This entry will be about finishing. A couple entries ago I wrote a sad post about how I can’t get thru any of the books that I’ve lately attempted to read – I get stuck halfway. Well that lamentation weighed on me; the act of articulating the problem caused me to register it deeply: I could now no longer brush it away; and this had a positive effect: it made me so ashamed of my inertia that I ended up making progress – in the last few days, I’ve made it to the end of most of the troublesome texts. (Tho, to be clear: I, the reader, was the problem; not they, the writings.)
First, we finished reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s translation of Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova (“New Life”) – by “we” I mean my sweetheart and me, for this is one of the books that we’re reading aloud daily – the Dante text was actually the last work in the collection: it comes after the “Manuscript Translations” section in the Library of America’s Collected Poems and Translations of Ralph Waldo Emerson – so after finishing R.W.E.’s version of Dante’s New Life, I immediately requested a copy of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation of the same, which I’ve always wanted to read. The other English version of this that I own is Mark Musa’s. Goddamn I really need to learn Italian…
Wasn’t it Jorge Luis Borges? I thought it was Borges who said that he learned to read Dante’s Italian text by using a “literal” translation of the Divine Comedy which had an English prose rendition facing the Italian verse on every page: Borges simply read both the translation and then the original verse, and by doing so familiarized himself with Italian enough that, after navigating the Inferno and Purgatory, at the point in the poem where Virgil takes his leave of Dante the Pilgrim, Borges no longer needed the aid of the English – he was able to follow Dante through Paradise on his own. Am I remembering this wrong? It seems too painless to be true. Maybe Borges was lying.
Anyway, because I have nothing to do in this entry other than make a list of the books I’ve finished, I’ll try to give a quote from each, for the sake of theft. So here’s the very last section of La Vita Nuova, in Emerson’s translation; it interests me because, although it contains no verse, Dante offers an explanation of the impetus and intention of his upcoming work, the one that will follow his New Life, the Divine Comedy.
After this sonnet, appeared to me a wonderful vision, in which I saw things which made me determine to say no more of this Blessed one, until I could more worthily discourse of her; and to come at that, I study to the utmost, as she verily knows. So that, if it shall be the pleasure of Him to whom all things live, that my life should continue for some years, I hope to say of her that which was never said of any one; and then may it please him who is the Lord of courtesy, that my soul, if it be possible, may go to see the glory of Him who is blessed through all ages.
“I hope to say of her that which was never said of any one” – that’s my favorite line here.
Next I finished that book that, as I explained in that previous entry, my boss’s wife told me to read. I wish I could report some good news; I wish I could say that I learned a lot about what makes novels bestsellers, and about what makes them popular among the modern masses; but, I’m as confused as I always have been, about why MOST people apparently approve of this type of writing while despising all that I myself adore. (You will note that I have broken its spine in the obligatory image.)
The silver lining of that pop novel’s thundercloud was that it lured me to tackle a collection that I’d put down long ago. How did it do this? Well that highly recommended book reminded me of a grade-schooler’s story: amateurish, juvenile… so I said to myself, You’ll never be in a better state of mind to finish that collection called SLOW LEARNER: Early Stories by Thomas Pynchon, because your boss’s wife’s nameless bestseller felt like it was written by a kid in high school, and the three of five stories that you read from the Pynchon collection felt like college-kid exercises to you, so maybe the last two will seem brilliant, now that your expectations have been so drastically lowered. And I was correct: I zipped right thru the last two stores in the collection, with pleasure. So that’s another title to check off as finished. But the best part of Slow Learner is the author’s introduction, so I’ll give a quote from that. Pynchon is so guarded and hermetic in his personal life that it’s rare to get his own take on his own work. I chose this paragraph mainly because of my god-wrestling attitude towards Surrealism (see Genesis 32:22-32); I’m always eager to know what other poets think of the movement. But I also like what Pynchon says here, in general; and his quote from the son of Spike Jones also catches the interest of the part of my mind that fell in love with the sample-collage techniques of early rap music, which have a near-far relation not only to Jones but to certain members of the aforementioned artistic faction:
Another influence in “Under the Rose,” too recent for me then to abuse to the extent I have done since, is Surrealism. I had been taking one of those elective courses in Modern Art, and it was the Surrealists who’d really caught my attention. Having as yet virtually no access to my dream life, I missed the main point of the movement, and became fascinated instead with the simple idea that one could combine inside the same frame elements not normally found together to produce illogical and startling effects. What I had to learn later on was the necessity of managing this procedure with some degree of care and skill: any old combination of details will not do. Spike Jones, Jr., whose father’s orchestral recordings had a deep and indelible effect on me as a child, said once in an interview, “One of the things that people don’t realize about Dad’s kind of music is, when you replace a C-sharp with a gunshot, it has to be a C-sharp gunshot or it sounds awful.”
Also it’s interesting to me that, just as Dante’s New Life precedes his three-part masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, the early story that ends Pynchon’s collection (“The Secret Integration”) precedes what I consider the ramp of his own three masterpieces: The Crying of Lot 49. (The other two that I think are impossible to overpraise are Gravity’s Rainbow and my personal favorite Mason & Dixon.)
The next book that I finished was a collection of writings by André Breton, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, titled Manifestoes of Surrealism – although the book contains more texts than just the official manifestoes. I became interested in Surrealism when I was younger, just out of high school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I began visiting the library and browsing. I thought I might find my calling in one of the books on the shelves. I was attracted to the art section – the oversized books, which contained illustrations of visual artists from the past and present. I had no method; I just grabbed whatever titles appealed to me and flipped thru their pages, and took them home if their pictures killed my inner suburbanite. This is how I discovered my favorite artists. I never was very interested in group labels, although I always wanted to know what they meant, what types of work they referred to, whenever I encountered them. Usually I would note a few well-loved artists among any list of any group’s members—Impressionism; Mannerism; Pop Art; etc.—but when I looked into what Surrealism encompassed, I was shocked to find that it held ALL my absolute favorites. Either the artists who appealed to me most were “official” Surrealists, or they were precursors to the movement, or somewhere just outside of the term’s borders. Breton then appeared on my radar, because people frequently referred to him as the ringmaster of Surrealism, its founder or pope. I don’t like the idea of authority, I don’t like gatekeepers; so this aspect of Breton didn’t appeal to me; but I learned to admire him for his daring (earlier) poetry, for his articulation of his ideas in the aforesaid manifestos, for his artistic taste, and for his disposition to never cease the mental fight. Compared to Breton’s, I’ve always found Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifestos more thrilling, more rewarding in every way; just plain better; but, for some reason, Dada didn’t produce as many great artists or artworks; and there’s something DARK: a pitch black genius in Breton and in Surrealism which makes up for whatever it lacks of Tzara’s exuberance. …Anyway, here’s a quote from a lecture that Breton delivered in Prague, in March, on my birthday, in 1935, titled “Surrealist Situation of the Object”:
Perhaps the greatest danger threatening Surrealism today is the fact that because of its spread throughout the world, which was very sudden and rapid, the word found favor much faster than the idea and all sorts of more or less questionable creations tend to pin the Surrealist label on themselves […] To avoid such misunderstandings or render such vulgar abuses impossible in the future, it would be desirable for us to establish a very precise line of demarcation between what is Surrealist in its essence and what seeks to pass itself off as such for publicity or for other reasons. The ideal, obviously, would be for every authentic Surrealist object to have some distinctive outer sign so that it would be immediately recognizable; Man Ray thought it should be a sort of hallmark or seal. In the same way that, for example, the spectator can read on the screen the inscription “A Paramount Film” (leaving, in this case, the insufficient guarantee of quality that results from it out of the discussion), the amateur, who up to now has not been sufficiently forewarned, would discover on the poem, the book, the drawing, the canvas, the sculpture, the new construction before him a mark that would be inimitable and indelible, something like: “A Surrealist Object.”
I don’t think that this is a good idea, practically speaking. That’s why I love it. Also, on a side note, the artist that Breton refers to here, Man Ray, was born Emmanuel Radnitzky; I myself was born Bryan Ray, so whenever I use a pseudonym, I steal HIS last name cuz he stole MINE – I go by Tertius Radnitsky. The name Tertius comes from the biblical book of Romans (16:22) “I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you…” Now since my spiritual nemesis St. Paul dictated this book called Romans to his amanuensis, by using that same name Tertius I claim for myself the status of Holy Ghostwriter.
So, having finished two of the books in our stack of titles from which we daily read aloud, I got to choose two new titles to replace them. In place of Emerson’s collection, I chose The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. I can never re-read William Blake enough. And in place of Breton, I chose a strange novel by Giorgio de Chirico, who is better known for his visual art, his paintings, but this text is sublime – it’s called Hebdomeros – I’ve read it once before and I loved it and wanted to get to know it better. The copy that I own has an excellent introduction by the poet John Ashbery – I’ll copy the first two paragraphs here, because, in light of what I’ve quoted above, it feels fitting.
Surrealism has probably been the most powerful single influence on the twentieth-century novel, yet it has produced few notable surrealist novels. André Breton’s Nadja, the official masterpiece, has aged badly and reads intermittently like a solemn put-on. Far better is the collection of short prose narratives called The Immaculate Conception, which he wrote with Paul Eluard. With this work and a few of Aragon’s pre-Communist novels, such as The Peasant of Paris and The Adventures of Telemachus, the list of major works of surrealist fiction is almost complete. The finest of them, however, is probably Hebdomeros, written by Giorgio de Chirico in 1929 and now at last available in English. It scarcely matters that de Chirico, both as a painter and a writer, was “not really” a surrealist. If this is true, then the term ought to be refined to include him and also to exclude a great deal of drivel that can qualify as surrealism under the famous “automatic writing” clause in Breton’s manifesto.
Everyting about Hebdomeros is mysterious. De Chirico wrote it a decade after his genius as a painter had mysteriously evaporated. He wrote it in French, a language not his own, and he invented for the occasion a new style and a new kind of novel which he was not to use again, but which could be of great interest to writers today who are trying to extend the novel form. Yet except for a few short fragments, de Chirico wrote nothing else which can be called literature, and apparently he set little store by Hebdomeros. It remained unobtainable and all but unknown until 1964, when it was reissued in France.
It pains me to quote only from the introduction and not the work itself. There’s no excuse for this: it’s bad. But I must move on…
I didn’t tell you that, for months and months, off and on, whenever there’s time, we’ve also been reading The Complete Short Stories of D.H. Lawrence. We own a three-volume collection, which we found being sold DIRT CHEAP at a used book store. Lawrence, at his best, is one of my favorite writers – I love him as much as Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Kafka, Emerson… Tho he’s written some lousy stuff, I don’t care about that – I only judge artists by their finest work; I ignore their failures. The best poems of Lawrence are my favorite poems; the best novels of Lawrence are my favorite novels (Sons and Lovers… The Rainbow… Women in Love…); he’s contributed to every form of text I know—personal letters; travel writing; even biblical criticism—and his short stories are amazing. More often than not, I end up in tears and must blubber my way thru the end of the piece (we read all these aloud too), on account of the way that he puts me inside of his characters: the reader truly becomes each individual... it is instant, automatic empathy... Lawrence possesses an uncanny ability to get right to the BEATING HEART of existence: the fire within… the passions of the soul… the DRIVES that make and break relationships… the inner workings of the human spirit… the holiest secrets of family and friendship. I cannot heap enough acclaim on these scriptures.
But I must skip giving a quote from Lawrence’s tales – the collection is far too rich; it’d take me forever to find the right excerpt for this entry; either that or I’d want to go on and on, quote quote quote, I’d never stop… So I thank you for letting me off the hook.
Lastly, I even managed to get through Gore Vidal’s Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s. It arrived (again, for I re-requested it) at my local library a couple days ago, and I dedicated my weekend to the task and ended up finishing it in a few hours. I only had about the last fourth of the book to tackle, for I’d gotten thru most of it, the first time I checked it out, a few weeks ago, but then my time ran out and I had to return it. So now I can proceed with the series: I already ordered the next title in Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire,” which is the last of the volumes that I need to read, since I started with The Golden Age:, which is #7 of 7, and I liked it so much that I decided to begin at the beginning. Now the one I’m awaiting is Washington, D.C. – the first novel (of this particular group) that Vidal published, and chronologically (according to the overarching story of the books) it’s the sixth. I’m surprised I was attracted enough to undertake perusing the entire project. I like the first novel, Burr, the best. The “big picture” of the U.S.A. that I now hold in my mind is invaluable. The repetitions of deceptions by the rich against the poor, the shenanigans of politics in general, the always-corrupt press, the inescapable propaganda, money money money, the effective misuse of words like freedom, democracy, etc… wholesale corruption… the lies that our “leaders” broadcast repetitively, generation after generation, to get an inherently peaceful populace to accept war after war…
Everything that’s going on right this instant in politics has its twin moment somewhere in the near past – that’s what I gather. If only our nation had a memory. Elsewhere I’ve heard Vidal call us The United States of Amnesia. That famous line from Ecclesiastes is untrue for art but quite true for politics: There’s nothing new under the sun. ...Now here’s a brief excerpt from Hollywood – I purposely chose a part that’s NOT overtly about politics:
Ned was on a new regime which he called “English drinking.” This involved a first drink at about eleven in the morning and then, at regular intervals throughout the day, he would continue drinking. The result was, so far, satisfactory. Although he was never drunk he was also never sober, very much in the English manner…
Now, since Vidal’s book was something I was reading on my own (as opposed to aloud with my sweetheart), and since the next book in the series has yet to find its way to my local library branch, I needed a title to fill the time while I wait; so I chose to try, try again the novel Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I first saw the 1984 film adaptation, directed by John Huston, which intrigued me enough to seek out the book it was based on. I got halfway thru the text before being halted in my progress and dragged away by reality (nothing too awful, but you know how life can distract you from the most important activities)… I’m starting over at the beginning, and I’m determined to stick with it this time. It won’t be hard: the text is topnotch. To contribute to the theme of that last Vidal quote above, here’s a quote from the very first chapter of Lowry’s masterwork:
Those boys were unprecedented, portentous walkers. They thought nothing of walking twenty-five or thirty miles in a day. But what seemed stranger still, considering none was above school age, they were also unprecedented, portentous drinkers. In a mere five-mile walk they would stop at as many “pubs” and drink a pint or two of powerful beer in each. Even the youngest, who had not turned fifteen, would get through his six pints in an afternoon. And if anyone was sick, so much the better for him. That made room for more. […] indeed the whole family drank inordinately. Old Taskerson, a kindly sharp man, had lost the only one of his sons who’d inherited any degree of literary talent; every night he sat brooding in his study with the door open, drinking hour after hour, his cats on his lap, his evening newspaper crackling distant disapproval of the other sons, who for their part sat drinking hour after hour in the dining room. Mrs. Taskerson, a different woman at home, where she perhaps felt less necessity of making a good impression, sat with her sons, her pretty face flushed, half disapproving too, but nevertheless cheerfully drinking everyone else under the table. It was true the boys usually had a head start.—Not that they were the sort ever to be seen staggering about outside in the street. It was a point of honour with them that, the drunker they became, the more sober they should appear. As a rule they walked fabulously upright, shoulders thrown back, eyes front, like guardsmen on duty, only, towards the end of the day, very very slowly, with that same “erect manly carriage” […] Even so it was by no means an unusual occurrence in the morning to discover the entire household sleeping on the dining-room floor. Yet no one seemed to feel any the worse for it...
So that’s the list of all my recent book-finishings. I feel like there were even more, but the specifics escape me… Oh wait, now I remember: We also finished the second of six Daybooks (titled Liber Illustrium Virorum) by the poet Geoffrey Hill. I forgot about that, because the text is published along with all the other books in the collection Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012. The next title, which we’ll start tomorrow (that is, if it shall be the pleasure of Him to whom all things live, that my life should continue past this night), is called Oraclau | Oracles. That’s Daybook III. After we make it through IV, V, & VI, we’ll be done with Hill’s collection, which is a very thick book – more than 900 pages. And we will replenish that void with Elizabeth Bishop.