Bartleby the Scrivener

I sat down at the airport next to an older woman reading a John Grisham novel and pulled this out. “Oh!” she said, “Is that a new book?” I assured her it was an oldie but a goodie and that’s all it took to launch us into a delightful conversation for the next hour waiting for our plane.

I’m not sure I can do a better recap than the one from 6 years ago. Except the last lines echo through my head (Melville was exceptional at last lines): “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust

Discovered Cornell by way of the documentary about Yayoi Kusama and immediately needed to know more. I grabbed both this catalog and a biography about him (Utopia Parkway by Deborah Solomon, which I gave up in disgust after 100 pages of her assumptions and mean-spirited comments about Cornell’s mother). The essays in this are excellent, especially that by Sarah Lea, and the extensive photographs of his work will stun you into silence. He was a man living in 20th century New York as well as 19th century Europe, despite never having traveled far from NYC. The basic facts of his life are known to all, born 1903, father dies when Joseph is 13, goes to Phillips Exeter Academy but then returns home and gets a job to support his mother and disabled brother, Robert. He lives with them until their deaths in 1966 and 1965, respectively. Joseph died in 1972. All of his work was done in the basement of the house that he lived in with his mom and brother in Queens, somewhat far removed from the bustling NYC art scene. Despite his remoteness, he was great pals with a variety of art superstars like Duchamp, Rothko, De Kooning, Warhol, as well as Susan Sontag and Lee Miller.

Reviewing his work I’m struck by the massive influence he had on other artists like Bruce Connor, whose own shadow boxes are direct descendants of Cornell’s. Also Cornell’s 1936 film montage from found footage (Rose Hobart) provoked a jealous reaction from Dali who said Cornell stole the idea from his subconscious. This prefigured Conner’s A Movie, as well. Need to try and find a copy of Thimble Theater (1938), Gnir Rednow (1960s), the wonder ring (brakhage’s 1955 film with cornell), centuries of june (1955 with brakhage)

Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing

Deborah Levy can be hit or miss; so far I’ve been either blown away or bored, and this falls into the bored category. She writes of escaping London where she was inexplicably crying whenever she took an escalator upwards, heading to Majorca and settling in to write. She shares a table with a Chinese shopkeeper and most of the book is supposedly what she unfurled about her life story to him.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

My first taste of Leduc’s fiction made me giddy with delight. As Deborah Levy says in the Foreword, “Violette Leduc’s novels are works of genius and also a bit peculiar.”

This is the story of a 60 year old woman who “was handling her sixtieth year as lightly as we touch the lint when dressing a wound.” She rents an attic room in Paris but is desperately poor, walking the streets and imagining life without living in the real world. She frequently opts to use money to ride the Metro instead of eating food, sustaining herself on the sights and sounds of the crowd that rushes past. At home she has a meager stock of a few sugar cubes, coffee beans, and potatoes that keep her going. It is February, bitterly cold, and she reminisces about a summer day wherein she woke at dawn to rummage through the garbage looking for a piece of orange to suck on. Instead she found a fox fur, which she then kisses and treats like her husband. Now that it’s winter, the time has come to try and sell it, and she’s rejected. Instead of getting much needed money, she whirls around in ecstasy that she’s been reunited with her love, the fox fur. She sticks her hand out and begs for a few coins which she turns into food. Back at home, she tucks the fox away, marches around, lies on the bed, and sinks into her own world. As she says herself, “her world consisted of nothing but what she had invented.”

“Living was simple: it was no more than a few habitual actions strong on to a routine.”

Excellently translated by Derek Coltman.

Tender is the Night

I finally got around to reading F. Scott  FitzPlagiarizer’s final novel, where he lifted whole sections from Zelda’s letters to him from the sanatorium and dropped them into the book (as exposed in Ch 17 of Nancy Milford’s biography, Zelda). It’s amazing it got written at all, with the quantities of alcohol Scott was soaking himself in while writing it.

There are clues to why Zelda might lose her mind in his writing, like the assertion “like most women she liked to be told how she should feel…” And he almost approaches a confession with “Nicole’s emotions had been used unfairly—what if they turned out to have been his own?”

The only time Dick Diver approaches seeming like a human is when he gets a telegram of his father’s death: “He felt a sharp wince at the shock, a gathering of the forces of resistance; then it rolled up through his loins and stomach and throat. He read the message again. He sat down on the bed, breathing and staring; thinking first the old selfish child’s thought that comes with the death of a parent, how will it affect me now that this earliest and strongest of protections is gone?”

Otherwise Diver is a cardboard cutout of a charming older man who resents that his wife has a lot of money. In Book 1, the big reveal is that Nicole/Zelda has lost her marbles–she’s saying weird things while trying to wash blood of a murdered man’s sheets. Nicole is also coming to grips with Dick’s lust-love for Rosemary, the 18 year old American actress. Book 2 sees the Divers in Switzerland operating a hospital where Dick practices medicine of the head shrinking variety. He can’t stand Nicole, breaks away for a conference where he learns of his father’s death, sails for America, returns via Naples where he consummates his relationship with Rosemary. Book 3 is the further disintegration of him into alcoholism, losing his hospital, losing his wife, finally returning to America and getting into trouble here and there while Nicole finds love with Tommy.

Goodbye Vitamin: A Novel

Very sweet book about a 30 year old woman who’s just been dumped by her fiance (who then goes on to marry another woman and have a kid) who visits her parents near LA for the holidays, only to be asked by her mother if she could stay on for a year to help out with caring for her father as he descends into Alzheimer’s. The narrator promptly returns to San Francisco, quits her job, loads her car up and heads back south for the year. The father is slowly unraveling, has been removed from his teaching post and some considerate grad students hatch an idea to have him teach unofficially (although he thinks it’s real). The father also uncovers a book of notes he kept when the narrator was young, all her various questions and insights, and now she returns the favor by jotting down all the things he does.

Calamities

Tedious repetition of “I began the day…” introduces each new section. The only good parts were where she reveals some of herself, like the trip she took with sisters and mother to Hilton Head, eating Snickers the entire time. Problem is that she doesn’t do enough of this to carry you through, to make you care.

Obligatory recommendation from Eileen Myles because she’s mentioned in the book? I did also like the part where she’s written Gail Scott’s sentences up on her wall, but the parroting of Scott’s style made me blush; I, too, had been guilty of that trick, using Scott’s short sentences and gerunds to goad myself into writing.

Paris Speen by Baudelaire

Baudelaire has been on my mind lately, a bit because I’ve been hobnobbing with the French writers of the 20th century, but mostly from Brautigan’s poem, The Galilee Hitchhiker, wherein Baudelaire does various things like pick up a hitchhiking Jesus in his Model A Ford or open a hamburger stand in San Francisco or watch a baseball game or go into an insane asylum.

I read the Martin Sorrell translation, not being up on my French. In the intro, Sorrell reminds us that Baudelaire’s misogyny “permeates everything.” Oh goody. Suck it up, ladies, and open your mouths for another shit sandwich. Nevertheless, I persisted in reading his selection of poems because I’m curious about what he witnessed in 1860s Paris. One of the titles Baudelaire considered for the poems was Le Rôdeur parisien, “prowler around Paris,” which I love. He’s a “wanderer, ironic and eccentric, the flaneur adrift in a wasteland of deprivation, squalor, failed ambition, and rich in flawed and affecting humanity… The ordinary humanity of the wanderer, as well as of the ambitious artist, begins to find recompense in the teeming mess that is Paris.”

Baudelaire had been thinking about Paris as a subject as early as 1846, “Parisian life is rich in poetic, marvelous subjects. We are surrounded by the marvelous, which sustains us like air itself, but which we do not perceive.” An 1862 letter outlined his ambition for prose poems: “Who has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch consciousness?” As Sorrell notes in the intro, “The idea of major interest here is that the prose should be poetic and musical without the support of meter and rhyme… The prose poem allows, more readily than verse, rapid and random changes of mood, contrasts, incongruities… the flexibility to place side by side such antagonists as lyricism and analysis, the glib and the intense, irony and sincerity, beauty and ugliness.”

The poems themselves give us a sense for Baudelaire the man, luring a glassmaker up six floors to pretend to want to purchase his wares only to shout at him that there is no colored glass, how dare he try to sell something that doesn’t make life look beautiful, shoving him down the stairs and dropping a pot of flowers on him from the 6th floor which caused him to smash his entire pack of glassware. “And drunk on my madness I raged at him: ‘Make life beautiful, make life beautiful.’ Such tortured antics are not without danger, and often they cost us dear. But what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?” We see his hatred of women come out clearly in other works. But then he entertains us with poems like this 1864 gem entitled “Be Drunk”:

Be drunk always. Nothing else matters; there are no other subjects. Not to feel the grim weight of Time breaking your backs and bending you double, you must get drunk and stay drunk. But drunk on what? Wine, poetry, virtue—the choice is yours. Just be drunk. And if sometimes, on a palace staircase, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy isolation of your chamber, you wake sober or just a little tipsy, ask the wind, waves, stars, birds, clocks, ask anything that flies, moans, moves, sings, speaks, ask it the time. And the wind, wave, star, bird, clock will reply: “Time to get drunk! To avoid the enslaved martyrdom of Time, get drunk and stay drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, the choice is yours!

 

Witches’ Sabbath

This is the work Maurice Sachs was writing while holed up with Violette Leduc in Normandy during WWII, Leduc voicing her caution that he was being hard on Cocteau in his reminisces. Since we have Sachs to thank for pushing her to write her own autobiography, I felt required to read his.

While doing a quick search about their relationship, I stumbled on horridly misogynistic Harold Acton’s 1966 NYRB review of Leduc’s work wherein he states (among vicious rips on Leduc’s prose): “The insistence on ovaries throughout this tome is a leitmotiv which eventually gets on one’s nerves to such an extent that one sympathizes wholeheartedly with her friend Maurice Sachs when he explodes: ‘Your unhappy childhood is beginning to bore me to distraction. This afternoon you will take your basket, a pen, and an exercise book, and you will go and sit under an apple tree. Then you will write down all the things you tell me.'”

But back to Sachs. This book, compared to Leduc’s masterpiece, is a tepid bath swirling with soap scum and the occasional rubber ducky. We follow his progress through life, from his childhood yearning to be a girl, his family losing its fortune, realizing his preference for boys, his desperation to become a writer, sudden conversion to Catholicism and entry into a monastery, departure into army life, life as an art dealer, years living in New York (where he acquires and abandons a wife, then departs with boyfriend to France), life in Paris then the provinces mostly in poverty, etc.

An invocation at the beginning:

May this book ultimately free me of my first self so that when I have completed it I can exclaim: Here is a life over and done with! It has been lived, confessed, expiated; I say farewell to it in order ot begin another in accord with the ideal I have conceived in misfortune, the result of all my follies.

On how writing can help one’s sanity:

It’s extraordinary how it drains off your moods; the composition of a novel clears your mind! You sweat out your bitterness exactly the way you sweat out your acidity when you do calisthenics. Doubtless that’s why everyone writes today, as a form of hygiene…

I was pleased by what he said about my own city after a visit in the 1930s:

When autumn came, we set out on my second lecture tour. It brought us, after several intermediary stops, to San Francisco, where I would rather end my days than in any other city. Here are the seven hills of Rome, and a bay that stands comparison with Rio’s. The glowing skies, the forests of mimosa that grow down to a sea incredibly bluer than the Mediterranean, a mild climate, a wildly luxuriant flora that blossoms in a thousand ravishing gardens, and below them, a port, last guard of the West and already partaking of the Oriental mystery: everything continues to make San Francisco a city without a peer.

Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure

Joseph Wechsberg takes you on a culinary tour of Europe in the early 20th century, dropping mouth-watering descriptions of the sumptuous feasts he attended (although I was less fond of the endless pages describing the meat dishes). Also enjoyable are the depictions of his own growing up, moving out from under the wealthy family thumb in Austria and trying to make it on his own as a violinist in Paris. His first trip to Paris is in 1926, intending to study at the Sorbonne but getting immersed in street life instead. By mispronouncing Montparnasse, his cab driver dropped him in the middle of Monmartre instead, and he gets a room in a fleabag brothel for a month. After a terrible first night trying to sleep, he discovers harmony with the place by staying up as late as the girls and sleeping till afternoon, completely abandoning his plan to study. In this atmosphere he finds a delightful hole in the wall prix-fixe restaurant where he takes all his meals. An entertaining romp through the restaurants of post-war Europe, peppered with tales from the waiters who bemoan the years gone by.

Convenience Store Woman

Sayaka Murata’s story (translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori) about a weirdo woman who just can’t fit in with society. She knows from an early age she’s not quite right, clanging one kid over the head with a shovel to stop a fight, gleefully bringing a dead bird to her mom and saying they should cook it for dad’s dinner. She struggles through school then ends up taking a wrong turn and spotting a convenience store that’s about to open in a business district. By the next week, she’s all trained up and ready to help them open. The employee manual is the first time anyone has given her explicit instructions on how she’s supposed to behave, what to say, what facial expressions to make, and she loves it, she fits in. Eighteen years later, she’s still there, working diligently and absorbing speech patterns and fashion tips from her coworkers. Her so-called friends worry about her having a dead end job and no husband, so she asks the guy who just got fired from the store if he wants to get married. He moves in and hides from the world and from his debt, sponging off her meager salary and encouraging her to find a different job that pays more, to take care of him. He flips through the help wanted ads, happy to peruse them as long as the job isn’t for him. On the day of her interview, she wanders back into a convenience store and realizes that’s where she belongs, so dumps him and dives back into her life.

Mad in Pursuit (La folie en tête)

I’m tired of discovering amazing women writers then browsing used bookstores pretending there’s a chance to find a stray copy of their work. Leduc is a new favorite with the double burden of being both woman and French, so having to suffer the pain of translation may have sapped history’s ability to keep her in memory.

Her pal Jean Genet said, “She is an extraordinary woman. She is crazy, ugly, cheap, and poor, but she has a lot of talent.” And yet she was mostly overlooked during her lifetime, only achieving crumbs of fame with the first part of her autobiographical La Batarde (1964). Mad in Pursuit was part two (1970), picking up after WWII was over and detailing her creative struggles, continuing adoration of Simone de Beauvoir, describing life as a middle-aged single woman, claiming a desperate love for Jacques (gay factory-owning businessman who privately published some of her work).

Waiting for Simone de Beauvoir, her punctuality is oh too familiar:

I was early. I am always early. I waste my time with an excess of punctuality… I am early, I wait, I am nonexistent. It’s not boring, I nibble at myself. I imagine other minutes between the minutes, other seconds between the seconds. I double the money of the time that is rotting me minute by minute, second by second. An insect advances slowly across my grave: the needle of the clock. I am early, I spin time out, I have time to sell.

She watches mothers with their babies and muses on what her life would have been like:

Our daily lives were too different. I could never enter theirs. I am a little more than they are and yet much, much less: a writer steering her way, a woman crazy with love, a crackpot refusing to follow her madness to its conclusion… They were living, they weren’t writing. Their walk, their outing was enough for them. Whereas I was exploiting them, since I had gone looking for them, since I am now describing them. To write is to inform against others.

The reality of being alone as an old woman:

I walk, I look for trees with bark twisted into strange shapes; clouds stretch themselves in the sky: sensual delights. They keep me company, they are all I have. I have an appearance of happiness, I have an illusion of foreboding when the stay a little longer than usual over me. I am less abandoned than I thought before. I wait for them, I observe them, I compare them, I interpret them… I should lose my reason if I didn’t have you, little white clouds. I should go home dull-eyed, leaden-footed, bent-backed. Old women, so unfortunate, still have aspirations. Is she cold? Is she e’soo co’d? my mother would say to me when I was little, as she pulled on a sixth woolly. What made me warmest of all? That excision of the letter l from the word ‘cold.’ Is she co’d, is she e’soo co’d, I repeat along the roads while no one in the world looks out for me.

Her descriptions of writing:

Finding the exact word means concentrating oneself into a single point, but it also means wandering through labyrinths of impotence.

And my writing? It saps me. What does it inspire in me? Laziness, hollow hours, excuses for lazying my life away. I am literature’s parasite. I must write. Then I change my mind. I spend my time at the cinema, in empty churches, in grimy little parks. I run away from my exercise book. It is my refuge. Yet I search for places where I can take refuge from it. I neglect it without abandoning it entirely. I am sickened by it all. I ought to be making a new life; all I do is write about my past life. I sink further and further into the silt of my past.

How innocent. How ignorant. I write… I write three notebook pages a day. It’s too much and it’s not enough, that’s the root of the problem and there I am chained to my anxieties, there I am coveting the sweeper’s broom, the street cleaner’s wheeled bin… I admire them: they have a job… I stagnate in Paris, I am wasting my time in Cocteau’s country house. ‘How well you will be able to work here!’ Yes, if work meant unloading sacks of flour from morning till night. I’m not ambitious, and yet I have great expectations when I write: I live with the hope of placing the mind-blowing word exactly in the place that awaits it. I can’t find it, I splatter about in my sweet whipped cream… Write? I haven’t the time. The setting sun races bleeding down the sky and carries me with it. Why, why add my name to the list of authors who are not read?

Ah, Violette, you are read, you are adored. (Translated by the excellent Derek Coltman.)

Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and In Watermelon Sugar

There he is, glower-smiling at you on the cover, standing in Washington Square Park (SF) and wearing his hat and vest, clothes that he apparently found lucky and refused to stop wearing. I’m not so sure of this trick of packaging together 3 of his works into one, but just like the other 3-pack I read, they were of varying quality. This one starts with his breakout book, Trout Fishing in America, the one that got him into all sorts of trouble by making him famous and that fame puffing up his head so he couldn’t think straight. It’s the strongest piece in this collection, followed by The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (a book of entertaining poems) and the unreadable In Watermelon Sugar.

Some of my favorite of the poems in The Pill:

Xerox Candy Bar
  Ah,/ you’re just a copy/ of all the candy bars/ I’ve ever eaten

Love Poem
It’s so nice/ to wake up in the morning/ all alone/ and not have to tell somebody/ you love them/ when you don’t love them/ any more.

In a Cafe
I watched a man in a cafe fold a slice of bread as if he were folding a birth certificate or looking at the photograph of a dead lover.

Our Beautiful West Coast Thing

 We are a coast people
There is nothing but ocean out beyond us.
— Jack Spicer

I sit here dreaming/ long thoughts of California/ at the end of a November day/ below a cloudy twilight/ near the Pacific/ listening to The Mamas and The Papas/ THEY’RE GREAT/ singing a song about breaking/ somebody’s heart and digging it!/ I think I’ll get up/ and dance around the room./ Here I go!

The Art and Films of Lynn Hershman Leeson

The more I learn about Lynn Hershman’s work, the more I miss a San Francisco teeming with artists, writers, weirdos. I recently remembered Hershman after encountering a writeup in a July 1977 Art in America article that described her 1976 Bonwit Teller window displays—a mannequin’s hand bursts through the window in one, in another a crime of passion is on display (one mannequin shoots another).

This book is a collection of her major works and films, showing you at a glance how much her work investigates how people interact with technology, her interest in sociology, feminism, capitalism.

As a young woman artist, she wrote art reviews and essays under 3 pseudonyms, gaining columns in the local paper and as an editor at Artweek, writing for national art magazines and European art journals. She wrote about the work of Lynn Hershman and took these reviews in to galleries where she was able to get her first exhibitions and real evaluations.

Several of her pieces took place in SF, like Roberta Breitmore, the Dante Hotel, and Two Stories Building (images of fire projected onto windows of a downtown building along with fog machine billowing smoke, dancers leaping out of windows. A passerby actually called the fire department who showed up and aimed hoses at the projected images of fire).

Another window display, something that would never get done today? Philadelphia location of Wanamaker’s department store, Hershman showed an image of woman luxuriating contrasted with a darker image of someone who couldn’t quite reach the credit card out of his grasp (Non Credited Americans, 1981), slide show of elderly, minorities, and women who had been denied credit, endless audiotape loop of interviews of unsuccessful attempts to get credit.

Feminasty: The Complicated Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy Without Drinking Herself to Death

I love getting surprise packages to my PO Box! This one was waiting for me, a present from a feminist pal, and I tore through it quickly, hungry for laughter in an age of insanity. Erin Gibson is hilarious and will make you feel like you’re sitting across the table from her at a long boozy ladies’ brunch, taking pot shots at Mike Pence, Betsy deVos, her moronic gynecologist, herself, her family. It’s the type of book that’s entertaining without being overly fluffy, a good blend of educational topics with sass and sarcasm.