Flight out of time : a Dada diary by Hugh Ball

Chris Kraus set me onto Hugo Ball’s diaries, but I’m afraid that I’m not in much of a mood to appreciate this primary source view of 1916-era Zurich & the creation of the Dadaism movement. “What we are celebrating is both buffoonery and a requiem mass” hits just a little too close to home now. But for further study, I would like to dive into Emmy (Ball-)Hennings life a bit more.

Ball explains that Dada is “yes, yes” in Rumanian, “rocking horse”  and “hobbyhorse” in French, a sign of foolish naivete & preoccupation with the baby carriage in German.

Some invaluable advice on writing:

“It is imperative to write invulnerable sentences. Sentences that withstand all irony. The better the sentence, the higher the rank. In eliminating vulnerable syntax or association one preserves the sum of the things that constitute the style and the pride of a writer—taste, cadence, rhythm, and melody.”

On avoiding being a concrete presence:

“It is a mistake to believe in my presence. I am just polite and accommodating. I have difficulty in feigning a real existence to myself. If a salesclerk sells me a pair of suspenders, he smiles smugly in an unmistakable way. My shy tone of voice and my hesitant behavior have long since shown him that I am an ‘artist,’ an idealist, a creature of air. If I take a seat at a party, I can see even from afar that only a ghost is sitting there. Every citizen who is only halfway brave and solid regards me as inferior and suspicious. So I avoid letting myself be seen.”

Madness from boundless desire to be different:

“With all the passion at my disposal I am trying to put aside certain paths and possibilities (e.g., career, a bourgeois existence, etc.) completely and forever. My present life is likely to give me substantial support in this intention. From time to time, whenever the suspicious ‘harmony’ of my nature breaks through, I smell a rat and instinctively try to commit some foolish act, an error, an offense, to bring myself down again in my own eyes. I cannot let certain talents and abilities appear. My higher conscience and my understanding forbid it.

‘Know thyself.’ As if it were so simple! As if only good will and introspection were needed. An individual can compare himself, see himself, and correct himself wherever an eternal ideal is firmly anchored in closely knit forms of education and culture, of literature and politics. But what if all norms are shaky and in a state of confusion? What if illusions dominate not only the present but also all generations; if race and tradition, blood and spirit, if all the reliable possessions of the past are all profaned, desecrated, and defaced? What if all the voices in the symphony are at variance with each other? Who will know himself then? Who will find himself then?

I notice that I am falling into a slight madness that comes from my boundless desire to be different.”

Avoid defenestration!

“Remove yourself as far as possible from the times in order to assess them. But do not lean so far out of the window that you fall out.”



All the Birds in the Sky

I loved this book, choosing to forego sleep in order to consume in one blast. Two ends of the spectrum, nature vs machine, battle it out for the future of the planet, fate stemming from the early childhood friendship of Patricia and Laurence. The book begins with Patricia discovering she has the ability to understand what birds are saying, and they lead her to a tree (Parliament) where she discovers that she must be a witch. But then her powers disappear for a handful of years, until she starts hanging out with Laurence, the local geek who builds himself a 2 second time machine wristwatch and who ends up creating artificial intelligence (CH@NG3M3 -> Peregrine). An assassin masquerades as a guidance counselor trying to get Patricia to kill Laurence. Patricia grows up to be a fierce witch, ends up battling the project that Laurence has devoted his life to. In adulthood, they dash all around San Francisco, hitting up spots like the Dovre Club and Ocean Beach/Great Highway.

It was especially fitting to read during these uncertain times. “When the whole world turns chaotic, we must be the better part of chaos,” says Ernesto, the witch who is locked away in the mini mall on Mission and who turns into green vegetation once outside. Patricia also has words of wisdom: “She held on tight to her anger… had no time for grief, blame, or a broken heart, but anger, there was endless time for. Stay angry. Hold on to it. Anger is your tightrope over the abyss.”

I was even entertained by the Acknowledgement page, where Anders says she hopes we enjoyed the book and if anything didn’t make sense she can come over and act the whole thing out, maybe with origami finger puppets.


Reco’d by Maggie

Miss Lonelyhearts

This weekend, a bookstore clerk was ranting about how much she loved reading Miss Lonelyhearts, so I figured I could give it a re-read, since it’s been a few decades since I perused it. Unfortunately, my opinion of Nathanael West still stands— I classify him in the grimy bucket along with Norman Mailer of filthy modern slop that remains unappetizing to me at the moment. Viewed completely objectively, the story is a wonder, pub’d in 1933 and well ahead of its time for darkness, bleakness, hopelessness. But I have little tolerance for books that suggest women authors need a “good rape” after complaining about the number of female writers. The story is an acidic bath of lemonade without the sugar, propped up on the flimsy prospects of an advice columnist in NYC.

Journal of Katherine Mansfield

Should you trust the journal of an author edited and released by her husband a few years after her death? (Answer? No. See addendum at very end.) Murry’s gotten a lot of flak over the years for supposedly exploiting KM by releasing her journal, but I’m glad we have something, even if it’s an edited version. I wonder if he stripped any bits about Woolf out, specifically because I’m on the hunt for traces of their relationship, the Woolves being the high-powered literary couple that perhaps he did not want to anger. Virginia writes in a letter to Vita her reactions upon reading KM’s Journal: “I’ve been reading KM with a mixture of sentiment and horror. What odd friends I’ve had – you and she.” (5 Aug 1927) I’ve yet to get to her diary reaction, perhaps there’s more gold there. Lounsberry notes that the “horror” was likely driven by Mansfield’s revealed religious bent.

At any rate, this Journal covers the last eight years of Katherine Mansfield life as she struggles with illness (pleurisy, consumption) and with getting all the writing done that she had in her.

March 31, 1914: A splendid fine morning, but as I know I have to go out and change the cheque and pay the bills, I can do nothing and I feel wretched. Life is a hateful business, there’s no denying it. When G and J were talking in the Park of physical well-being and of how they could still look forward to ‘parties,’ I nearly groaned. And I am sure J could get a great deal of pleasure out of pleasant society. I couldn’t. I’ve done with it, and can’t combat it at all now. I had so much rather lean idly over the bridge and watch the boats and the free, unfamiliar people and feel the wind blow. No, I hate society.

May 16, 1915: I bought a book by Henry James yesterday and read it, as they say, ‘until far into the night.’ It was not very interesting or very good, but I can wade through pages and pages of dull, turgid James for the sake of that sudden sweet shock, that violent throb of delight that he gives me at times. I don’t doubt this is genius: only there is an extraordinary amount of pan and an amazingly raffiné flash – One thing I want to annotate. His hero, Bernard Longueville, brilliant, rich, dark, agile, etc., though a witty companion, is perhaps wittiest and most amused when he is alone, and preserves his best things for himself… All the attributive adjectives apart I am witty, I know, and a good companion – but I feel my case is exactly like his – the amount of minute and delicate joy I get out of watching people and things when I am alone is simply enormous – I really only have ‘perfect fun’ with myself… Life with other people becomes a blur: it does with J, but it’s enormously valuable and marvellous when I’m alone, the detail of life, the life of life.

Feb 13, 1916: I have written practically nothing yet, and now again the time is getting short… I keep half-doubting my will to perform anything… Why do I hesitate so long? Is it just idleness? Lack of will-power? Yes, I feel that’s what it is, and that’s why it’s so immensely important that I should assert myself… This year I have to make money and get known. I want to make enough money to be able to give LM some [Lesley Moore/Ida Baker]. In fact, I want to provide for her. That’s my idea, and to make enough so that J and I shall be able to pay our debts and live honourably.

Feb 19, 1918: I don’t want to be ill… I don’t want to find this is real consumption, perhaps it’s going to gallop – who knows?  – and I shan’t have my work written. That’s what matters. How unbearable it would be to die – leave ‘scraps,’ ‘bits,’ nothing real finished.

May 22, 1918: [Looe, Cornwall, England] The sea here is real sea. It rises and falls with a loud noise, has a long, silky roll on it as though it purred, seems sometimes to climb half up into the sky and you see the sail boats perched upon clouds – like flying cherubs.

July 1918: I pose myself, yet once more, my Eternal Question. What is it that makes the moment of delivery so difficult for me? If I were to sit down – now – and just to write out, plain, some of the stories – all written, all ready, in my mind ‘twould take me days. There are so many of them. I sit and think them out and if I overcome my lassitude and do take the pen they ought (they are so word perfect) to write themselves… Whenever I have a conversation about Art which is more or less interesting I begin to wish to God I could destroy all that I have written and start again: it all seems like so many ‘false starts.’ Oh how badly this is expressed! How confused and even ungrammatical!

May 19, 1919: I really only ask for time to write it all – time to write my books. Then I don’t mind dying. I live to write. The lovely world (God, how lovely the external world is!) is there and I bathe in it and am refreshed. But I feel as though I had a DUTY, someone has set me a task which I am bound to finish. Let me finish it: let me finish it without hurrying – leaving all as fair as I can.

May 31, 1919: Shall I be able to express one day my love of work – my desire to be a better writer – my longing to take greater pains. And the passion I feel. It takes the place of religion – it is my religion – of people – I create my people: of ‘life’ – it is Life.

June 21, 1919: I have consumption. There is still a great deal of moisture (and pain) in my BAD lung. But I do not care. I do not want anything I could not have. Peace, solitude, time to write my books, beautiful external life to watch and ponder – no more. O, I’d like a child as well – a baby boy; mais je demande trop! [This confused me… it seems from her stories and letters that she’s pretty anti-child]

Feb 29, 1920: Oh, to be a writer, a real writer given up to it and to it alone! Oh, I failed today; I turned back, looked over my shoulder, and immediately it happened, I felt as though I too were struck down. The day turned cold and dark on the instant. It seemed to belong to summer twilight in London, to the clang of the gates as they close the garden, to the deep light painting the high houses, to the smell of leaves and dust, to the lamp-light, to that stirring of the senses, to the languor of twilight, the breath of it on one’s cheek, all those things which (I feel today) are gone from me for ever… I feel today that I shall die soon and suddenly: but not of my lungs. There are moments when Dickens is possessed by this power of writing: he is carried away. That is bliss. It certainly is not shared by writers today.

August 1921:  “I have been writing a story about an old man.” She looked vague. “But I don’t think I like old men—do you?” said she. “They exude so.” This horrified me. It seemed so infernally petty, and more than that… it was the saying of a vulgar little mind. Later: I think it was shyness.

January 2, 1922: I have not done the work I should have done. I shirk the lunch party [see The Doves’ Nest]. This is very bad. In fact I am disgusted with myself. There must be a change from now on. What I chiefly admire in Jane Austen is that what she promises, she performs, i.e. if Sir T is to arrive, we have his arrival at length, and it’s excellent and exceeds our expectations. This is rare; it is also my very weakest point. Easy to see why…

Added notes once I read about Murry’s treatment of the material:

Barbara Lounsberry: “Although readers must be grateful for Murry’s devotion and skill in translating Mansfield’s almost illegible hand, the 1927 Journal is astonishingly unreliable and self-serving. It also serves Mansfield in a misguided way, for it projects an image of a purse soul, a saintly suffering mystic, that in the full spread of her notebooks and papers proves simple, sentimental, and false.” Later she notes that Murry’s 1927 version has been “discredited and supplanted” by The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks by Margaret Scott, but that the version is a “curious yet brilliant monument to reputation-making, to a husband’s mythologizing a dead wife.”

She notes that Murry claimed KM destroyed all record of the time between 1909 and 1914 when in reality he had four notebooks and many unbound pages from that time period. Comparing Margaret Scott’s complete version of the Notebooks with Murry’s whitewashed version, he left out his loss of status in her eyes and her unhappiness with him. To wit, this has been excised: “How little Jack shares with me… He ought not to have married. There never was a creature less fitted by nature for life with a woman.” In another passage, he leaves out “I do not trust Jack.”

The White Album

I think I really just don’t like Didion. Unless my mood is swinging hither & yon and causing me to veer one way and the next. The White Album I thought would be a terrific dinner mint about the 1970s. Instead, I could barely muster enthusiasm to turn the pages as Joan drones on in her dull flat unemotional voice. Some parts are good– descriptions of the abandoned Governor’s mansion that Jerry Brown refused to live on, opting instead for a mattress on a floor in an apartment in Sac, a glimpse at Nancy Reagan attempting to act naturally as she’s in front of a TV crew “going about a normal day” as the governor’s wife, tales of the dryness of California, especially quoting Bernard DeVoto: “The West begins where the average annual rainfall drops below twenty inches.” Also an interesting peek at a Jaycee convention where the 1960s appeared not to have happened:

The word “apathy” cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. It was not simply a word remembered from the Fifties, when most of these men had frozen their vocabularies: it was a word meant to indicate that not enough of “our kind” were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time for “turning attention,” for “problems” and “solutions.” Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the “fashionable doubters.” Of course they would ignore the “pessimistic pundits.” It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.” (1968-70)

Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York

Reading about the Mary Tyler Moore show, I was curious to read Gail Parent’s first novel, Parent a writer for the show. Fortunately, a copy of the book existed in the stacks of the library. Unfortunately, I read it. It seems like a strong concept– single gal in NYC troubled by her inability to find the right apartment, job, or marriage. The jokes come at you from the side, and frequently aren’t that funny. In the end, the narrator, Sheila, decides to kill herself and like a good Jewish daughter, arranges to buy her own grave and tombstone. She finally finds a guy who she likes sleeping with, but he’s into her suicide pact and encourages it, along with whining for her to send him pot while he’s in jail avoiding alimony charges. Meh, hands thrown in the air.

Blue of Noon

Hmm. A reminder that not all that is shouted about by others turns into gold-plated reading material. Bataille is beloved by many, including Chris Kraus, but I found this “erotic” novel rather humdrum and bland. Written in 1935 on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, there are odd scenes of Henri Troppmann carousing with his girlfriend, “Dirty” (Dorothea), ignoring his wife and his mother-in-law, tooting about with prostitutes and raving like a madman. Thankfully slim at under 150 pages, I could consume without guilt and toss aside shaking head wondering what the big deal is.

The Far Cry

Just when I was about to give up hope of enjoying another Persephone title, I sank into Emma Smith’s The Far Cry. I’ve not enjoyed several of the last of the grey covers read and even tossed away a few without reading past the first pages. Smith’s book comes like a lightning bolt, sudden and unexpected, thrilling, magnificent.

Published in 1949, it’s in 5 parts: Departure, The Boat, India, Ruth, and Teresa. We start in England, the comic picture of a sixty-year-old man rushing into the house of his sister in a flummoxed frenzy to yank his fourteen-year-old daughter out of school and escape with her to India to prevent her mother from recapturing her. Aunt May puts Mr. Digby (her brother) in his place firmly, “of course you’re being absurd. Of course Lilian [his ex wife] isn’t chasing after you. Look at yourself in the mirror if you don’t believe me… You’re an old man, you might as well admit it, and a shabby old man too, you silly fellow, and with no money to speak of. Lilian must have six times as much money as you, or more.”

With that, Digby and Teresa are on the boat to India, which is a delightful section, dreamy and in-between, as Teresa herself is in-between worlds/existences. Digby reveals himself to be an ass, saying things like a woman with a brain is poison, “a woman ought to be beautiful and she ought to be sympathetic. That’s quite enough. I’ve always found that quite enough in a woman. Anything more is too much.” Digby finds a quiet tea planter, Mr Littleton that he attaches himself to for the duration of the journey. Teresa cultivates a friendship with an old spinster, Miss Spooner, who nurses her through heatstroke and gives her a hat:

“But dully she regretted the loss of Miss Spooner, who, Teresa having no further need of her, had withdrawn, as it were, one step. They saw each other now and again, as sharing a cabin they were bound to do, in the mornings and going to bed at night, but contact between them, other than mere politeness, seemed to have been broken. Miss Spooner was not by any means cold: she was detached. Nor was she impersonal She would not, however, extend her personality. She was like a flourishing little island set aside from the main trade routes and perfectly satisfied that no ships should call. Why should she wish them to call? they could only be a nuisance. On her island was all she wanted. Mr. Digby, bucketing by at a great distance, had mistaken this small kingdom for nothing more fertile than rock and gravel. Teresa, canoeing closer through delirium, had seen the vegetation there and suspected hidden orchids.”

The two sleep outside on the deck one night, foreshadowing another night in Calcutta they sleep outside a template after watching festival celebrations because curfew doesn’t allow travel between 10p and 4a. Once the boat lands in India, Teresa is transfixed, taken aback by the swirl of colors, dust, people, begging, oddities. After a few days in Bombay, the four of them end up on the same train to Calcutta. After the magical night of Kali Puja, Teresa thinks of Miss Spooner again:

“She was thinking, as she watched, of Miss Spooner, thinking of her, as she always did, in the form of questions, wondering what sort of education she had had in her odd fifty or sixty years to make her so courageous now. For it seemed to her an act of courage in an old English lady to sleep on the wet grass outside an Indian monastery… She asked herself if it was possible for her to be equally brave at Miss Spooner’s age, equally calm and decided, and what one had to do now to reach that state of emancipation from the fear of evil. For she had thought—she had looked at her father and thought—that one weakened as one grew older, one grew more and more afraid, one’s courage went as the years increased. But it might, she saw, be otherwise.”

They finally arrive at Teresa’s half-sister, Ruth,’s house. Ruth is a doozy, having cultivated a perfect outer shell with nothing inside. Her husband feels that she is wasted tucked away in their off-the-beaten-path bungalow, but he’s a tea planter and he likes the jungle. “There is a difference, and a profound one, between trying to be good because goodness is a virtue, and trying to be good so that people may think you good. Ruth revolved in a world of mirrors, for every person she met was her looking-glass in front of which she arranged herself, blind to everything but her own image reflected in faces that were, on their own account, of no interest to her whatsoever.”

The drama amps up, Ruth had fled her home in tears when she heard her father was arriving, but Edwin, her husband, fetched her back when they showed up. Teresa falls in love with India, sees market day, has picnics along the river, climbs a mountain and never wants to leave. Mr Digby dies from a heart attack when changing a flat tire on his way to visit Mr Littleton. Ruth decides to take Teresa back to England, gets stuck in Calcutta where she finds she is pregnant, telegrams Edwin to come get her, is hit by a taxi and dies. Edwin finds Teresa being entertained by Miss Spooner (still in Calcutta), asks her what she wants to do and Teresa says she wants to go back into the jungle with him, taking Miss Spooner with them. Happily ever after with a few deaths thrown in willy-nilly at the end!

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

Someone once expressed to me a very negative opinion about Joan Didion’s writing and I accepted it without thinking or without reading her much. I’ve now reconsidered and enjoyed this book of essays from the late 1960s. Apparently I read this three and a half years ago and was dismissive, but Didion grows on me. One of my favorites in this reading was the first essay—Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream—about a woman convicted of setting her husband on fire in their VW and running up and down the highway for an hour trying to summon help. The titular essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is also solid, giving a detailed peek into 1967 Haight Street hippies and concerts in the Panhandle. This time around I enjoyed the New York piece (Goodbye to All That), myself being gripped less by the thrall of NYC and understanding the waves of feeling toward it that crash and recede.