Saturday, 21 March 2015

Guy Davenport: A Table of Green Fields

Not long after discovering Paul West, I read Guy Davenport (1927-2005) for the first time. Essayist, translator, painter, poet and short-story writer, Davenport never became a household name, prompting John Jeremiah Sullivan to define him as a cult writer, but one whose “work has none of the thinness of the cult writer” and “who seems destined to endure.” I think so; I hope so. With West Davenport shares the qualities of imagination and eloquence; he does not have West’s lexical wizardry, instead his writing builds around short, powerful, epigrammatic sentences, like the ancient Greeks he translated. One short-story in A Table of Green Fields, for instance, doesn’t have commas. A voracious reader and a college teacher for decades, erudition also naturally seeped into his fiction. Like Jorge Luis Borges, we can say of him that he writes books from other books; armed with infinite knowledge, Davenport takes us in journeys through time, geography, the sciences and the arts to instruct us and delight us. “Writing, like painting, was my escape from the academy,” he said to Sullivan.

Davenport saw writing as play, as having fun. Although he flirted with a creative writing course, he soon saw the limitations of traditional writing. “At Duke I took Prof Blackburn's Creative Writing course (Bill Styron and Mac Hyman were in the class) and got the wrong impression that writing is an effusion of genius and talent.  Also, that writing fiction is Expression of significant and deep inner emotion.  It took me years to shake off all this.  Writing is making a construct, and what's in the story is what's important.  And style: in what words and phrases the story is told.  (William Blackburn, the full name.  His guiding us all toward autobiographical, confessional, "emotional" writing is -- in reaction -- why I write about concrete objectivities that are fairly remote from my own experiences.  I like to imagine how other people feel in a world different from my own.).” To his short-stories he gave the names of “assemblages” and “collages.” In an interview to B. Renner, apropos of how he wrote, he added: “I put in what seemed good images and quotations, and hoped that they'd work.” A Table of Green Fields, containing ten stories, demonstrates this method: usually they involve real-life figures, obscure episodes culled from biographies or history books, digressions into essayism, a constant change of structure, and jarring juxtapositions of sources and styles. A lover of the concrete and visual, his approach to character eschews interiority and favours action and landscape; personality is in speech, gestures, and mood.

The first story, called “August Blue,” constitutes a synthesis of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Each of its four sections jumps around in time and character, and their interconnectedness comes out obliquely, if at all. The first section starts with Jesus’ boyhood and resembles the start of any other story. “On the way to school, just past the bird market, there is one of the largest fig trees in Jerusalem. It was believed by some to be as old as the temple and to have a special blessing on it whereby the figs were fatter and sweeter than any others in the world, except, of course, in the Garden of Eden. They were, in color more blue than green. The milk that bled from its stems when you pulled one of its figs cured warts, the quinsy, and whooping cough.” Jesus’ classmates long to taste those figs, and Jesus unexplainably obtains some for them. In the classroom their teacher lectures them about the Phoenician and Phoenician alphabets and how the Hebrew letter alef relates to them (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel has an excellent chapter on this, by the way), then they discuss the letter yud and Jesus miraculously produces figs to give his teacher. His classmates call him meshuggeh, the Yiddish word for crazy.

The second section introduces us to James Joseph Sylvester, a real-life British mathematician lecturing in pre-Civil War Virginia, and a Jew witness to the xenophobia, laziness and indiscipline that characterises the American privileged class. In the concise, direct way he describes Sylvester’s life, Davenport becomes essayistic: “He was a member of the Royal Society. At age twenty-seven he had distinguished himself with so brilliant a series of mathematical papers that he had been invited to come to Virginia. Jefferson’s plan was to bring the best minds of Europe to dwell in this academic village, as he liked to call it. And now Jefferson was dead, leaving his faculty of European geologists, chemists, linguists, historians, and mathematicians to carry on his work of civilizing Virginia and her sister states.” A remarkable passage, to  me, it illuminates the future – it echoes another famous collection of European minds in America – and builds bridges into the past; a persistent idea I keep finding in my recent readings of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon concerns this idea that America, far from representing a new thing, results from a continuation of European culture, both the culture and the stupidity and narrow-mindedness. Just consider the morons poor Sylvester has to put up with: “Professor Sylvester’s problem was one he had never before met. His students, all healthy, strapping young men from the richest families, were illiterate. They knew nothing. He could scarcely understand a word the said. They came late to class, if at all, accompanied by their slaves. They talked with each other while Professor Sylvester lectured. The strangest thing about them was that they did not want to learn. Take Ballard. He was from Louisiana, some great plantation with hundreds of slaves. He was a handsome lad, beautifully dressed.” And yet these students “duelled, and fought with Bowie knives. They drank themselves into insensibility. They came to class drunk. When Sylvester tried to find out why this was allowed, he was reminded that the students were aristocrats.” As I have pointed out, his xenophobic, slave-holding students disrespect and insult him because of his Jewish roots; he starts carrying a sword cane; when two brothers go too far he stabs one of them and departs Virginia. A happy epilogue explains to us that he gets a job at John Hopkins University and founds the first mathematical school in the USA, “where he introduced the Hebrew letters shin and teth into mathematical notation,” and “[y]ears later, the great Georg Cantor, remembering Sulvester, introduced the latter alef as a symbol of the transfinite.” It took its time but we get a connection, sort of.

The third section, the shortest, describes a journey to a place called Ely Minster. When I finished the story I looked it up and discovered, thinking myself clever, that Davenport had merely transcribed an excerpt from Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Thro' The Whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies; but as he explains in the Author’s Notes, he actually mixed Defoe with writings by Samuel Pepys. And the relevance of the Isle of Ely, perhaps, comes from serving as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s burial ground, which I guess has something to do with mathematics, infinity and language, themes from the previous sections.

The final section concerns real-life British painter Henry Scott Tuke, who in 1894 painted “August Blue,” the painting shown in the book’s cover and which alludes to one of Davenport’s favourite themes. Tuke liked to show naked and semi-naked young men, like this:

A naturalistic section set in 1922 (an important year for Modernism, an era and topic that fascinated Davenport), it finds the painter and some male friends enjoying a little outing by a riverbank for something modelling, bathing and apricating. A mystery surrounds one of the painter’s friends, someone called Aircraftsman Ross whose portrait he paints; as the narrative progresses, though, we realize this rank and name cover his real identity. Once you learn it, it changes the narrative’s whole dynamic. The Author’s Notes give a clue to his identity, although you still need to do some sleuthing. I’ve provided you with a few more clues.

What does this section have to do with the rest of the story? I can’t fathom any connection; it may exist, more thematically, or spiritually, than narratively. For me, though, this story encapsulates the book: in some ten pages it shows dazzling erudition, pedantry, fine writing, imagination, strange juxtapositions and lots of cocks.

My favourite story – perhaps because of its conventionality compared to the others – comes right after “August Blue.” “Belinda’s World Tour” starts with an episode from a Franz Kafka biography: allegedly one day the Prague writer met a little girl in the street crying because she had lost her doll; Kafka comforted her by telling her that the doll had left on a journey across the world, and for weeks wrote her postcards. In Davenport’s take, Kafka, in order to help her overcome this loss, “as this was the first tragedy of her life and she was indulging in all its possibilities,” tells her that Belinda met a little boy or doll called Rudolf, “who invited her to go with him around the world. But he was leaving immediately. There was no time to dally. She had to make up her mind then and there. Such things happen. Dolls, you know, are born in department stores, and have a more advanced knowledge than those of us who are brought to houses by storks. We have such a limited knowledge of things.” Unlike realist fiction, instead of describing Davenport creates, he adds, he opens up possibilities; I so much want to believe something like this happened, the great Kafka consoling a child because he couldn’t bear seeing her sad.

Most of the narrative comes in the form of short texts written on the postcards Belinda writes the little girl from around the world, full of national stereotypes and literary jokes. In London “[t]hey all carry umbrellas, as it rains constantly, and long poles to poke their way through the fog.” In Copenhagen they stay “with a nice gentleman called Hans Christian Andersen. He lives next door to another nice gentleman named Soren Kierkegaard. They take Rudolf and me to a park that’s wholly for children and dolls, called Tivoli. You can see what it looks like by turning over this card. Every afternoon at 4 little boys dressed in red (and they are blond and have big blue eyes) march through Tivoli, and around and around it, beating drums and playing fifes. The harbour is the home of several mermaids. They are very shy and you have to be very patient and stand still a long time to see them.  The Danes are melancholy and drink lots of coffee and read only serious books. I saw a book in a shop with the title How To Be Sure As To What Is And What Isn’t. And The Doll’s Guide To Existentialism; If This, Then What? and You Are More Miserable Than You Think You Are.” In Russia “they read serious books here, too. Their favourite author is Count Tolstoy, who is one of his own peasants (they say this distresses his wife.). and who eats only beets, though he adds an onion at Passover.” In Japan “[e]verybody stops what they are doing ten times a day to write a poem. These poems, which are very short, are about crickets and seeing Fujiyma through the wash on the line about feeling lonely when the moon is full. We are very popular, as the Japanese like novelty.” In America “[w]e have seen utopias of Quakers and Shakers and Mennonites, who live just as they want to in this free country. There is no king, only a Congress which sits in Washington and couldn’t care less what the people do. I have seen one of those Congressmen. He was fat (three chins, I assure you) and offered Rudolf and me a dollar each if we would vote for him. When we said we were from Prague, he said he hoped we’d start a war, as war is good for business.”

No other short-story in the book illustrates so powerfully and cogently why I love literature!

Mind you, this playfulness does not exist in all the short-stories; Davenport can also write good, naturalistic narratives.“Gunnar and Nikolai” concerns a sculptor Gunnar, a sculptor, and Nikolai, a teenaged model posing for a naked statue of Shakespeare’s Ariel. “He was the spirit of the air. Like an angel,” Gunnar explains. “Nikolai thought about this, guppying his coffee and sprucing the fit of his foreskin.” Davenport devotes many pages to describing naked teenagers (Nikolai is twelve; his friend Mikkel is 13.) playing with themselves. These short-stories tend to inhabit a remarkably nonchalant and tolerant dimension wherein men don’t panic and throw fits at child sexuality and adults clearly lusting after boys; in fact in these stories everyone’s probably gay or at least bisexual. “Being naked’s fun. My grandma and grandpa, Mama’s mama and daddy, are Kropotkinites, and I’m boss in my own pants. My folks are as broad-minded green as they come, no barbed wire anywhere, good Danish liberals, to the point of being fussy. You know what I mean?” asks the precocious Nikolai. Elsewhere Davenport gives us one of his customary about penile stimulation. “Briefs down, he tickled the neb of his penis, a baby’s innocence in his smile.” Or how about this longer passage between, Nikolai and his friend Mikkel, so unabashedly homoerotic:

   Fox bark, gruff. Nikolai monkeyed from the bed to the sill, replying with a cub’s whimper. Coupled hand and wrist, Nikolai pulled and Mikkel climbed until he had a kneehold, swinging his other bare leg into the room. They sat on the floor, grinning at each other in the dark. They crept like panthers, on fingers and toes, to the bed. Nikolai, naked under the blanket, watched Mikkel tug off his jersey, the tuck of his navel, a dab of shadow on his moonlit front.
   In their shy and democratic privacy under the sheets Nikolai speculated on the interestingly different warm and cool places of the body, flinching from cold fingers and toes, the climate of a bed, the frankness of hands.

No wonder the criticasters hurled the worn-out obscenity label at him. In “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” we have a more direct sexual blossoming, this time between straight couples: Julie and Bernard, Marc and Anne-Marie, four teens discovering sex. The first couple has reached the kissing stage at least and wander off to enjoy themselves; the other two, not yet an item at the start of the story, decide to climb a tree, get undressed, bundle their clothes and drop them over their friends to scare them; this prank turns into an unexpected sexual adventure atop a tree. Next day all four reunite, Marc expecting another similar adventure. Unfortunately such experiences don’t quite happen as we plan them, which elicits a beautiful sentence that contains all the magic and sadness of childhood and life in general: “Whatever you’re scheming won’t happen. It never does. Going up the tree just happened. I couldn’t have planned it in a hundred years.”

The longest short-story, “O Gadjo Niglo,” written in sentences built to avoid commas, narrates the story of teenager Jens and two male friends with whom he discovers sex. First he meets Tarpy, a poor, dirty, lonely boy, a sort of village idiot, maltreated by his father; Jens befriends, washes him, and ventures into sexual play with him. As before Davenport doesn’t shy away from details: “He had less hair than I above his peter. His was ginger. Mine was springy and black. He asked if mine felt good. He slid his foot out and waggled it against mine. We were friends. He said we could make it last or come quick and then come again. I was near enough to my sneeze to say quick. My milky drop jumped out. Tarpy took longer to reach his sneeze and hot blush spread up my back and slid down again as a chill when I saw the amount of spunk that he spurted. A blob spattered two fete away. Another just fell short of the first. A third ran into his fingers.” And there’s more, this is the most sexed-up story in the book: “He lay back in the grass with one hand under his head and the other on his peter like a big stemmed pink mushroom. It is as I’ve measured fourteen centimetres long. And there is a mushroom like Tarpy’s peter. Phallus impudicus. Mine is twelve but growing. The more you play with is the bigger it gets. Three times and we would go on a ramble for beetles.” 

Phallus impudicus

Later Tarpy disappears, the narrator gets sick his parents hire a young nurse called Florent to tend him; they become friends and go camping alone, which allows Davenport to write more scenes about penises. Hardly any conflict exists in this short-story, just a succession of events, descriptions of nature and masturbation. Jens grows up, like the girl who lost Belinda he experiences his life’s first tragedy, discovers about friendship and letting go, matures and learns that the world is not a simple place. And yet it never gets dark or pessimistic, it’s also about pleasure and fun, and living in a light-drenched world. “Sweet beyond sweet,” the narrator exalts. About this short-story Matthew Stadler wrote that “Davenport was a kind of naturalist of human Eros--Eros in the mind as well as the muscles.” When Sullivan asked the writer why he wrote so much about naked boys, he replied, “Self-indulgence, I suppose.”

More to the point, though, I think the awakening of sexuality is coterminous with the awakening of all sensibility. Joyce certainly makes the one depend on the other. The moment when Stephen Dedalus becomes an artist, he’s looking at what most excites a Victorian, namely a woman’s legs all the way up to the thigh. She’s lifted her skirts, dabbling in the ocean.

All the stories surprise, but not all delight; some surprise because how much disappointment and awkwardness they cause. One story uses William Wordsworth’s sister as the protagonist without really doing anything with that; one called “And” is nothing but the translation of a translation of a real-life papyrus fragment, not even a full page long. “Mr Churchyard and the troll” follows a famous philosopher to Troll Wood to talk to a troll; the troll may be real or the man may just be insane; but knowing who Mr. Churchyard is (and it’s not hard to get the joke) will only improve the story for five or ten seconds, and then it continues to be rather monotonous.

In “The Concord Sonata” Davenport distils Henry David Thoreau’s life into several fragments, of oscillating quality and interest. Explaining part of how he composed the story, he explain in an interview, “The immediate instigation was a search for the source of the mysterious passage in Walden (about losing a dog, a horse, and a dove).  I found it in Mencius (whom Thoreau read in a French translation in Emerson's library).  My first thought was to write a "found at last!" essay, as no scholar of Thoreau had found the source.” Although the story is uneven, he nails the old Transcendentalist in one pithy line: “Thoreau was most himself when he was Diogenes.” Davenport also restates Thoreau’s influence on civil rights leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And we learn from him that the author of Walden perfected lead pencils.

He likes weird juxtapositions and uses them abundantly, and sometimes they don’t work: in “Gunnar and Nikolai” he interpolates the story with the Olympian gods talking, for no reason I can discern; in “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” he abruptly finishes the story with a brief history of the word lavender. “It was [filmmaker Mike] Leigh,” he says in an interview, “who showed me a new way to end a story: you simply walk away from it after having changed the subject. At the end of Nuts in May, an incomparable satire, the camera finds a pig eating from its trough while the credits run. So I end “The Lavender Fields of Apta Julia” by abandoning the story for botanical information about lavender.”

“Meleager,” another one of his teenage boy stories, is rather cryptic because Davenport switches between the story Sven and excerpts from a 1771 Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Geometry; by the time the story shows up stories about sexual blossoming have become repetitive, and I fear the narrative doesn’t improve with such details as: “A figure bounded by four sides is called a quadrilateral or quadrangular figure, as ABDC. Quadrilateral figures whose opposite sides are parallel care called parallelograms. Thus in the quadrilateral figure ABDC, if the side AC be parallel to BD which is opposite to it, and AB be parallel to CD, then the figure ABDC is a parallelogram. A parallelogram having all its sides equal and its angles right is a square.” Imagine this several times in a short-story; not very exciting, I’m afraid. I think pedantry and erudition is only fun when it shows you stuff you wouldn’t know but is worth knowing. This is just a maths lesson from school.

Still, when Davenport hits the target, the stories thrill and enthrall; and his liberal use of allusions and intertextuality invites the reader to try to see things that may not exist, to make connects that he may not have intended. Is there anything to say about the fig tree in “August Blue?” Why does he say there was a fig tree in the Garden of Eden? The fig tree is sexual symbol; does that mean something? In the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo, instead of the customary apple tree, Michelangelo painted a fig tree, to link the eating of the Tree of Knowledge with sexual desire. Should we make something of that? Did Davenport know that? Is that relevant? Or does his erudition give the overeager reader carte blanche to indulge in apophenia and pareidolia? (1). He creates an ambient that just demands over-interpretation.

Finally, I have seen him likened to Borges; I suppose these items built around literature and philosophy permit some comparisons; but then I think Borges and Davenport share the principal similarity of innovating while remaining quite traditional. Borges, for all intents and purposes, just told fantastic stories in the vein of his beloved 19th century British storytellers: he respected classical structure too much to, like Davenport, just stop a narrative without a climax, without a resolution, without something that built to a point that said, “This had to happen.” Davenport, on the other, for all his digressions, grounds his stories a lot more on characters and conventional literary themes: love, freedom, childhood, sexual maturity. You wouldn’t find Borges writing about that; Borges, the man who annulled humans from literature; Borges who turned short-stories into descriptions of concepts – a library with every imaginable book; a book with infinite pages; supernatural artefacts like the Aleph and magical coins – Borges who turned humans into concepts, like Funes the Memorious. Borges turned ideas into characters. Davenport still needs human characters to express his. And Borges still believed in that old contract between writer and reader, I think he wrote to please and entertain and made sure his storytelling and language remained invisible; Davenport is too intrusive, calls a lot of attention to himself. Davenport came late to fiction: his first collection of short-stories, Tatlin, came out in 1974, and although he’s described as a late Modernist, and seldom grouped with writers like John Barth and William H. Gass, to me it seems clear he breathed the same air they did. I don’t mention this in a negative or positive sense, it’s just to explain I think the Borges comparisons aren’t that valid. Nevertheless Davenport, on the strength of this book, is a remarkable, inventive, original writer who deserves to be better known and more widely read. I know I’ll return to his short-stories in the future.


1 My word processor tells me apophenia doesn't exist and recommends using apothecia, the plural of apothecium, that is, “the fruit of certain lichens and fungi: usually an open, saucer-shaped or cup-shaped body, the inner surface of which is covered with a layer that bears asci.” I love it when the machine replaces one arcane word with another. Strangely it also tells me apothecium doesn't exist, although its plural does.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Paul West: Bela Lugosi's White Christmas

Although I refrain from writing about the broader issues regarding literature, I like to consider myself reasonably conversant with them. For instance, I make an effort to keep up to date on the offensives of the armies on both sides of the war for the soul of the contemporary novel. (1) In general terms, two factions – the Realists and the Experimentalists – hold each other accountable for the decline of this ancient art form. The former accuse their opponents of writing elitist, opaque, dense, hermetic, formalist, self-conscious, lifeless, reader-inimical hogwash; the latter, after ridiculing them for their formal conservatism, and affirming the pleasures of exploring language for its own sake, make the claim that their abstruse methods capture our fragmented contemporary reality more truthfully than old-fashioned formulae. In one camp you have: B. R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto;” Jonathan Franzen’s attack on William Gaddis in “Mr. Difficult;” Dale Peck’s hatchet job on Rick Moody that served mainly to provide him with a platform from which to launch an attack on that “tradition that began with the diarrheic flow of words that is Ulysses;” and James Wood’s How Fiction Works, a treacherous book whose true intentions deserve the more honest title of How to Write 19th century novels in the 21st century that James Wood will award five stars to. Apotheosis arrived in the form of David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which basically argues that the novel has run its course and must die in order to clear the path for something called the lyrical essay, which will sate the appetite for reality afflicting current readers, for whom publishers can’t print non-fiction books fast enough and in suitable quantities.

The other side includes: curmudgeon Gabriel Josipovici, whose Whatever Happened to Modernism rakes the major British novelists – Rushdie, Amis, etc. – over the coals for conforming too much to stale novelistic models instead of blowing them up like their Modernist ancestors did; Ben Marcus’ riposte to Franzen’s anti-Gaddis diatribe; just about all the non-fiction William H. Gass has published since 1970; and Zadie Smith’s laughable “Two Paths for the Novel,” an essay wherein she compares one realistic, formulaic but prettily written novel called Netherland to a faux-innovative and horribly written (Tom McCarthy writes better self-promotional PR than literature) novel called Remainder, and decides that the future of the novel involves McCarthy’s ordinary, bland prose like the one I can get on my IRS tax form or in coupons pushed into my hands at the entrance to the subway. (2) I include Smith here only for reasons of completeness; I know very well that in this war she serves as a double agent for the Realists, donning the enemies’ uniform to besmirch it with her nonsensical defences of experimentalism. Alas, if only she managed to keep the façade intact; if only she didn’t write Howards End pastiches; if only she didn’t churn out conventional novels, thus making her infatuation with experimentalism seem schizophrenic; if only she hadn’t tweeted about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, that utterly pedestrian, banal novel that epitomises 19th century retro-realism, having “completely blown my mind” (for God’s sake, it’s just Raymond Carver times 3,000 pages; how much she must despise literature for that to blow her mind); if only she hadn’t done all those things, then her deception might have fooled someone.

Now the way both sides conduct this war poses two problems: first, in pitting realism versus experimentalism they tend to forget that literature should strive to achieve excellence; secondly, both sides remain very much certain that literature involves something to do with depicting reality, or dealing with human issues, or bringing life onto the page. Give an Experimentalist enough paper and ink and eventually he’ll sound like James Wood, waxing poetics about consciousness and lifeness. Like dissenting sects within the same religion, Experimentalists and Realists have identical goals; they just want to achieve them through different ceremonies and doctrines. With that said, I hereby pledge my allegiance to the Church of Steven Moore. For me, The Novel: an alternative history remains the most lucid and persuasive addition to the Experimentalists’ papyruses; Moore not only attempts to explain what excellence in a novel means, but he puts it in historical context; and although his definition has room for those who obsess about literature remaining a vessel for “real life issues,” it doesn’t really need them to work; in fact it did just fine without them for a couple of millennia.

In the introduction, Moore claims that he wrote his history book in response to naysayers like Franzen, Peck and Myers and to correct the typical view of the novel’s history. Although consensus goes that once upon a time – the 19th century actually – there existed the realist novel, the zenith to which the genre should aspire, and then somewhen in the 20th century Modernists tore it apart out of meanness and haven’t stopped their aggression since, Moore goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans to show that what we call experimentalist novels have always existed and constituted the lake that fertilized the soil on which the genre grew and prospered, and that only around the mid-18th century did the realist effluent swell and flood its abundant banks, submerging it under dark depths where it thrives only through chthonic small-press publishers who take risks.

Moore defines the victors as the “straightforward, lightly romanticized stories of recognizable people out of everyday life, usually narrated in chronological sequence and in language no different from that of the better newspapers and journals.” And: “realistic narratives driven by a strong plot and peopled by well-rounded characters struggling with serious ethical issues, conveyed in language anybody can understand.” Forget the bit about chronological sequence, and this passes off as a synopsis of My Struggle; you get the impression an aphasic wrote it. Moore doesn’t like these novels that dethroned the old mainstream; he prefers the ancient tradition: “The earliest novels were Greek romances and Latin satires, where the plot was a mere convenience that allowed the author to engage in rhetorical display, literary criticism, sociopolitical commentary, digressions, and so on. It was an elastic form that made room for interpolated poems, stories within stories, pornography and parodies, where the realistic and fantastic blend together.” As for excellence, he makes it clear in different ways what the novel should aim at. “The only contract artists have with their audience is to perform at the top of their abilities in the expectation we will raise ourselves to their level, not pout because they haven’t lowered themselves to ours.” And: “We read [great novelists] for the same reason we might go to the opera or the ballet: to be dazzled by a performance.” And also: “Literature is a rhetorical performance, a show put on by someone who possesses greater abilities with language than most people.” This, too, would pretty much do away with Tom McCarthy, whose short, declarative sentences, pared down, uncomplicated style, absence of figures of speech, and fifth-grade-level vocabulary suit him better for dailies, or the spin he excels so much at.

I adore this theory of the novel as performance, of linguistic showmanship as its own reward, perhaps because it coincides so much with where my readings have taken me since 2014: after reading them it becomes hard not to crave Vladimir Nabokov’s off-kilter metaphors, or William H. Gass’ beautiful, alliterative sentences, or Alexander Theroux’s pedantically obscure vocabulary, or William Gaddis’ erudition that he parades gratuitously because he can. It does feel strange finishing one of their books and then returning to something lesser; it produces a sense of deprivation, of famine, of impoverishment. Sometimes these performances do baffle me; recently I completely failed at enjoying Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, a complex, punishing, tiresome novel that didn’t reward me in the least for all it demanded of me; the ambition that goes into novels like it entails such risks occasionally, but I prefer that to talentless Norwegian autobiographers who brag in interviews about not caring about writing amazing sentences. Then why do you write at all? Why don’t you just express yourself through pantomime in an Oslo street corner? If you hate words, why molest them?

My search for more logophiles has brought me to Paul West (b. 1930), a novelist born in England who lives in New York. A well-kept secret, like the medium the Old Masters used in their paintings, in spite of accolades from his friend William Gass, a long oeuvre and a reputation as one of the English language’s finest living stylists, many of his older novels have gone out of print and his name has but a residual presence in the internet. Not knowing where to start, I bought his most colorfully-titled novel, Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas; published in 1972, it concludes a trilogy about a madman called Alley Jaggers, or AJ. Although not the ideal place to start, the novel quickly explains what went on in Alley Jaggers (1966) and I'm Expecting to Live Quite Soon (1970): AJ, for reasons I’ll eventually find out, murders a pop star, tries to have congress with her corpse, and ends up in a mental institution; his father dies, perhaps of grief; and his wife, Dot, turns to prostitution, marries a black man and has a daughter with him.

As Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas starts, AJ has lived in a mental institution for five years now, under the care of Dr. Withington (With), his mother has stopped visiting him, and he uses his antics to entertain a panel of psychiatrists he calls the uncles. Dr. With lives with Plonk, a drop-out hippie who writes songs, smokes grass and has friends in a commune (where she later meets and fucks AJ). Out of what he calls “professional curiosity,” With helps AJ escape, ruining his career but apparently becoming a happier man; meanwhile AJ wanders into this commune, tries to sodomize a cow (before Plonk makes herself available), later kills a different cow, wrecks a cemetery with a bulldozer, and desecrates a church before the cops bring him back to the hospital where, now under Dr. McIntosh’s watch, it seems AJ will use his remarkable mental prowess to manipulate him like he did With, “using his head at the world, for that is his gift.” In case you think I just spoiled the whole novel, bear in mind I merely regurgitated the dust jacket’s inner flap’s information. West clearly doesn’t worry you know the whole plot and denouement in advance. He’s not that kind of writer.

Like Moore’s ancient novels, West uses this skeleton of a story to hang powerful muscles and tendons of rhetorical tricks, impressive imagery, endless wordplay and alliteration. What kind of life form these organs amount to I don’t know, some sort of mutant that can’t pass on its genes, but at least we can marvel at it while it lasts. Psychology barely exists, and perhaps no purpose justifies the protagonist’s shenanigans; in the final pages, in a text written in toilet paper delivered to Dr. McIntosh, AJ cites Mark Twain’s famous notice to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

I also like Moore’s theory because AJ, for me, personifies the author’s need to dazzle the reader with performance. AJ behaves like a god of language, enchanting an audience. The connection comes from the title – Bela Lugosi, an actor; but AJ doesn’t so much impersonate roles as he behaves like the modern artists in a happening: he gets onto a stage and improvises, no other tool other than language and its power to hold in thrall. Like a picaresque novel, most of the communication occurs via dialogue, and AJ constantly needs to find someone to talk to; when he doesn’t have humans in sight, he can talk to his dead father, a cow, or God; but he never ceases talking and inventing new syntax. And West has an endless repertoire of tricks (“I used to mix things up a bit, like one of those old alchemists, trying to come up with something new? Except it was just in my own mind”); he masters the extended metaphor:

"As perpetually disobedient and renewable as Prometheus, he is as greedy as Faust and as chutzpah-rich as Frankenstein. Too, in a sense he is chained to the rock of the jail; he can be said to have trafficked with the devil in an act of manslaughter culminating in corpse rape; and his experiments are very much with disject membra; yet his liver is in grand filtering order, his soul remains unmortgaged, and his creations have next to no chance of destroying him. Amazing to record, he balks the gods with impunity, spurns the devil's bargains, and has no more need of cadavers than a computer does of steam."

Shoots off palindromes:

“Able was I ere I saw Elba”
“Elba saw I era I was able”
“Like Glen Elg”

Conjugates silly verbs like to dildo in Latin form: “dildeis, dildei, dildoume, dildete, dildoun.”

Displays his erudition via the last sayings of famous men AJ collects and turns into fodder for some stand-up comedy routine: “That Socrates, the one who had to drink poison, I forget why. I suppose I never knew. He comes right out with it, good old Soc: I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? It’s a good thing job he owed nobody a cunt.” Joke rimshot! Yes, this novel veers from highly cerebral to quite puerile.

Metaphors, alliteration, wordplay, palindromes, foreign words – West uses everything he can to make this a busy novel. Now I don’t think the tricks always work: AJ pronounces Goethe as Go-Eth (like we all do), “as if dismissing a truncated Ethel or an Ethyl alcohol,” and I found this one weak; sometimes his attempts at playing with repeated sounds come off as forced: “make mutton pies out of butterflies, ribbonfish out o riboflavin, ichor out of ichneumon flies…” But like With writes about AJ, “To him, if it hasn’t been thought before, it’s priceless.” A few duds will pop up whenever the author tries to make every sentence unique.

In the hospital AJ has become a “colossal reader.” “His first year he read nothing, but just shaped and reshaped blobs of modeling clay. His second year he read modeling magazines. His third he went back to his boyhood favorites – Dracula, Robinson Crusoe, Coral Island, The Last of the Mohicans, King Solomon’s Mines, and Tarzan of the Apes – and began to collect stamps in an album provided by one of his uncles. His fourth year he moved along and plunged into H.G. Wells’ A Short History of the World, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, and the Penguin Shakespeare. His fifth year was a mental explosion beginning with a subscription to the National Geographic magazine taken out by the library and continuing with an Everyman Encyclopedia supplemented by manuals on modern science and ancient thought (this in something called the Living Thoughts Library).” With collects AJ’s riffs in a notebook called Bela Lugosi’s White Christsmas. “For whom to read, I wonder. Maybe me alone. Why Bela L. And not Boris K.? AJ’s fault. He’s so arbitrary. Might just as well have been ‘Lon Chaney’s Ramadan’ or ‘The Phantom of the Opera at Passover,’ whoever it was played him in the movies.” With doesn’t want to cure him and in fact grows to like him. “AJ, in fact, was my first case in depth, may well be my last. Of course, he’s not going to get out, not going to be let out, not going to be got out, not least because I’d find it hard to face the days in here without him. All the riffs, all the Last Great Sayings, all the mock anthropology we do, all the heathenish japes we get up to. Hell, it’s a waste of time trying to tabulate him. It’s petty. And he’s gotten me too space out to care.” As you can see, With shares a bit of AJ’s mental instability. With enjoys his company, and finally suggests a means of escape and even aids him. Nothing distinguishes the doctor’s voice from the patient’s, his demonstrates the same playful, inventive, metaphor-heavy tone. Writing about AJ, “A dictionary or a map to him is the Sierra Madre, every square millimeter crammed with gold.” West doesn’t let boring details like verisimilitude intrude on the control over craftsmanship he sustains from cover to cover. Sacrifice inventiveness to realistic speech? What, and damage the performance? The audience paid good money for this!

The recurring theme involves AJ’s refusal to behave like other people, to conform; he prefers to invent, to make things strange, as if he were a walking ostranenie. In the hospital he makes papier-mâché masks because “I don’t want to go around looking like everyone else. Just a bit of individuality is all I ask.” He shows this not just in the way he uses language but also in the many identities he likes to put on to entertain his uncles: "Bonkers used to be his own word for how he is, but Dr. Withington's is different, and AJ cannot quite remember it, knowing only that it is something like a blood transfusion in a funeral parlor, something that's no good. Not that AJ finds words difficult: not any longer. For the past two years of his five spent here, he has been reading hard (even the dictionary), like a builder studying a brick mound, and schizophrenia is a familiar brick. He likes its sound when it falls, is let fall, near him; its noise of snipping the brain in two. Bunkers he calls it, fully aware of the golf course it evokes, of his having done a mental bunk, of the underground retreat that was Adolf Hitler's, of the bunk he sleeps in, of the literal bunk he talked to the visiting phenomenological psychiatrists who agreed with him that, when he said he was Genghis Khan, he was so, just as he was Snowflake the white gorilla when he said that. And they asked him about the central heating in his tent of state as Khan and about the color problem in the jungles of Spanish equatorial Guinea, where Snowflake came from. And the one thing he never refused them was his answers, finding himself for almost the first time in his life being taken seriously. (…) Day in, day out, during each of the visits, he reinvented himself and reformed himself just because they were willing to listen, and not Genghis Khan and Snowflake only, but also a Birdman, a polar bear, and the first fish to walk on land, as well as a legless giraffe, a trunkless elephant, and – pathetically stretching out on the floor with both hands in front of his propped-up face – a blind Alley.”

Although seldom mentioned alongside the 1960s postmodernists, Paul West shares their meta-fictional  techniques (3) and has the habit of explaining the novel through the novel itself, and I think this novel, in spite of its injunction against trying to find meaning, has its own explanations ingrained in the text. As I see it, AJ stands for a demiurge, a God of Storytelling. He sees himself as an alien in With’s world and considers the normal universe “just a wee bit carelessly put together, fundamentally, firmamentally fucked up.” As opposed to the beauty, harmony, secret combinations of words that bring to life his delicate mental universe. And to explain it more in depth: “I never applied for admission to your so-called universe. I was kidnapped into it from a better place that keeps coming back to me in the dead of night, when all the other brains have shut down. Where it was altogether more previous than this, with things not so fixed and not even with words for them, dozens of different sexes and faces with all kinds of noses, folks with several heads, cannibals that fancied grassy green and vegetarian that swallowed eye-balls whole. Where it was more optional than it is here and now, about the time old God Almighty was in a poxdoctoring dither, not sure which way was which, and wondering why the bejesus he got involved with the whole things in the first place, inventing light out of sheer cussedness just to see if it suited him, and then getting into that terrible balls-up with the plumbing, and then having gone that far almost feeling obliged – so as not to have wasted all that time and effort – to get the lion grass growing, the birds into the so-called blue heavens, the fish into the U-boat pond, and so forth.” AJ defends the freedom language has, not to reproduce or imitate, but to flat-out invent what doesn’t exist; he doesn’t deal in mirrors, he deals in orichalcum. And this universe he comes from devotes itself fully to intellectual exercise. “Ho, he mutters, if I founded a church it wouldn’t be shaped like any cross; it would be something that’d appeal to the mind.” And does not Jane Austen define the novel as “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed?” And throughout West’s novel we accumulate parallels between AJ and Jesus Christ: With records his words like a disciple; helps him evade like some theories claim the Apostles helped Jesus Christ feign his death; he forgives his wife, an adulteress; tries to resurrect his dead father by digging his grave with a bulldozer; has a chat with the other God, the Christian one, in a church; and his pursuit ends in a dam where policemen find him fishing. Other characters liken him to other deities, and he even compares himself to a Holy Fool, those figures whose madness empowers them with insight: “Our man in Dementia, some have called him. Others dub him Jaggernaut, no doubt intending the festive corruption of a Hindu deity; others address him to his face as AJ; and he himself thinks of his role as that of a holy Fool, the capital F having roared in upon him from his reading like a peerage bestowed or a White House medal.”

In fact as soon as the novel starts AJ compares himself with Satan, the trickster, the manipulator, the first rebel and also a symbol of creative forces, of imagination, in this astonishing piece of prose:

"Upchuck," yells AJ. "What speed I couldn't tell, except it's like how Satan would be after two thousand million years of going without his greens, misering his sperms, and then one day out with his weapon big as a spaceship with a pearly warhead and working himself off both-handed. Floom, swoosh, it pours out, red-white-hot big flying rocks of come from out his balls underground and up the chute with a roar like that bomb at Hiroshima. Except it isn't just one weapon, it's million of them jabbing up above ground wherever you look and shooting high into the newly manufactured sky as if millions of jets have written con trails in milk, all curling and twining into one another, and then down it comes, the debris heavy as the world itself, the sperms big as elephants and buses, denting terra firma, blasting its chin and cheekbones off and melting everything in sight. The land's bubbling, there's steam everywhere, and those who don't get their heads smashed in by what's falling out of the sky will have their feet burned off by what's flooding the ground. Except there's nobody here to see it at all. Just as well. If I'd been that Lord Byron, I'd have had a private jet full of king-sized beds, and then at six hundred miles an hour I'd be going at it night and day back and forth across the Atlantic, nonstop, or just from London to Baghdad and back, with a special stock of vitamin pills in the bomb bay and oysters by the million... Nonstop forever. That's how to keep the roses in your cheeks. It's a doodle once you've learned how."

Finally we have my favorite sentence in the novel: "There ought to be laws against great minds bringing universes into being just for fun." This is taken from “AJ’s first book of the Bible.” AJ is less character than the personification of infinite wordplay possibilities. A universe made of sheer invention and combination of words, the entire English language at his disposal, and foreign words too for West is a polyglot. And that universe comes into being for no reason other than explore those combinatorial possibilities that allow language to transcend mere utilitarian purposes of “revealing consciousness” or “discussing moral themes” or “lifting a mirror to society,” all those clichés that attempt to justify literature for those who can’t stand it for its own sake. “Remember that Greek – Cretan – who went around saying all Cretans were liars? Well, I’m the cretin who goes around saying all cretins tell the truth.” He’s a Holy Fool constantly transforming himself to show that truth does not exist, like With, his apostle, ends up discovering. Not Dr. McIntosh, though: he wants to understand why his predecessor called the notebook after White Christmas. He wants to analyze, categorize, make sense of things, see hidden meanings. But AJ tells him, “I won’t cut a hole in myself for you to fish through. Mac, old son, Mac, my boy, you’re on your own. I’ve no uncles any more.” No answers, perhaps no lifeness in this novel, but lots of superb prose.

I started this text saying I don’t write a lot about general literary topics; that’s because I can’t bring myself to care about writers like Jonathan Franzen, Tom McCarthy, Elena Ferrante and Knausgaard: minimalists proud of their minuscule words; minimalists in maximalists’ clothes; barely-literate nobodies who think their ordinary lives are worthy of my precious time; Camus plagiarists playing at big innovators thanks to reviewers paying more attention to their press releases than the actual writing in their worthless novels – if that’s the future of literature then I’m glad Amazon sells used copies of Paul West’s 1970s novels at cheap prices. Let the other bloggers write about the future; I’ll stick to great minds bringing universes into being just for fun.


1) Effort? Actually I just read once in a blue moon Scott Esposito's Conversational Reading for all my news.

2) For more eloquent McCarthy vitriol I recommend Obooki's Obloquy pieces on him.

3) Paul West, or a mysterious I that narrates, actually intrudes on the narrative a few times to talk to the reader; so we can add fourth wall-breaking to the list of misdemeanors.