Richard Yates. In all Yates wrote 10 books (7 novels and 3 short story collections) and you can’t go wrong with any of them, although I recommend you begin as I did with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, then Revolutionary Road, and finally, The Easter Parade.
Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) was an Austrian writer who never shied away from controversy, in fact he courted it. His formative years were of course lived during the Hitler era, this after an unhappy childhood where his father died having never met him, his stepfather a Nazi, his mother a bitter angry woman who often took this out on him. To top it all off he contracted TB and spent two years in a sanitorium, where he met Wittgenstein’s nephew Paul (which incidentally gave him the title of one of his novels, Wittgenstein’s Nephew), and they became friends. His body of work has been called “the most significant literary achievement since WWII” and he is widely considered to be one of the most important German-speaking authors of the postwar era. His writing is compelling, relentless, fugue-like, wherein he reiterates his themes again and again, in sentences as long as 300 words and no chapter breaks. He had very controversial theories regarding suicide, the role of the Catholic Church in post-war Germany (he posited that it took the place of the Nazis with the same effect, as well that Christ replaced Hitler), education, and parenting (believing that parents destroyed their children). He wrote things most people might think but would never say and has no compunction about saying them, feeling they need to be said. The writer he most resembles is Samuel Beckett, who admired him. A must read starting point is his 5-part memoir, a one-volume work entitled Gathering Evidence; my favorite novel is Correction, which is his exegesis of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, followed by Concrete; another, The Loser has a protagonist based on Glenn Gould , but you can’t go wrong with any of his 30 translated novels, plays, novellas, stories, and poems. A word of caution: not for the fainthearted, you will either be fascinated or repelled with/by him.
As promised in my “Writer’s Writers” post yesterday I’d like to talk about the writers on the list who toiled in anonymity. Wright Morris (1910-1998) was born in Nebraska, and the Plains were his main theme. I first heard of him way back in my drinking days when I was a callow aspiring poet who hadn’t written very much of anything. A guy I met in a bar, Bob Groves, was the person who first uttered his name; he was a reporter for the now defunct “Courier Express,” Buffalo’s venerated morning newspaper. Depending on what time you caught him, Bob could be very interesting, when he was in his cups you wanted to stay away. A failed writer he said he had no talent, which he blamed for his drinking; we often talked about writers, and one night he mentioned Wright Morris, whom I’d never heard of. I respected his literary opinion and set out to find one of his books, which sadly were mostly out of print. Buffalo has a very good Central Library and since I like to start at the beginning, I began with his first book, “My Uncle Dudley.” I liked it right away, it being a road book featuring a young boy and his somewhat shady uncle and his nefarious ways. I went on to read most all of his works (over 30), with my favorites being “My Uncle Dudley,” “Plains Song,” and “Ceremony in Lone Tree.” He was also a great photographer, wrote a multi-volume memoir, and experimented with the narrative form in many different ways. His writing is timeless in the way he shows how things once were and will never be again: frozen water on the water barrel, home burials, weddings, and funerals, hard unremunerative farm work, arranged marriages, harsh winters and unrelenting summers. His prose is quietly immaculate, concise, a pleasure to read, but while he won many awards he was unread. I know of no one except myself (and possibly Bob Groves) who has read him, although I have recommended him time and again. If this piece in some small way rectifies that, I would be very happy.
A writer’s writer isn’t just an excellent writer, but a writer who is admired/appreciated/respected by other writers, but may not be by the general public, a writer you can LEARN from. To that end, I will create a short list of those writers (prose only for now) I put in this category (its purely subjective of course), and then will devote a daily entry to each, explaining why they belong. I welcome any and all names you would like to add to my list. Forthwith is the list (in no particular order):
Henry David Thoreau
Karl Ove Knausgaard
A Week was published in 1849, with a note at the back announcing the imminent publication of Walden; or, Life in the Woods. A Week was not well received by the public, however, and only two hundred copies of it sold in the first few years after its publication. Thoreau financed the volume himself. When publisher James Munroe returned the unsold copies to him in 1853, Thoreau wrote in a journal entry for October 28, 1853, “I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes over 700 of which I wrote myself–”
the voice of one crying in the wilderness…