Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Reading List


For anyone who might think that the paucity of my posting is evidence of a slow reader, well, you’re not wrong. However, I do manage to get through quite a few more books than is evidenced on this lowly site. So, how do I choose what to write about? I have no idea: it usually depends on what else is going on in life, and my inclination to overcome a certain laziness towards non-essential tasks. I recently thought it might be interesting to me to think about what I’ve read in the past 12 months or so, which led to this list. I’ve relied on memory and on notes jotted down in my little, underutilized, reading journal to come up with this list, which only includes what I haven’t already discussed on this blog.  

The House of Life by Mario Praz

The Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz

D’Annunzio by Philippe Jullian

Haunted Castles: Collected Gothic Stories by Ray Russell

A large portion of Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (interest waned about halfway through, but planning to get back to it…)

The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic Versus Classical Art by Kenneth Clark

Three essays on Goethe from Thomas Mann’s Essays of Three Decades

The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders by Peter Heather

The Creator by Mynona

The Cathedral of Mist by Paul Willems

Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux

Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment by Paul Monod

The All-Pervading Melodius Drumbeat: The Life of Ra Lotsawa by Ra Yeshe Senge (about halfway through, to be honest)

The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library by Marcus Tanner

Deeply dabbling in The Penguin Book of the Undead

A Barbarian in Asia by Henri Michaux

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity by Peter Brown

Love & Sleep by John Crowley

Goodly portions of Brian Copenhaver’s anthology, The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment

A History of Gnosticism by Giovanni Filoramo (an excellent scholarly study)

The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West

ETA:

Memoirs of a Midget by Walter de la Mare

The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

Monday, June 05, 2017

Morbid Curiosities: Collections of the Uncommon and the Bizarre by Paul Gambino



In the late 80’s I came across a reprint of an 1896 pseudo-medical text entitled Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. This was a clinically lurid compendium of unfortunate and horrendous tumors, abnormalities, birth defects, and injuries. Some of the stellar personages included poor Phineas Gage (who had a large iron rod shot through his skull as a result of an industrial accident, and lived – one assumes with associated cognitive difficulty – to tell the tale), and Edward Mordrake, the (literally) two- faced individual whose extra visage allegedly tormented him with threats of damnation. There was also the Civil War soldier who became a papa by having a testicle shot clean through, with the projectile coming to rest in the womb of a fortuitously placed virgin. My faulty memory tells me that the two became hitched, and presumably spent many happy hours telling Junior stories of his early accelerated motility.


As entertaining as all of this is, you have to understand that Anomalies was a thick and well-illustrated tome, and the images, page after page, of unfortunately deformed infants - not to mention the cases of elephantiasis of the scrotum – were heart rending and nauseating enough that the volume soon satiated my morbid curiosity and ended up being shoved in some dark corner, before it was banished by means of donation or sale to some thrift shop or second-hand bookseller.

I’ll hazard a guess that most of the colorful characters in Morbid Curiosities have a copy of that esteemed treatise occupying pride of place in some enchanting tableau, amongst the fetal skeletons and serial killer ephemera. I don’t begrudge these collectors their enthusiasms, but as Nietzsche once remarked, if one stares too long into the abyss, the abyss begins to stare back at you. Let us not forget that behind every dead or deformed infant there is, one hopes, at least one broken heart. I’ll admit that I probably meditate upon these misfortunes somewhat more than my fellow-travellers in this vale of tears (and here’s a plug for a couple of my favorite emporia, Uncommon Objects in Austin and Obscura in New York), but I’d have to say that the folks profiled in this book - one of whom is an owner of the aforementioned Obscura - are invested.

What this volume consists of, with ample illustrations, is biographies of various hipster collectors and photos of their treasures (the aforementioned infant skeletons must come cheap, ‘cause there are a hella lot of them). These folks holding court in their bone thrones share insights into their motivations and passions. All of this is fine as far as it goes: I can imagine this circle of enthusiasts passing and signing copies of this work among themselves like some demented high school yearbook. But I’d have to say that, as with Anomalies, a little of this one goes a long way.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 by Thorkild Hansen


Arabia Felix is an extraordinary story of endurance on an 18th Century Danish expedition to the Yemen, known in antiquity as “Arabia Felix”.  I noticed recently that New York Review Books was reprinting this book, and was reminded that I had the 1964 Harper and Row edition on my shelf.  I knew nothing of this work, but NYRB has a good record of reissuing excellent older titles, so I thought it would be worth a look.  I’m glad I did, because from the beginning I was pulled into a masterfully told narrative of exploration, rivalry, hardship and adventure.  Hansen tells the story so remarkably that I hesitate to reveal too much, other than to say that he breathes real life into the six men who set out to undertake the expedition under the aegis of the King of Denmark for the purpose of describing the manuscripts, monuments, and natural history of far southern Arabia.  The idea was that in this land, fabled in antiquity for its riches, an uncorrupted way of life harkening back to biblical times persisted, and that the discovery of those treasures would bring glory to the Danish kingdom and important scientific and historical knowledge to Europe.

The undertaking turned into a six year endeavor, the challenges of which most members of the expedition rose to heroically.  The success of the endeavor turned doubtful when one of the members, the thoroughly unlikable von Haven, purchases packages of arsenic in an Istanbul apothecary shop.  This creates a tension that underlies the expedition for quite some time, until the charms of their destination (which would soon enough turn sour) envelope them.  This country, which contains both scorching desert and idyllic mountain palaces, holds within it a sickness that will overtake the expedition and imperil its success.

Thorkild Hansen obviously did painstaking research for this book, and the genuine feeling of compassion and humanity that runs through it reveals that it must have been a labor of love.  If you enjoy a captivating tale of true adventure, I hope you’ll take a chance on this one.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Hunger by Knut Hamsun


Not an obscure book at all, a consideration of Hunger within its late 19th century context makes clear why it is considered an early modern classic, echoing through the literature of the century that followed.  Knut Hamsun’s novel stands in sharp contrast to much that had come before: it is a plotless narrative of a destitute writer’s mental state as he pits his personal vision against the harsh realities of the outer world.  Hunger and poverty weigh heavily upon him.  We don’t know exactly how he arrived at this state, although there are enough hints dropped for us to know that it hasn’t been a perpetual situation. 

We meet the author (clearly Hamsun’s surrogate) in the midst of his troubles, but at least with a roof over his head.  He is on the street soon enough, but holds optimism that a turn of fortune is at hand.  He does have a tendency, if not a determination, to subvert himself – no sooner does he come into a pittance than he impulsively gives it away, or rejects offered assistance through a misplaced pride.  He is prone to bouts of self-aggrandizement, alternating with periods of hopeless despair.  He further swings between touching sentimentality and fierce rancor.  In the streets of 21st century America, he would simply be counted among the homeless mentally ill, but the narrative is sustained by his internal dialog, and clearly there is a degree of intelligence and self-awareness being portrayed.

In narrative terms, the arc of the story is a rather shallow one, and one can’t imagine too many realistic scenarios (short of violence or death) by which Hamsun could bring the tale to an end, but there is enough of a narrative to pull the reader forward.  It’s considered that this story is largely autobiographical, with incidents from the author’s own years of desperation.  Aside from some unsavory opinions and associations during the years of Nazi occupation of Norway, I know little of Hamsun’s life and work.  I suppose Hunger serves as a proper introduction, and I’d be curious to investigate the perspectives of his other writings.

Monday, April 03, 2017

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin


The Ice Trilogy (Bro/Ice/23,000), published by New York Review Books in 2011, is by turns intriguing and exhausting.  The overarching story, of pure celestial essences, the 23,000 creators of the physical universe, who have become trapped in their own material creation is, of course, gnostic in its essence (as was Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth), but the massive (694 pages) length of the combined trilogy and the numbing repetition of essential actions – which, I suppose, are illustrative of life itself – serve to dull both the mind and soul.

It is a conspiracy novel par excellence, as the liberated essences search out and awaken their companions, entrapped within impermanent human shells, by means of bone-crushing blows to the sternum with heavy ice hammers. The origin of this curious practice goes back to a scientific expedition to Siberia  to investigate the site of the Tunguska event. Alexander Snegirev, born June 30, 1908, the son of a wealthy Russian sugar producer whose family had been scattered and destroyed by the Revolution (the early pages, told as a first person narrative, carry the dim echo of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory) signs up for the expedition at the urging of a girl he meets at university.  A lost, drifting sort of youth, Alexander becomes mysteriously invigorated as he approaches the site.  He discovers - or rather is led to - a huge mass of ice embedded in the swampy permafrost, and undergoes a radical change when he slams his naked chest into the ice and his true essence surfaces.  As unremitting as any biological impulse, the ice “speaks” to him, awakening his heart (in the words of the novel), and his humanity falls away.  The narrative grows more alien and single-minded, as the human race becomes more and more inconsequential to the young man, now known by his true (and unfortunate) name of “Bro”.  He sets fire to the expedition encampment before he sets out, still naked, across the tundra.  He eventually finds, out on the desolate steppe, a girl who will share his mission.  After Bro liberates her, she is known as “Fer” and together they embark on a widening scheme of seeking out, by psychic means, and building a secret society of liberated beings. As the society grows, human beings come to be known to them simply as meat machines, to be despised for their gross and perishable natures, hidden from, and manipulated towards the higher end. 
The Brotherhood, in a course of history intertwined with that of 20th century Russia, grows in numbers, harvests their brethren (under cover of the Holocaust, at one point), and establish a shady multinational corporation - again mirroring Tevis - by means of which they manufacture and deploy the ice hammers, which must be assembled and used under strictly proscribed procedures.  The symbol of the hammer in relation to Soviet Russia cannot be mistaken. 
As the Second World War transitions to the Stalinist twilight, the Kruschev era, and gradually on to post-Glasnost Russia, the Brotherhood becomes less discriminating in their methods:  blond and blue-eyed humans, the apparently preferred host for the celestial entities, are abducted and battered with the ice hammers in the hopes of liberating a few more of the 23,000.  The narrative begins to focus more on the stories of individual humans, with an emphasis on the seedy and criminal, as they become awakened to their higher selves.  The trappings of the Brotherhood become more cultish, with expensive surroundings, evoking on one hand the higher echelons of Scientology and on the other the sordidness of the Jonestown massacre.  There is also a growing group of former victims, seeming paranoiacs who swap stories and piece together a picture of a vast conspiracy.
As the final ascension, by necessity, must involve each and every one of the 23,000, there is a frenzy of activity as the magic number is approached.  There are secret Chinese slave labor facilities manufacturing the hammers from the original Tunguska ice, emphasizing the divide between the Brotherhood, their accomplices, and the downtrodden workers.  One moves towards the end of the book wondering if the great event will even take place, or if the comforts of power and wealth, even in the material realm, will be too much of a temptation, but the organization appears to remain steadfast in its determination to gain escape velocity and leave the shackles of Earth, their most deficient creation, behind. 
In the end, there are perplexities remaining.  One of the necessary consequences of the ascension appears not to have occurred, casting doubt on the reality and effectiveness of the enterprise as a whole.  I’d have to say the finale, while unexpected, is a bit of a letdown after such a long and challenging read.  It’s up to the individual reader to determine if it was worth the effort.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti

I first read this novel – Canetti’s sole work of extended fiction – close to thirty years ago. I put it down perhaps ¾ of the way into it, turning away, I imagine because of the unremitting bleakness.  The outward plot concerns a reclusive and meticulous scholar, completely absorbed in his studies of the philosophies of the Orient who, in a spontaneous act of gratitude, marries his scheming and overbearing housekeeper, who proceeds to make his life (with a degree of collusion on his part) a living hell.

 The scholar, Peter Kien, escapes his apartment after a particularly bad episode of violence, which allows the story to move on to present a cast of largely grotesque characters, each entrenched in their own psychotic realities.  Each, in his or her own way, sees other human beings as objects to exploit or ignore, as the situation demands.  The emaciated, ascetic Sinologist Kien is a “living skeleton”, becoming more haggard as the tale moves on.  Therese, his housekeeper, is physically intimidating and abusive towards him.  She finds, for a time, in Kien’s absence an ally in Benedikt Pfaff, the caretaker of Kien’s modest apartment building.  He is a red-haired ape of a brute, an ex-policeman who has already abused his wife and daughter to death, and who obsessively spies on all who pass or enter the building.  He relies on a monthly stipend that Kien had established some time before in gratitude for chasing off unwanted visitors (Kien’s acts of gratitude tend to come back to haunt him).  Next, there is the hunchback dwarf (it’s German literature after all) Fischerle, a miserable creature who encounters Kien after he wanders into a low-life dive.  Kien has, unbeknown to his new wife, who is tearing the apartment apart looking for his bank book, cashed out his remaining funds and is ill-advisedly carrying it around in a thick wad in his breast pocket, a fact which does not escape Fischerle, who, having the wiles of a chess player rather than the strength of an out-and-out thug, immediately schemes to defraud Kien of his rapidly dwindling inheritance so that he may emigrate to America and fulfill his delusion of becoming the world chess grandmaster.  A generous cast largely composed of other misfits and freaks round out the personae dramatis.

Turned out of his library, Kien is a wispy shell of a man, catatonic and easily manipulated as the reality of a world outside his library edges him closer towards madness.  Bleak as the novel is, in the grotesque Germanic tradition that gave us Georg Letham, Steppenwolf, Professor Unrat, and the novels of Paul Leppin, amongst other dark masterpieces, it is underscored with a cruelly comic quality that I most likely missed on my first reading, and which might have propelled me towards finishing it on the first go-round had I been a bit more receptive to it.  Kien’s descent is never in doubt, the only question being when, and by what violent means he will hit bottom.  There exists, however, another character, a potential savior armed with psychological insight who just might salvage - if not redeem- Kien’s existence.  One must, however, read the novel to assess the success of that venture.

My old Penguin Modern Classics edition (published 1965) uses C.V. Wedgwood’s 1946 translation, as does my 1984 Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition.  Among his other works, I would highly recommend his 1960 study, Crowds and Power.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges

The Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) has been a perennial favorite of mine since I discovered the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Labyrinths in the late 1970’s, sometime after another fantastic and comforting book, the Bhagavad Gita, came into my youthful possession.  Among my most cherished and frequently consulted books are my first editions of the three large volumes of Borges’s selected fiction, non-fiction, and poetry published by Viking in 1998 and 1999.  While these are somewhat comprehensive, and collect all the most essential writings (although The Book of Imaginary Beings, alas, is missing), I still have a number of volumes of his works that predate this admirable effort.  In addition, I have other rather ancillary works by and about Borges.  This collection of talks given by Borges over seven consecutive nights in 1977 is one of these, and covers most of the author’s deepest preoccupations, from Dante’s Divina Commedia to the 1001 Nights, the Kabbalah, Buddhism, Nightmares, Poetry and Blindness.  It’s a short volume, and I have picked it up a few times over the years to read one of the lectures, only to find myself reading the whole thing through again.  My edition is the Faber and Faber edition of 1984; New Directions has an edition currently in print.

The metaphysics of these topics preoccupied Borges, and each is in some way a mask of infinity, as are mirrors, labyrinths, and libraries, three other preoccupations that he had failed to exhaust in his other writings but did not address here (at least not directly, though references to them are scattered about within these pages).  The fascinating thing about Borges was his ability to seamlessly meld the true and the fantastical in his writing, and more than once I’ve tried to run down a reference made in one of his pieces only to find that the source doesn’t exist, or (to give the author the benefit of the doubt) is maddeningly elusive.  I’m not sure there is much of that in these lectures, but you never know. 

Some of his assertions are charmingly antiquated, and there is no topic that Borges could discuss that did not redefine the topic through his lens – that is to say, Borges did not necessarily write of the Kabbalah as it exists in the scholarly world (despite obligatory reference to Gershom Scholem), but of the Borgesian Kabbalah.  While one can certainly say this about any author, Borges had created such a comprehensive and idiosyncratic metaphysical world view that each of his preoccupations informed and redefined the others in a holistic sense.  For his readers, Borges is as much defined by his literary worldview as Kafka is of his.  It is as if his blindness, which – according to the lecture here – progressed by degrees from birth, served to spur the creation and growth of an interior universe, defined by the simultaneously pedantic and imaginative mind of its creator.  In his lectures and writings, Borges gave us glimpses into that universe.  For the uninitiated, this would be a good introduction, and a springboard to his other works.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson


If, as Dr. Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then HST had it in spades, for he stands to late 20th century America as Baudelaire stood to the Church – a depraved lover, but a lover just the same.  The excesses in this novelization of Raoul Duke’s wacky Vegas road trip are Rabelaisian in their scope, and that surely must have been the point of it all: to exceed by a wide margin the “extremes” of a Sin City born as an inevitable product of the unique and soul-confining American Protestant ethic, and to shine the light back upon the hypocrisies of the American Dream at the waning of the 1960’s.

It must be admitted that Thompson loved his country and despaired of it – doing so until that despair attained terminal velocity under the catastrophic administration of Bush the Lesser.  I remember reading a piece from one of Thompson’s later collections, and tasting that humorless hopelessness permeating the pages.  It was clear that the good Doctor was not long for this world that he saw lunging headlong into a shallow grave, a vision that the ascension of our newest (and most dangerous yet) demagogue to power would appear to confirm.


We still have, however, this early and shining testament to the man, his humor and his appetites, his keen insights made even through a drug-addled lens.  His was an expansive awareness, which I believe was innate and not dependent upon any of his numerous choices of artificial stimulation.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a rough and tumble read, with something to offend almost everyone.    It is, as I said, a Rabelaisian work, and if you get that (or even if you don’t), you can settle in and read it cover to cover multiple times with no diminishment of the sheer gonzo glory of it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Exquisite Corpse by Robert Irwin






Encompassing a missing-person mystery that isn’t much of a mystery, this 1995 novel is nonetheless an entertaining and intelligent work set amongst the surrealists of 1930’s London and Paris just before the Nazi deluge. Irwin is as at ease in this milieu as he was in the world of medieval Islam in The Arabian Nightmare (1983).

The protagonist is a minor painter with a Buster Keaton profile who, in the course of a Dadaist prank, makes the acquaintance of a conventionally attractive young English typist.  Our hero, Caspar, has a rather obscure (if not fictitious) background, littered with innuendos of an extraordinary youth under the wing of a mysterious guardian, and he seems to find young Caroline exotic in her ordinariness.  The other members of Caspar’s surrealist group, the Serapion Brotherhood (an Irwinesque name if there ever was one, harkening back to E.T.A. Hoffmann and referencing a similarly named Russian writers fraternity of the 20’s), are enjoying an extended adolescence, playing games with irrationality as they play peek-a-boo with their individual insecurities within the context of their grand surrealist gestures.

As the movement unwinds in the shadow of the approaching Nazi darkness, the Brotherhood scatters to the wind following a very short and dismally conceived orgy.  Caroline herself has suddenly disappeared, and in his search for her, Caspar’s obsession grows.  With the world tilting on its axis, he desperately seeks the “normalcy” of a quiet dull life as a painter of railway posters and Caroline, to his mind, is the key to this state of existence that he now desperately craves.

Robert Irwin is a talented author who blends historical personages (Dali, Breton, Paul Eluard, and a special appearance by Aleister Crowley) into the narrative quite effectively and with good humor.  Caroline’s disappearance isn’t much of a mystery for even a half-attentive reader, although a red herring early on suggesting that Caspar has somehow caused her demise has, by novel’s end, vanished without a trace.   While Caspar seems to bumble through the story like a little lamb lost (the Keaton reference seems to be an apt one), his adventures, acquaintances and sensations are quite enough to make this an enjoyable read.

Illustration:  Exquisite Corpse (1928) by Man Ray, Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, and Mas Morise



Friday, November 11, 2016

Democracy











It's coming through a hole in the air,
from those nights in Tiananmen Square.
It's coming from the feel
that this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the wars against disorder,
from the sirens night and day,
from the fires of the homeless,
from the ashes of the gay:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don't pretend to understand at all.
It's coming from the silence
on the dock of the bay,
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the sorrow in the street,
the holy places where the races meet;
from the homicidal bitchin'
that goes down in every kitchen
to determine who will serve and who will eat.
From the wells of disappointment
where the women kneel to pray
for the grace of God in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.

It's coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It's here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it's here they got the spiritual thirst.
It's here the family's broken
and it's here the lonely say
that the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It's coming from the women and the men.
O baby, we'll be making love again.
We'll be going down so deep
the river's going to weep,
and the mountain's going to shout Amen!
It's coming like the tidal flood
beneath the lunar sway,
imperial, mysterious,
in amorous array:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Sail on, sail on ...

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
But I'm stubborn as those garbage bags
that Time cannot decay,
I'm junk but I'm still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)


Library / Malvern Books
















When my family relocated from Phoenix back to Austin in the spring of 2014, the unbelievably competitive real estate market compelled us to lease a home and put the vast majority of my library into storage.  The plan was to rent for one year, but that turned into almost two.  As a lifelong bibliophile, the absence of a library in the home was something I hadn’t experienced for decades, and it would be mild to say that I didn’t take it well.  I had downscaled my collection by a few hundred books before the move, and so I had something just approaching 9000 volumes in storage.  I found room for a small shelf in our temporary home, and here I kept a carefully selected collection of items consisting mainly of my old Quartet Encounters softcovers, New York Review Books editions, some of the more recent Penguin Classics, and a variety of smallish volumes from Pushkin Press, Wakefield Press, and the like. 

While these books did keep me occupied in the rare quiet moments as our family adjusted to new jobs, schools, etc., I would have to confess that a mild depression set in, occasioned mainly by the absence of the surrounding womb of books that I had grown to know and take comfort in.  I devised some strategies to boost my mood whenever I got too low.  I could visit some of the used bookstores in town, one of which was fairly close to our home,  I browsed Amazon for new titles, I read from the wonderful volumes with which I had stocked the small shelf, and, most therapeutic of all, I’d drive the short distance to the storage unit, that sad monument to lives in transit, roll up the metal door, and sit perched on a stepstool amidst the hundreds of cardboard boxes wherein my library was held in suspended animation.   I’d rummage through a box at random, pick up some interesting and somewhat forgotten book and spend an hour or two with it before the light grew dim and the heat of the shed became too overwhelming. 

It didn’t take long to unpack a few boxes onto the bookshelves that were (obviously) also in storage.  So now I had something to look at besides the stacks of light brown boxes, even though I barely had room to place that little stepstool.  I kept a wary eye for vermin (apart from the occasional black widow and some random crickets, my light treatment of the space for insects seemed to work adequately) and any sign of moisture.  Although my trips to the unit were far between, they did have a pleasant effect on my mood, and if by chance whatever item I picked up was engaging enough (and most, frankly, were – I’m a bibliophile, as I said) it came home with me for further perusal.  This led to another, small bookcase in the house where these refugees sat, along with the random new purchase. 

I did gradually come to realize that, yes, I could exist in a home without an overwhelming supply of books close at hand, although whether I actually wanted to was another question.  Still, finally the day came:  after looking at and falling in love with a succession of new homes, which we made generous offers on only to have them shot down, sometimes in the most insulting manner (is there a lower form of human being than a greedy homeseller in a ultra-hot market?), the right place came our way in March, with an actual, honest to god human being willing to sell it for a generous - rather than an obscene - profit.  There were two handsome rooms at the front of the house that would do nicely for a library, even though a remarkable number of books would, by necessity, have to remain, as they had in Phoenix, boxed in the garage.  Shelves were ordered, along with some decadent leather club chairs, a nice rug, and a lovely copper hanging lamp.  The shelves were built over a long weekend while my family was travelling, books began to be unpacked and sorted and, gradually, a library took shape – the kind of place where you could soften the lighting, pour a nice glass of wine (or better, Jameson’s), and spend an hour at the end of the day in a quiet house.  As Nero famously said: “Now I can live like a human being!”

I mentioned above my Wakefield Press volumes.  These are one of my more recent book enthusiasms, a selection of surrealist, Dadaist, and decadent rarities long out of print – or never before published – in English.  During my book exile, I scoured Amazon for these, greedily looking at forthcoming publication dates.  These are not the sort of thing you will find in Barnes and Noble, and even Austin’s most prestigious and eclectic independent bookstore, BookPeople, didn’t typically keep a generous supply on hand.   That changed a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I visited Malvern Books on 28th Street in Austin.  A clean, well-ordered shop, it stocks just about every small press that I’m interested in – even Green Integer, the worthy successor to Sun and Moon Press.  If you are a resident, or one of those tourists who love to visit Austin for the humidity and the traffic, you should do yourself a favor and stop by, say hello*, and buy something.


*The staff is actually friendly – at least they were on the day I visited.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun

Recently read, there is little I can add to 50 Watts’ enthusiasm (here) for Goose of Hermogenes,  one of those discards found in the dollar bin of my local bookstore, landing there because the casual browser failed to see its worth, a diamond in the dung. Steeped in surreal and occult imagery which seems to have come to Colquhoun as easily as breathing, it is a deceptively short text which calls for re-readings, a characteristic it shares with Gracq’s Chateau d’Argol and Kubin’s The Other Side (another work by a predominantly visual artist).

This is the relation of a young woman's trip to a dreamy and forbidding coastal island, a transitional space between the worlds, ruled by the narrator’s uncle. The uncle being an elusive but omniscient presence, an occult Prospero, the narrator is left to explore the secluded mansion and its environs.  There is a true sense of isolation and menace, broken by visions (a sea-Amazon arising, with an ancient underwater kingdom, from the waves; an arboreal bordello where her enslaved sisters service spirits of the netherworld), a tableaux of Tarot imagery, wherein her uncle has collected the symbols of the minor arcana, the “Museum of the Mosaico-Hermetic Science of Things Above and Things Below”, and the occasional presence of a mysterious anchorite who acts as her keeper and protector.

If your tastes run to the occult or surreal, watch the dollar bins for this little masterpiece, or order your own from a semi-reputable dealer.

Recently Read

Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber.  A 1903 first person account of schizophrenia by a institutionalized German jurist, fascinating (if tiresomely repetitive) in its description of paranoia and hallucinatory obsession as Schreber describes the psychic assaults of supernatural beings that are transforming him into a woman. The oppression by both his imaginings and the asylum staff are palpable, giving a certain poignancy to the writing.  This memoir was influential on Freud’s thinking, misguided as it was (Freud never bothered to meet with the author in person, although such a meeting would not likely have been too difficult to arrange). The New York Review Books edition includes introductions, appendices and notes relating to Schreber’s case.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. A volume in the Millenium/Gollancz “Fantasy Masterworks” series, a novel of Faerie written in 1926 the protagonist of which, Nathaniel Chanticleer, may well put you in mind of another who puts comfort aside for the necessity of adventure, Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End. One may also be put in mind of John Crowley’s enchanting 1981 iteration of the theme, Little, Big.

Currently on the Nightstand:  The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosch