Friday, July 26, 2019

tricks only for the love of the trick

How is it possible to defeat not the authors but the functions of the author, the idea that behind each book there is someone who guarantees a truth in that world of ghosts and inventions by the mere fact of having invested in it his own truth, of having identified himself with that construction of words?
I'm reading Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, what I'm told is an experimental postmodernist novel. The novel is built around a couple of formal conceits, one being that chapters alternate between the story of a reader trying to find a complete copy of the book he's begun to read but who is frustrated and encounters instead the opening chapters of nine other novels (which are found in the alternating chapters). Metaphors of Ulysses' voyage or Dante's trip through the circles of Hell can be easily applied here, especially if you take into consideration the trope of the protagonist pursuing a love interest. Let's not forget the Scheherazade angle, either. So it's clever, is what this novel is.

In brief, this is the story of a reader who picks up the latest novel by Italo Calvino, a book called If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and begins reading, only to discover that he is not reading a book by Italo Calvino. If On a Winter's Night a Traveler is by someone else, an author the reader has never heard of. Well, that's fine, the reader thinks, it's a pretty good novel. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the book: parts of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler have been bound with parts of a different novel, and it's impossible to finish If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. At this point, a reader might think of ETA Hoffman's Tomcat Muir. In any case, Outside the town of Malbork, the book that interrupts If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, seems pretty good, so the reader decides to read it instead. But Malbork is interrupted by a third novel, and so it goes, on and on as the reader attempts to finish any of the serial novels he comes across. After a while it becomes impossible to say who is the author of any of these books, and if any book has a "true" author once it's been processed through the machine of the publishing industry, about which Calvino appears to have some axes to grind.

So as well as being a novel that implies the fragmentary nature of reality and ridicules the artifice of fiction with self-contained constructions of reality and author-imposed order and closure, this is also a commentary on reading and writing and the publishing/academic worlds that surround books. A lot of ideas, and possibly there are too many things going on at once which may be deliberate on the part of Calvino, or it might just be sloppiness. I haven't decided, and if an author sets out to write a novel that illustrates the chaotic nature of reality, who am I to insist upon formal unity, right?

Alternatively, there are unities within the novel:
If on a winter's night a traveler, Outside the town of Malbork, Leaning from the steep slope, Without fear of wind or vertigo, Looks down in the gathering shadow, In a network of lines that enlace, In a network of lines that intersect, On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon, Around an empty grave, What story down there awaits its end?
The paragraph above is constructed of the titles of the chapters with actual names, which alternate with numbered chapters. The titles seem to form a story, a kind of logical internal frame for the entire work Calvino presents us. A novel is a machine the produces possibilities, not endings. A novel is not a closed system, it is a gaze outward or inward or both, a network of lines that enlace and intersect.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

O, Pioneers!

Let America Be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
--Langston Hughes

Thursday, July 18, 2019

out of print, onto the web

I have created a page where I've put things for you to read. These are things I've written, so don't get too excited. So far, there are only two items but I plan to someday add more things when I find the time. I've already posted, here and there on this blog, most of my short stories and poems, so why not a few novels as well? I tell myself that the joy can't all be in the writing; they must be worth reading.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Book of the Red King

One of my favorite living writers, Marly Youmans, has a new book of poems coming out. It is called The Book of the Red King and it looks marvelous. I have read two books of Marly's poetry (the epic end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it tale Thaliad, and The Foliate Head) and I found them strange, beautiful, and inspiring. I have high expectations for Red King.

I see on Marly's blog that her publisher currently has the book on sale for pre-orders, so you would be wise (and you are wise, yes?) to reserve a couple of hardback copies now. Off you go. Tell your friends. Tell your not-friends, too.