Saturday, 11 February 2017

Paul West: Life With Swan

When Paul West passed away in 2015, few newspapers bothered to report this loss (hooray to The Telegraph and The New York Times!). Since then Verbivoracious Press has released a new edition of Caliban’s Filibuster, the first since its original publication in 1971. However, I don’t foresee a Westian renaissance; he seems a tad more unknown than even Alexander Theroux! In the future, I fear, only fans of phrasemaking, that shrinking sect, will continue to band around his books for felicity. I suspect that people not only do not know that they lost a great stylist; they probably don’t even know that they ever had him.

So every moment is a good moment to make the case for Paul West!

Life With Swan, the love story between an English novelist-cum-creative writing teacher and a talented student who matures into a remarkable poet, constitutes one of West’s finest achievements. Before reading it I knew him mainly for a trilogy about poverty, frustration and madness: Alley Jaggers, I’m Expecting to Live Quite Soon, and Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas. This trilogy follows a young unhappy couple in post-war England, a land of tension and austerity, of rain, ruins and rage, of crummy houses stabbed with chilly draughts and in whose rooms a desperate underclass fantasizes about escaping from pervasive gloom. Alley Jaggers, an ape-man-like construction worker, displays latent creative powers, but unable to find outlets for them, perpetrates a horrible murder and is institutionalized. I remember part one and two painted with autumnal tones. In the third part, Alley, through the help of a doctor, has started living a more unrepressed life, and even if he remains a dangerous madman, the use of language has gone from grim to golden.

Still, it wasn’t until I remembered the trilogy in light of Life With Swan – and its pages do beam like pulsars – that I realized how sooty the language in those earlier novels was. Life With Swan, by contrast, the action relocated to an America bright with intellectual and emotional optimism, launches into a peahen to joie de vivre in luminescent wordplay. The plot, as vestigial as a distant start to the naked eye: the two lovers encounter some difficulties maintaining their relationship while pursuing careers in different cities; but I didn’t even need to wait for the end to know that they stay together – and yeah, in this one love conquers all. No one unique ideas on between the covers: we’ve all read love stories before; love is so common a thing. West, however, paints this so common a thing with words I had never read before. Life With Swan is a good example of how to write a plotless novel and keep it gripping for 300 pages. Perhaps the exuberant West mastered such eloquence because he was putting his own love story to paper.

I wonder how Paul West wrote. Something in his mind burst, perhaps, and a flood of phrases rushed like the Amazons River in a storm. Almost everything I’ve read by him carries this mark of excess. And this excess also means a commitment to the multifarious. West wrote many different books: the Alley Jaggers trilogy began as a grim realist drama and ended as a verbal carnival. Caliban’s Filibuster, published between the trilogy, enacted the fantasies of a hack screenwriter who escapes from drudgery into language. West has written historical novels and addressed contemporary topics, like in his 9/11 novel, The Immensity of the Here and Now. He’s written several very different memoirs, from a sketch of his childhood in England (I, Said the Sparrow) to an account of his battle with global aphasia (The Shadow Factory). He’s populated his novels with historical figures, from John Milton to Adolf Hitler, and he’s invented some pretty weird characters too. Life With Swan, published in 1997, added another trick to his repertoire. Revitalizing a genre that has fallen out of favor, the roman à clef, West narrates the early days of his meeting the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with: the naturalist and poetess Diane Ackerman.

I don’t give a fig whether or not West followed the facts faithfully; I don’t know them, and it’s beside the point. Although West wasn’t of the sort to write for writing’s sake, but used fiction to address important themes of evil and morality, he was also a writer in love with words and the world, and in this novel love, words and the world are all woven together in an intricate, seamless artwork like Arab tiles. The curious reader, if he care to research, can find bits here and there of the real-life relationship. The narrator has nicknamed his love Swan, and it seems Both West and Ackerman shared a habit of inventing cute names for each other, as we can see in her book One Hundred Names for Love. They did meet in a creative writing course West taught; and she is a poetess. “It is hard to imagine how excellent her work was, her poetry at least,” writes the narrator. Still maturing as a poet when she enrolls in his class, Swan shies away from showing her poems to her teacher. “But I had read them already in campus magazines and been astounded by the real thing. Finally, when I got to review her first book, I wrote that she was the best living lyric poet. There again, having noted her quality, I perfected her at once, I the fugitive from the courtly love of the Middle Ages, the johnnies or the johns who thought nothing sensual was good unless it contained a decisive mental component.”

For me, the reader butting in and turning this into a ménage à trois, it is the exhibition of this mental component that compels me to continue reading. The narrator lavishes on Swan the greatest treasures of his verbal genius: puns, riddles, neologisms, bewildering metaphors. “Perhaps the hurly-burly of everyday affection is not for me, but instead the absolute of idolatry, a heavy burden because the worry of it allows me no tolerance: if I don’t get perfection, I don’t want anything, anyone. This means I am a manqué of some kind, a monk who missed his vocation, a mystic who mislaid his universe. I must be the last of those who practiced courtly love, honoring not the person or the thing but the grail.”

This is real amour fou, and much better written than Amour Fou.

Thanks to Swan, a naturalist with friends in unusual places, the narrator also gets access to a world of scientists and natural wonder as the couple befriends Raoul Bunsen, a Carl Sagan-like figure soaring in popularity thanks to a TV show popularizing science. Bunsen opens Cape Canaveral to them at the height of the frenzy over the Apollo space satellite missions, and the narrator gets to interpolate his love for Swan with his fascination for the universe. The novel expands its awe over the everyday to cover also the unknown, alternating between the local and the cosmic. Everything gets blurred: language is both a contact lens and a magnifying glass:

A trapdoor swung open as my world increased and I suddenly thought how Swan and I had a massive backdrop against which to relish each other. She already had a constellation, Cygnus, named for her, which was more than a head start; but surely we could do better than that, handing her a Stefan’s Quintet out of the universe’s nameless largesse. She would not be studying astronomy, or so I thought; but she would be under that umbrella of cosmic bravura, excited by incessant discovery.

West’s sentences stretch from New York into the stars and satellites and examine feelings as much as faraway galaxies.

These days I read mostly thinking what a novel can do for me as a writer. There are novels put together so well that understanding their creation is no less interesting than reading them; others, I fear, are so sloppy I wonder how anyone mustered the energy to cobble the parts together to end up with a trophy of twaddle. I like West’s novels, I like them enough to have mailed a letter to West’s home in Ithaca, New York, although I doubt he ever received it; it doesn’t matter, it only contained a string of fawning eulogia. I admire his novels because they embody many of the qualities I seek in my own prose fiction, and I believe discovering him has helped me to improve as a writer.

The narrator repeats a word, phrasemaking, that is a key to the novel and its process. I first came across it when I read West’s 1985 essay “In Defense of Purple Prose”. In it he defends “the almost lost art of phrasemaking” from the verbally inept “who have never made up a stylish phrase in their lives, as if style had become taboo, a menace to people, gods and cars.” For West, phrasemaking constituted the writer’s duty: chopping clichés, creating new imagery, helping the lexicon find its way out of the labyrinth of stock sentences, in sum siccing a singular style on sedate readers.

Life With Swan illustrates, sentence after sentence, a mastery of language at a heightened state. His word-hoard alone astonishes me; how not to venerate a writer who combats acyrology? West had already impressed me tremendously with Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, a smorgasbord of wordplay concentrated in a short novel. With twice the room to play in, he prunes every page of flatness and packs them with puns to achieve an impossible purity. As far as I understand one of West’s mental processes, it seems words attract other words because of sounds; he seemed to be on the lookout for sounds and echoes connecting them. “That distant and obscure marriage of hers had been a mere kindergarten bauble, erased by one sunset or a good bubble bath, and she had reverted to who she had been before it, before before.” Another example: “Inured to praise, from me at least, my Swan gets on with life, lauded to death by her swain, but hardly put out if I forget to extol her; she has acquired such impetus she needs no extra shove.” And one more, the narrator commending Swan on her violin play: “Perhaps she played so well, with educated brio, because music dangled and was dandled on the fringe of poetry.” His use of paronomasia doesn’t just amaze me for its variety, going deep into the vocabulary, but for its quantity; they keep on coming. I love paronomasias myself; I first became conscious of them a couple of years ago while reading Steven Moore's The Novel; I liked the concept so much I started doing what I start doing every time I like something a lot: I started making a list. Last time I checked my Excel file, I had 1500 pairs of paronomasias, and growing. I wonder how West went about this; did he also keep lists? Did he like to waste whole days away just making lists of words like a squirrel gathering walnuts for winter? Or did he think them up on the spot, as he moved along, every word at the tip of his tongue? I think about such things when I read such novels as Life With Swan: what's the process behind their construction? West makes craftsmanship look like fun.

Paul West reminds me a lot of his friend William H. Gass; like Gass, West assumed a vehement defense of literary experimentalism while doing nothing forcefully experimental himself. Almost every novel I’ve read by him has tended to have a strong plot following rounded, lively characters E.M. Forster would have killed for, in pursuit of something tangible, moving in linear fashion towards satisfying climaxes. Caliban’s Filibuster is the only novel by him that put me off, precisely for being so self-consciously experimental, although I think it was also the breakthrough that led him to the superb Bela Lugosi. Generally he doesn’t assault grammar, he doesn’t hate conventional punctuation, he’s not against giving characters names and motivations. I suspect he even suffered from a belief in traditional humanism – what a square!

West’s phrasemaking is essentially classic; it harkens all the way back to Gorgias, the father of poetic prose. Francisco de Quevedo would have given him good grades for his diligent study of conceptismo; he writes the way Baltasar Gracián and Emanuele Tesauro prescribed in the 17th. His prose has more to do with John Lyly, Jeremy Taylor, Thomas Browne, and Herman Melville than with spokesmen for experimentation like Ben Marcus and Eimear McBride whose own literary output range from vanilla prose to bad grammar masquerading aggressively as an “avant-gardism” that Joyce pulled off much better a century ago. Ah, the senile vanguards…

The quest for novelty and innovation is ezrapounded into Anglo-American writers’ heads from a young age; the theory, if not the practice, is welded to their literary tradition’s DNA. This is understandable; the word “novel” itself promises news. In Portugal, on the contrary, we call it romance, so we don’t feel the connection. But with English having a different etymythology to worship, people can write an antanaclasis like, “A novel should be about novel things.” As an outsider looking in, I find this folly for innovation a fascinating phenomenon. Once upon a time, when I started giving my first baby steps into my own writing, I almost fell for it too. Nowadays, though, my impression is that there is more lip service to it than genuine belief. Did you ever notice how most novelists who judge Ulysses the greatest novel ever, never actually make an effort to move past the Cervantes/Flaubert school of fiction? You’d think so many fans would be in a hurry to imitate its greatness.

Personally, I don’t give a hoot what writers believe in, so long as that belief helps them write well. If West needed to consider himself an experimentalist to write something like Life With Swan, who am I to complain? However, from what I know of him, I think he wrote very conventional novels, with a virtuosity that put him next to Nabokov. It was in fact West, and Nabokov, and Gass, and the great Theroux (another conventional novelist who preaches experimentation), who made me realize that seeking quality and beauty is a mora laudable goal than seeking novelty. I don't frown, of course, at novels going off the beaten path, but putting innovation on a pedestal makes it a dogma as problematic as every other dogma: when bad things start being done in its behalf, zealots will defend them nonetheless lest the object of their beliefs be disproved. As such, it's not uncommon for many priests of the New to equate novelty with quality, giving nary a thought to whether or not said novelty is aesthetically pleasing. Like Robert Coover once said, "Innovation helps hide a lot of flaws." I myself prefer the fundamentalists of quality. The fundamentalist of quality wants to be better than better; my instincts tell me that yields better results.

I prefer these writers because they dislocate the center of the novel from content to language. No less loathsome than the novelty nutters, there’s also the content cult that reduces fiction to a message. There's something paradoxical pertaining all the pomp around reading; on the one hand, writers love to stroke the readers’ ego about how reading makes them smarter and more sophisticated; on the other hand, all ideas in novels are recycled from one week to another, as if readers had the attention span of a fruit fly. Life With Swan, for instance, is a novel of trite wisdom: being alive is good, sharing your life with your beloved is even better. I reached that same conclusion when I was around 10, I think. In fact, West even spells it out at the end of his conventional novel, right at the very end, just in case the sophisticated reader is too stupid to get it:

I go into Swan’s bathroom, put on a feeble light by dimmer switch, and lean over the ingot, half-comprising an invocation to it that begins: Inkwell of nothing, in which we dip our eyes. If it is almost enough just to be alive, no wonder I thank my lucky stars for a gift of so much more.

And the novel ends, and we close the cover and check if the author is Paul West or Paulo Coelho; it sure sounds like one of his aphorisms.

I love West also because he shows me how little fiction has to give me in terms of ideas. Since I’m a converted who already agrees with what the narrator is preaching, this novel would be a waste of time if it gave me nothing else. I think a lot about what fiction is good for, both as a struggling writer and as a voracious reader. Whatever the perspective, the conclusions converge. I realize I can't live without language, a specific sort of language, more ornate, more overwrought; a busy, bosomy language, calling attention to itself, always signaling at me. That’s what redeems the trite wisdom of so many novels. It’s what sets Life With Swan above a pamphlet like Antonio Skármeta’s The Postman. Whoever has taken a trip through that well-intentioned tripe, will remember a kind would-be poet awash in valuable lessons on freedom, love, friendship and the beauty of life. However, I mainly remember an unpoetic narrating voice limping on until it’s mercifully executed when poor Mario is implied to be disappeared by the secret police. Because novels tend to preach to those already converted to humanism like me, virtuous lessons matter far less to me than virtuosity. The risk of writing for the converted, though, is that writers allow their prose to remain as anesthetized as if undergoing surgery. Skármeta defended life because that’s what he read in countless novels before he took a stab at his own;  because repetition is easy and there are lucrative rewards in it, his prose just moves towards them like a teleguided missile. He affirmed life programmatically; West, instead, affirmed life grammatically: his love for life isn’t in press-conference-room-like declarations, it’s in the weave of the language itself. A writer who starts a novel with this radiant, exuberant, minutely-crafted sentence,

A puberty ago, I watched from my office window one afternoon as she descended into baking sunlight on the library steps in a Spanish-looking straw hat (Eton boating style), drape-swinging her legs in polychrome-striped bell-bottoms, behind her the terminal moraine of black hair that ser her out from the crowd since she was ten.

is a writer truly in love with life because he loves the one tool that can sing such love: words. Don’t affirm life, then; embody it in your sentences; make life the style. Be conventional in your ideas, but extraordinary in how you express them. I don't know if life is beautiful, but it sure is when West writes it. This should be a simple lesson for fiction writers to learn, and yet so many great ones have died without ever learning it, leaving behind them a slug-like trail of comatose prose. Many actually resent purple prose and phrasemaking, and will go on happily making their own unpoetic postmen.And yet Life With Swan is a much grander hymn to love and literature.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Making American literature great again!!!

What a ride, uh, these last weeks. We’re almost there, together we’re gonna make American literature great again. I hear you, I understand you. American literature hasn’t been great in a long time. We go to our bookstores, we check Amazon, looking for a good novel to read, an epic poem, and there aren’t any. What happened?

You know what happened. The truth is our leadership has been stupid. And weak. Disgusting. They let things run out of control, and they think it’s great. They think we’re doing fine! It’s crazy, they think we’re doing fine…

But we know the truth, don’t we? Yes we do. But don’t worry, because I’m going to take our literature back and make it our top priority.

American literature is losing to everyone else everywhere in the world. When was the last time an American poet won a French poetry prize, uh? Or the last time a young American playwright won an Italian prize for an Italian first play, uh? It doesn’t happen anymore. It’s over. And then they put those prizes on their covers and ship them to America. Put them on covers, it’s true. Our leaders, they don’t care…

Well, folks, I say enough is enough; I say we close the borders to foreign books until we figure out what the hell is going on here with our literature. Let’s close the borders and figure out what the hell is going on.

But things overseas aren’t thaaat bad compared to the domestic  mess in our hands. All over America – and this is true, all over America the Regressive Literati have taken over colleges, they’ve infested creative teaching courses. Infested them, like rats. And you know what they do in those MFA courses? We all do; they radicalize our young writers – they brainwash them to think Raymond Carver is a top writer. They give them Charles Bukowski to read. Charles Bukowski. Bukowski. Disgusting. Our leaders know. They know but they don’t care. They think it’s great to have our future writers reading Bukowski. But don’t worry, once I’m elected we’ll take care of it. It’s gonna be big…

The fact is our writers have gone soft, they’re weak. They apply to writing residencies in Mexico, get high on pot there, surf, tan, and don’t write, don’t want to work hard, rush a novel in three weeks, and that’s it. It’s true, they go there to get high on pot. Folks, that’s not how we’re gonna beat France at literature! That’s not how you produce top literature. France! Even France is ahead of us. France! During World War II, while the great Faulkner was fighting for highbrow literature with the cerebral, syntactically complex, fragmented Go Down, Moses, some Frenchy was publishing a simplistic, linear little novel called The Outsider. That’s France, folks. And it’s beating us. France is beating us. France. Disgusting.

Because we have bad leaders; we have stupid leaders.

And have you seen what comes out of Canada? They send us their lipogrammarians, they send us Margaret Atwood. It’s just sad. It’s sad, but Canada has good leaders, they’re smart there, they do things smart over there. They have top people at the top. The other day a young student from NUY was intellectually assaulted by Christian Bök’s Eunoia. She didn’t leave her safe space for three days. It’s crazy, it’s crazy. This didn’t happen before; our students used to be tougher. Why wasn’t she reading someone like Raymond Federman? What happened to toughening up? I see all those Style-Jailing Warriors walking around, moaning, demanding that all novels be equal in verbal tripe, an equal style for everyone. Sad. What changed? Where did American literature go wrong?

Well, folks, let me tell you about Canada: I’ve met a few Canadians in business meetings, and I gotta say, they work harder there. They do, it’s true. I love Canadians, I really do. They don't horse around. A lipogrammatic book. I love it. It’s true, they work harder. And our creative teaching courses aren’t up to snuff, they can’t teach our future writers to compete with that. Not when they’re teaching them Raymond Carver. It’s true, Raymond Carver, that’s what goes on in those classrooms. Carver…

And you know why they work harder in Canada? Because it’s really cold out there! I mean, really cold! Like below zero. As far as cold goes, believe me, that’s huge. Canada is, like, just ice! Lots of ice! There’s no sunbathing in Canada. Pot doesn’t grow there. Ice does. I love ice, love it.

These Canadian, they stay home and write! I love it!

So this is what I promise you: as soon as I’m elected we’re going to grab all our undesirable writers and send them to Canada, and we’re gonna build a wall to keep them there. A huge wall. It’s gonna be huge, believe me. Let them spend three, four winters in Canada, and you can bet them masterpieces are gonna start flowing back to America. Locked in a cabin in the middle of the woods, temperatures below zero, listening to the blizzards outside, hungry, miserable – you can bet they’ll write masterpieces. Say bye-bye to the pampered generation. That’s gone, finished, over. Do you know who wrote in a cabin? In the cold? Henry David Thoreau! What happened, my fellow Americans? What happened to our once great literature? Why don’t we have Waldens anymore? Lemme tell you what happened: our writers started going to Mexican beaches instead of Canadian woods. But don’t worry, we’re gonna build the wall, we’re gonna fix everything…

We're gonna build that wall, and you know what? We're gonna build that wall and we're gonna make the Canadians pay for the wall. With royalties from the copies Atwood sells here. You don’t dump your great books in America, you don't make a fortune signing up with our publishers, you don't steal interview opportunities that could go to our low-profile experimental writers instead - you don’t get to do that in our America and not give something back! And let me tell, that’s not gonna happen on my watch! With me, American literature comes first! We’re gonna change business around here, trust me, we’re gonna fix things…

That’s why my opponents are so scared of me...

Thoreau built a cabin, and we’re gonna build the wall, and if our writers don’t want to freeze to death they’ll build cabins too, and then they’re gonna write inside them. Don’t worry, we’re gonna take our masterpieces back. And very soon. Very soon...

But we also-

Hey, don’t worry about the humming of that Kindle, I love Kindles, really, I’m hearing you Kindle humming and I love it. I love it. What an awesome Kindle…

But we also hafta take care of our backyard, folks!

We have to put an end to old rope culture on campus. We need to patrol students to make sure they're reading Ada and Ardor to learn how to write without clichés, commonplaces, stock phrases, stale imagery, overused similes. And – and this is big stuff, and we’re going to teach our students all about how words work, especially aurally. For instance, “know” doesn’t just mean “know”, it can also mean “no”, like in Joyce’s sentence “They shall come to know good.” Do I have to repeat that? Sometimes “know” means “no”. Don’t worry, we’re gonna teach our kids all about homophones and polysemy. We’re gonna make them brainy again. I love brainy people, love them! It’s true. You think the Regressive Literati care if a student delivers a sentence like “The room was dark like pitch”? Folks, they don’t care. I mean, ain’t there other things a dark room could be likened to? Something more unpredictable? So, folks, as soon I’m elected I’m signing an Executive Order banning clichés from literature! No more old rope! My administration will tighten our vetting process, it will train our staff with Vladimir Nabokov, William H. Gass, Alexander Theroux, Mary Caponegro, Paul West, John Hawkes, all the stylists. I love stylists. Nothing pedestrian will pass through them.

And let me just say, let me just say that it’s a disgrace, OK, it’s a disgrace all the hoopla with my opponents about how I’m surrounding myself with too many Hawkes people. It’s disgusting. Well, I think we need to be a bit more hawkish in times like these, don’t you think? Yeah, I know you do. Yeah, we do. It’s true, we do. Don’t we all sleep better at night knowing we have all those Hawkes people keeping fiendish clichés out of our literature? Don’t worry, we’re gonna fix everything…

Books without clichés. Ain’t that gonna be awesome? Yep, it’s gonna be awesome! More novels like The Tunnel and Darconville’s Cat? It’s gonna be awesome, isn’t it? America used to be great at those. I used to see them all the time when I was a kid. This isn't nostalgia, folks, it's factual, and we can have those good old times again! But our leaders suck at their jobs, that’s the problem! They’re incompetent! They suck at their jobs and allowed things to go so baaad that a two-bit peddler of micro-stories like Lydia Davis is considered a great conteuse. In the country that used to have Guy Davenport. And nobody reads his short-stories anymore, am I right? It’s so sad… Our leaders, it’s sad, it really is…

Actually I was just kidding, you can turn that Kindle off. I think she believed me when I said I like to give speeches while people are reading on their Kindle. Yeah, seriously, can you turn it off? Anyway, the thing with – I told you to turn it off. I know it’s still on. I know it’s still on! It’s on! Turn it off! Turn it off! Turn it off! Yeah, goodbye, thank you. Bye-bye.

Don’t worry, folks, we’re gonna build the wall, and yes, the Canadians are going to pay for the wall, and yes, our writers are going to starve into perfection. Let’s cut down on their food stamps, destroy their jobs, let deregulated banks invest their savings willy-nilly, take away their Medicare, raise the gas bill, pump up the frustration. And I promise you this too: as soon as I’m in office I’ll sign an Executive Order to stop literary magazines from praising books. Melville’s The Confidence-Man only got lousy reviews and it’s brilliant. Not, it’s true, read Watson G. Branch’s Melville: The Critical Heritage. My opponents don’t have arguments because they know it’s true, so they and the fake news media in their pockets lie and distort. But we know the truth, don’t we? Yeah we do, we do, yeah…

No more positive reviews, just for a while, as a temporary measure, for precaution, until we get things back in shape. Let’s make our writers insecure, unloved. Wouldn’t it be great if they worked hard to feel they deserve recognition? It worked for Melville, and look how awesome American Literature was back then. It can be that way again. As soon as we build the wall, ban clichés and outlaw positive reviews. It’s a question of good management. And nobody’s better at management than me, believe me. We have got to take our literature back and run it properly.

Now I want to addr-

Oh, heeellooo. Look at that, what a shame. Come on – put up your sign. What does it say? “Young Adult is literature too”. You see? How sad. A college kid. In my time they read Barth and Sorrentino in college. Kick him out. Yeah, bye. Now they want rights to read Harry Potter. A shame, no, really, it is, a huge shame, huge. Kick him out. How about duties too? The duty to check the dictionary every time an unknown word shows up. You think Theroux got to be the writer he is if didn’t check his dictionary, like, lots of times? He probably has huge dictionaries at home, huge, for the big words, the biggies. Kick him out. Our college kids don’t care; the Regressive Literati don’t want them using dictionaries, that’s why they indoctrinate them with Carver. That’s the kind of choices you’re free to make when you have bad leadership. No wonder the International Booker Prize goes to Hungarians with funny names. Just kick him out, kick him out! Buuu-buuuy.

Probably someone from the Regressive Literati put him up to this. Is he gone yet? Alright…

So I want to address the thing about the Russians. It’s on the news, the media have been running this story all week. Utterly dishonest, as usual. My opponents say I should disavow Russians. Of course they do. They’re stupid. And weak. Let me tell you about a Russian who was more patriotic than them: Nabokov. I’d be stupid to disavow Russians. Actually, we’re gonna strengthen relationships with Russia, we’re gonna send our writers to Russia to learn foreign languages and develop multilingual puns.

Wouldn’t that be awesome, folks? Remember the old days, when American literature punned in multiple languages? I love puns. Nabokov, Paul West. Love those guys. What happened? Why is everything so English these days? Remember the good old days when readers trudged through The Recogntions and got stumped at the Hungarian sentences? Why can we only have Hungarian in Hungarian novels nowadays? But don’t worry, we’re gonna fix that too: once I’m elected I promise, and believe me, nobody promises better than me, I promise to deregulate the Hungarian language so everyone can use it; a free language market. Let me put this alliteratively for the highly educated: no taxes, no tithes, no tariffs – trust me, it’ll be huge, tremendous, titanic for pun business. I love the highly educated, love them.

And I also promise you this: once I’m elected I will order my Secretary of Justice to immediately start investigating the claims that Mr. Franzen’s earlier drafts of “Mr. Difficult” contained jabs at Joseph McElroy. Just disgusting. I’ll give my Secretary of Justice all the power he needs to get to the bottom of that. This is big stuff, important stuff.

And I also assure you that after I’m elected I’ll sue all of those who accuse me of sending a memo to my publishing company instructing them not to publish Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity. That’s a lie, it’s false. These people are disgusting. I know the media has put its usual spin on this, but don’t worry, nobody can stop us. It only shows they’re afraid, and desperate, because they work for the same un-American Americans who don’t want American literature to be great again. But you know what? We’re gonna make American literature great again! Because it’s AmeriCAN, not AmerICARUS; we don’t fall, we soar! We are gonna make American literature great again!

It's time we end divisive talk and come together as one literature. From now on it’s American literature first!

Thank you.

Gaddis bless America.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Portuguese Poetry: Mário Cesariny

I will always remember Mário Cesariny as a cadaverous-looking poet whose still-living skull Time had aged into a fine impersonation of Yorick. I must have first read him one or two years before his death in 2006, I a university student yet, and rather infatuated with transgressive vanguards. Cesariny, by turn, had behind him half a century of activity as the father of Portuguese Surrealism. As such, he deserves more and better words than I’m willing to devote to him here.

Cesariny, born in 1923, led to my knowledge a bourgeois life until 1947, when he travelled to Paris to study Art. Because of Portugal’s isolation from Europe during the fascist years, a holiday beyond the Pyrenees was enough to turn you into a literary superstar if you played your cards right. Cesariny, who probably skipped every Art class, judging from his awful paintings, took wind of something called Surrealism, by then fizzling in France but still unknown over here, and started writing about it in his letters to friends. With said friends he inaugurated in 1949 Lisbon’s Surrealist Group.

This informal gathering of friends who met at cafés and terrorized Lisbon’s complacency with hoaxes and nonsense came at a time when a right-wing dictator ruled Portugal. Up until the 1970s Portuguese cultural life only existed in cafés (yes, we were a George Steiner generalization), with writers and artists meeting after work to eat, booze, party, write, read, smoke, secondhand smoke, and debate well into the night, living the Bohemian life without missing any of the clichés movies have invented. Rebellious, recalcitrant, and an overt homosexual, Cesariny was in the right place at the right time to wage an absurdist guerilla against mores, bigotry and authority. No ideology suited him; he ecumenically despised both the state’s official literature and the opposition’s Marxist-driven social realism. (See the facile “exquisite poem” where he rips into Ezra Pound and Pablo Neruda). For him, anything Mme. Mainstream had rubberstamped her approval on could not be trusted; when Fernando Pessoa’s popularity exploded in the 1950s, Cesariny flaunted his indifference to him, preferring the mystical poet Teixeira Pascoaes, the poetry of whom he anthologized. 30 years before Cesariny, Pessoa had also played the role of non-conformism guru; if we wanted to psychoanalyze this (and Cesariny being a Surrealist, we have to, don’t we?), we could interpret it as an unconscious battle between fathers and sons, Zeus battling Cronus, or some other Greek myth you may wish to name a complex after.

Lisbon’s Surrealist Group quickly dissolved for the same reason the original Dada members parted ways with lots of bad blood between them: egos, people wanting to lead the group, rigid poetics meticulously deciding what was and wasn’t surrealist, which was quite contrary to the spirit of freedom underlying it. Cesariny, who wanted to lead, abandoned it and created a dissident group in another café where he pontificated as a coryphée.

During a good deal of his life, Cesariny not only worked as the fiercest promoter of Surrealism in Portugal, but also edited anthologies, published other Portuguese surrealist poets – in the case of António Maria Lisboa literally rescuing his dead friend’s poems from a public garbage can – and translated Luis Buñuel, Antonin Artaud, Novalis, Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, and Claude Simon’s Le Vent, during Portugal’s nouveau roman craze. His friend João Palma-Ferreira, one of my idols of literary criticism, convinced him to take some time off to edit an anthology of what we call “literatura de cordel”. Anything quirky and off the beaten path appealed to him. He also pursued an interest in visual arts, painting and creating collages; in fact he earned his living from his paintings.

In his final years he became a much sought raconteur because of his remarkable memory and the frankness with which he talked about his life, never afraid of causing controversy.

Cesariny published his first poetry book in 1950 and his last one in 1997. What can I say about it? Recently perusing it for the first time in several years, I realized they haven’t aged as a part of me. I suspect I never did like his poetry that much, but once upon a time, when I was a much younger and more insecure reader and believed everyone else was right, I had this power of self-delusion that numbed my aesthetic judgments. The only benefit of my ill-advised attempt to write a novel is that I replaced this power of self-delusion with the self-delusion that everyone save me is wrong about aesthetics.

Cesariny’s poetry appeals to angry teenagers who need their predictable rebellion against society validated by authority figures. Nowadays I regard literary Surrealism – and why not throw Dada and Futurism into the mix while I’m at it? – as an absolute fiasco, worthy solely for the paintings and sculptures it produced. Cesariny’s purely destructive personality embodied an attitude of negation. His was a poetics of impoverishment: in meter, in rhyme, in lyricism, in grammar, in meaning. And that’s just the language aspect; the nihilism, inhumanity and spiritual emptiness he had to uphold in the war he waged against all conventionality didn’t make his poems any more interesting. As I pointlessly handpicked the least bad ones to translate, my mind kept going back to that passage in Hans Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art about how the Dadaist’s disdain for normal human relations, whether it be love or friendship, pushed many of them to self-destruction. Yeah, well, Arthur Cravan disappearing off the Mexican Gulf coast aside, I fear art suffered the greatest loss. I can understand Cesariny’s reasons, from a historical perspective; in the 1950s, Portuguese poetry was deeply lyrical, sentimental, old-fashioned. I get what Cesariny was revolting against, and why, but the net product of such revolt still strikes me for the most part as drivel. He opened a void only to fill it with vacuity. I wish I could say repetition, bad grammar, and random cuts of words in mid-verse amaze me, but John Lyly’s Euphues has raised my amazement bar so high you need a Pegasus to reach it.

Nowadays I prefer the builders and nurturers; rearing to tearing apart; form to chaos; sedulousness to carelessness; the silent artisan toiling slowly in his grimy workshop to the loudmouth shouting in the street lest nobody notice his super-duper transgressions. I’ve accepted that pursuing perfection and craft provides greater pleasures and spiritual rewards than worshipping novelty and strangeness. Cesariny’s writing-poetry-is-so-simple lesson runs contrary to my instincts both as a reader and writer, even if I’m not much as either. Nonetheless, after having spent one year building my own rhyming dictionary to write a short-story in decasyllabic rhyming prose, there are things about the writing of others I’ve given up trying to “understand” and “contextualize” like an even-handed literary critic. If there’s one thing my own writing has changed me for the better, it’s in how intolerant it made me.

Cesariny also wrote the only cat poem I know that doesn’t fawn over the greatness of our feline betters. If that doesn’t eloquently betray a misguided poetic vocation, what does?

However, the poem “to a dead rat found in a park” remains one of my favorite poems of the Portuguese language.

But don’t trust me, I’m in the minority. I have a co-worker at the office, an Italian post-graduate student, writing a thesis on Cesariny. (Antonio Tabucchi, an admirer, translated a bunch of Portuguese Surrealists in the 1970s). Last time we chatted, she was reading Freud to “understand him better”. My heart always throbs when foreigners take an interest in our writers. But our chat also reminded me why I’m glad I left Academe.


Object once used to induce loneliness. The la-
st to know its employment were the druids,
who called it “the nail of melancholy” and nail-
ed it on women’s brows so that they were pure
and exempt from precipitation.
There are fossils that allow to pinpoint the appear-
ance of this tool throughout the whole second glacier

domestic ode

everything in your smile says
that you’re only missing a pretext
to be happy

a quarrel would perhaps do
or a small shepherd who passed by
on the road, with his sheep

a smile, a detail
that upon the moment perched
and made it better

go thinking about old things
– not a shadow of disdain! –
about life
about that fugacious flash
that your smile no longer has

and which belongs in the past
because our great wisdom
didn’t know how to treat so delicate a being

and the day, it declines

the small shepherd is no longer coming


uncertain route
joyful and sad joy
always closer

snowy strength
mother of day
pure and covered bosom

brief gift
slim silhouette

catapult on the desert

praise to the prince of denmark

poor hamlet
into the sepulcher that is

hidden between the curtains
without passions
like the thieves
who profit thirty monies

poor of him for what he sees

poor hamlet

verb alchemy

now i grew sad, for real,
i went mute

what this mouth feels
when it smiles!

the park is unpeopled
and there’s a vague dream about

when my absent strength comes back
i’ll think of this alibi

the legible cat

ed’s catastrophe: the legal metric system’s sickness, abandon
of the horizontal position for the defunct, very active
repudiation of the rights of Father, of the duties of Mother, of the ex-
ploitation of man by the Son, etc.

VIRGULAMPÈRE – Convulsive dialectics.
Liberation of the object subject, trepanation of the subject
fascinated by the object. First concretions of grand
style: Victor Brauner’s picto-poems.

spiritual exercise

You need to say rose instead of saying idea
you need to say blue instead of saying panther
you need to say fever instead of saying innocence
you need to say the world instead of saying a man

you need to say candelabrum instead of saying arcane
you need to say Forever instead of saying Now
you need to The Day instead of saying A year
you need to say Mary instead of saying dawn

scene for the finale of a third act

a corner another corner
then the fleeting florid flowerbeds
from when the city was petite

then the long brutal rocks
the moon    the eternal sea    the pier

exquisite poem

Mr. Pound is an Ezra corpse so awful to see
As the Pablo Corpse of Mr. Neruda.

Mr. Neruda is not an English penny. But
Mr. Pound is quite a half a crow.

Dust of a Second Empire Library: Mr. Pound.
Spaniard – tourist – dust around Machu Picchu:
Mr. Neruda.

Mr. Pound was born in the United States (I
suppose) from the heart of his mother, Mr. T.
S. Eliot, and the belly of his father, Santa
Claus. That’s why he writes so frequently
the Greek – Latin – Arabian – and – Acca-
dian languages.

Mr. Neruda was born in Chili. That’s why his
poems are written in the most unmingled
Góngora mass. (Góngora: see Castile, Spain).

Mr. Pound is a well-known Nazi. His
poetry too.
Mr. Neruda is a well-known Marxist. His widow too.
Here in Europe everyone loves Mr. Pound. Chiefly
at the Universities of Rome, Sicily, Auschwitz, Dachau,
Belsen, Hydrosulfate, and Oradour-sur-Glaine.

Mr. Neruda’s work is more cherished around Gdansk,
Budapest, Praha, Chasm, and Siberia.

(Note: Cesariny wrote this poem in English originally; I corrected a few spelling mistakes, keeping intact what I interpreted as word puns.)

Autography I

I’m a man
a poet
a machine for making colored glass
a cup    a stone
a configured stone
an airplane that lifts taking you in its arms
that now cross the earth’s last glacier

My name is tired of being written on tyrant’s lists: senten-
                        ced to death!
the days and nights of this century have shouted in my chest so much that
                        a tree has grown there by miracle
I have a foot that has travelled around the world
and the family in the street
one is blond
another brunette
and never shall they meet
I know your voice like my fingers
(before I met you I already went to your home to kiss you)
I have a sun over my pleura
and all the sea’s water waiting for me
when I love I imitate the tide’s movements
And the year’s most vulgar assassinations
I am, from outside myself, my gabardine
and I the Everest’s peak
I can be seen at night in the company of highly suspicious people
and never by day by you blooming your mouth
because you’re the day you are
the land where for thousands of years now I’ve been living the parable
Of the dead king, of the wind and springtime
As for everybody else’s – I’ve seen some things
Trips to Paris – a few things have been procured.
Entanglements and divorces – not that few.
Conversations with international meteors – ditto, they’ve also pass-
                        ed through.
I am, in the most energetic sense of the word
a carriage propelled by halitus
the friends I had the women I haunted the streets through which
                        I passed just once
all of that lives in me for a story
of yet hidden meaning
magnificent    unreal
like a hamlet abandoned to the wolves
stony and dry
like a railway outraged by time
that’s why I carry a certain extinct weight
on my back
used as fuel
and that’s why I think the coming landscapes will be
                        scrupulously electrocuted alive
so we don’t have to throw them half-dead on the railway

And to tell you everything
I’ll tell you that with my twenty-five years of solar existence I am
                        in clear ascension towards you O Magnificent
in bed    in the crack of a rock    In Lisbon-Upon-Frights
and that the expedition-man who gets neither news in newspapers nor
                        tears at the family’s door
is me my beloved it’s me gone in the morning found lost between
                        lakes of fire and your huge portrait!

to a dead rat found in a park

This one ended here his vast career
as a living and dark rat before the constellations
its small measure doesn’t humiliate
except those who want everything immense
and who only know how to think in terms of man or tree
for no doubt this rat destined the way it knew how (and even the way he didn’t)
the miracle of the paws – so close to its nuzzle! –
which were apt after all, working very fine
to claw, flee, hold the food, go back suddenly,
            when necessary

Is all alright, then, o “God of the small cemeteries”?
But who knows who knows when there’s a mistake
over at hell’s central office? Who can tell that
it wasn’t for prince or judge of nations
the primal impetus of this creation
a gewgaw in the world – with a world in it?
All the many pains housewives – and doctors – took from him!
How to play good and evil if they fail us?
Some kid understood its so unique life
and ran over it the wheel with which they love one another
eye to eye – victim and henchman

It had no friend? It cheated on its parents?
It was going about, a minuscule amused body
and now still, watery, it stinks.

No abuse
what ending shall one give this poem?
Romantic? Classic? Regionalist?

How to end with a courageous and ever so humble corpse
killed in full exercise of its lyre?

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Portuguese Poetry: Manuel António Pina

Manuel António Pina was born in 1943 and passed away in 2012 in the city of Porto, where he lived a good portion of his life and for whose daily newspaper Jornal de Notícias he wrote for three decades. He wrote thousands of what we call crónicas, short, informal texts on the quotidian to be read in a couple of minutes, perfect for train rides, for which reason they’re popular amongst our readers; hundreds made their way into collections over the years, and at the time of his death he was considered one of Portugal’s best practitioners of this genre. He also wrote for magazines on music and cinema. However, he never always downplayed the value of this kind of writing, treating journalism as a job rather than a vocation.

In 1973 he published his first book, a children’s book in fact, another genre he achieved popularity in, publishing more than twenty children’s books in his lifetime. His true vocation, however, was his poetry, not that he published an enormous amount of it. His first poetry book came out in 1974, but although he continued to publish them regularly since then, his complete poetry forms a volume just shy of 500 pages. Under the title Todas as Palavras (All the Words, which also gives a name to a poem), it was published just months before he died.

A cat lover, of course (the only poet I know who didn’t like cats was his friend Mário Cesariny, to whom António Pina wrote a poem), readers remember him for his informality, good disposition, humility and sense of humor, qualities he brought to his poetry. In 2011 he received the Camões Prize, the greatest honor a Portuguese-language writer can receive. His reaction: “If I were a juryman I wouldn’t award myself the Camões Prize.” And he would be probably correct; I myself put him in the “great minor poet” category. But his poetry possesses many pleasures nonetheless. He made his debut when Portugal was going through a convulsion in poetry, wallowing in empty, obfuscating formalism, you know: killing punctuation, mangling grammar, inflating ambiguity, fracturing words randomly, all the legerdemain poetasters hide their mediocrity behind when the Muse has not shared with them the gift to recombine words in unique ways.

António Pina’s journalism and poetry fed off each other, so that he brought the quotidian back to poetry when it threatened to dissolve into misty abstraction. Going against the grain, he wrapped philosophical meditation in a colloquial register, and tempered his melancholy with irony, making him perhaps the fourth or fifth 20th century Portuguese poet who didn’t consider it a capital offense and a disgrace to Art to make a reader laugh. Working in a newspaper for all his adult life, dealing with language at its most fleeting, published one day, wrapping cod the other, also shaped the way he faced the artist’s activity. “Sometimes I get very sad when I see some artists working for posterity. Posterity doesn’t give a damn.” Although artists should not believe this, lest they lose ambition, it’s probably true.

A congenial man, a raconteur, he enjoyed granting interviews, several of which have been collected; he eschewed the pompous aspect attached to the live of poets still so passionately pursued by his peers, who avoid interviewers and shun photos. Of his interviews I remember above all his overt pleasure in ridiculing poets for pretentious behavior. “I don’t understand how one can value poetry more than family, friends, love, friendship.” As such he tended to voids other writers and the publishing world in general, calling it a “world of intrigues.”

Some people have called the elegiac tone of his poetry suitable to our times, although he contested that assertion. “It’s natural that we think thus, but all times are elegiac. These are so, they’re times of ending. But all of them are. The thing is that we’re too close to them and it’s  natural that they impress us, for a question of perspective.”

In Alberto Carneiro’s atelier

The tree of life grows from the bottom up
Illuminated by the sun
(From the Zohar)


In Alberto Carneiro’s forest
trees grow towards the past,
the first, towards the uncreated,
they’re fragile beings built with

ascending matter
seeking the dirt,
a ground-loving
noisy and pagan people.

The sculptor is their shepherd;
lo, take it, eat it, this is his body:
roots, arms, torax,
knowledge, passion, resurrection.


The hand touching the paper
touches tact itself,
as if paper were the pelt
of a less-than-body body, intact,

which the hand gently brushed
awakening landscapes that are
thought rather than imagination,
where, imagining itself, thought tarried.

A tree – so too is the hand one
growing inwards,
and the drawing the tool
for clarifying the landscape.

Alberto Carneiro sculpture

Letter to Mário Cesariny on the day of his death

Today an extraordinary thing was learned,
that you died; maybe they’ve told you already,
although in truth the case do not
concern you, and be our own matter, our own, alive.

Something, in fact, must have happened,
because nothing happens, except the usual,
love and manure, as for the rest
everything goes in accordance to the Plan.

There’s only a hole here now,
I don’t know where, a sort of
lack of some insolent and loveable thing,
anyway, by the way, highly unlikely.

Besides, from cat downwards, dead
(I just remembered this all of a sudden,
now that you’ve malevolently returned to yourself)
– that’s all of us. We’ll be seeing one another eventually Somewhere.

Perhaps at night

Around me everything has aged
as if it were me, and yet
a house, or a space in white
between the words, or a possibility of meaning.

For nothing
appears with its own form.

I say ‘house’, but I mean moons and thresholds,
extenuated recollections,
the body’s darkness, lucid,
throbbing in the obscurity of interior rooms.

And I say ‘words’ because
I don’t know what thing to call
the world’s muteness.

And I say ‘meaning’ choked
by the thought
trying to breathe
as the heart punches me,
now that the house crumbles
on all possible words.


Soon I’ll leave again
and walk through deserts and disasters
and through exasperated readings and citations,
between words, without anyone real to await me or open me the door.

Dinner will go cold on the table,
my books will despair
and there will be no meaning that comfort them
and my name, if it have a name, will not answer me.

And yet a trickle of time or a trickle of blood,
or else something even less palpable,
what broke and what remained returning each to the other
through endless galleries and disfigured dreams,
absent one from the other, disappearing one into another
the way water spends itself at a well’s bottom.


There is in this a sleepless meaning, a silent inhabitant
walking ahead of our steps,
sleeping in bed next to us,
we eat its food, our own words do not belong to us,

a house inside a house,
a living and palpable thing like a blind man’s home address
touching us gently with fear of waking us up.

One day he’ll be the one giving us his hand
and leading us through interior passageways
into the house,
where we tiredly wait for so long.


Don’t open the door,
if it’s the sublime say I’m not home,
we already have too many words, too many feelings.

The wisteria did not bloom this year,
it used to bloom around
all the remains of blue around us,
it wizened, it’s animated only by the wish of returning home, of being a home.


There’s a unique and secret god
in every indefinite cat
governing a fleeting world
where we’re passing through

A god who shelters us
in his vast chambers
of nerves, absences, presentiments,
and who from afar observes us

We’re intruders, amicable barbarians,
and compassionate the god
permits us to serve him
and the illusion that we touch him


So is this a book,
this, how to say it?, murmur,
this face turned into some
dark thing that doesn’t yet exist
that, if a suddenly
Innocent hand touches it,
opens up helplessly
like a mouth
speaking with our voice?
Is this a book,
this sort of heart (our own heart)
saying ‘I’ between us and us?


It’s a small world,
inhabited by small animals
– doubt, the possibility of death –
and illuminated by the hesitant light of

small stars – the rumor of books,
your steps climbing the stairs,
the cat chasing across the room
the afternoon’s last sunray.

A house – that’s a better name for it,
a bit higher than an empire,
and a bit more indecipherable
than the word house; it doesn’t glitter.

Some nights, though,
it comes out of itself and of me
and stays suspended outside
between memory and the remorse of another life.

Then, with the lights out,
I hear voices calling,
dead words never uttered,
and the endless agony of finished things.

The second cat

In each cat, another cat
a bit less exact
and a bit less opaque.

A cat incoincidental
with the cat, iridescent,
walking in front of it

or by its side,
winged spirit
of what is earthly in the cat.

It’s the second cat
who remained awaken
with the cat sunk

in abstract sleep,
coiled up by its feet,
a sort of cat’s cat.

Or which, lazy,
ambles about the room
while the cat cleans itself up,
sometimes surging
in the cat’s eyes
something of an immobile and

jailed past.
The cat itself
doesn’t know

that something there
walks around that fits
neither inside nor outside itself.

Pining with pain for prose

Poetry, pinning with pain for prose;
I wrote ‘you’, I wrote ‘rose’,
but nothing to me pertained,

neither the world past my nose
nor memory,
what it ignored or what it had attained.

And if I returned
through the same path
I learned

nothing but words,
and empty places:
symbols, metaphors,

the river was not the river
nor did it flow and death itself
was a matter of style.

Where had I already read
what I felt, even
my alien melancholy?

To a young poet

Seek the rose.
Wherever it be
you’re outside
yourself. Seek it in prose, it may be

that in prose it flourish
still, under so many a
metaphor; it may be, and that when
you see yourself in it you recognize

yourself as if before an initial
childhood by no word
and by no memory

You may perhaps then
write without why
– a renewed evidence of Reason
and a passageway into what is not seen.

String theory

That’s not what I meant to say,
I meant to say that in the soul
(you’re the one who mentioned the soul),
down in the soul and down
in the idea of the soul, there’s perhaps
some vibrating physical music
that only Mathematics listens to,
the same symmetric music danced by
the room, silence,
memory, my waking voice,
your hand that let the book fall
on the bed, your dream, the dreamt thing;
and the meaning that all of this may have
- is being thusly and not differently,
an emptiness in the emptiness, vaguely aware
of itself, neither answer
nor secret existing.

All the Words

The ones that I searched for in vain,
especially the ones that were really close,
like a breathing,
and I didn’t recognize,
or that gave up and
left forever,
leaving in the poem a sort of sorrow
like an unpresent watermark;
the ones (do you remember?) I wasn’t able to tell you
nor were they able to tell me;
the ones I shut for being too soon,
and the ones I shut for being too late,
and now, without time, burning in me;
the ones I replaced with others (how can I
forget them untangling themselves slowly from me?);
the ones I lost, verbs and
nouns by which
the world for a moment was made,
and away they went taking with them the world.
And also those that stayed,
out of exhaustion, inertia, chance,
and with which, like old lovers without
desire, I now unravel memories,
my final words.