Monday, March 22, 2021

Samuel Beckett's The Complete Short Prose. 1929 - 1989


The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 by Samuel Beckett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About once a year, I like to read what I consider to be a really challenging book. Moby Dick comes to mind, as does Ulysses. Gödel, Escher, Bach was a back-breaker. And I have more heavy challenges sitting on my TBR pile: Proust's Swann's Way, Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and Heidegger's Being and Time. They stare at me at night, waiting . . . lurking . . . seething.

Why do I hate myself read such works? Well, a sick part of me actually enjoys the challenge. I love puzzles. I tend toward jigsaw puzzles (though never simple ones and never under 1000 pieces - booooring!) and doing crossword puzzles helps keep me from mentally falling apart with fear when I'm flying, though I have this superstition about finishing all the "across" words before working on the "down" words - it's probably a control thing, but I digress. I do love puzzles. I like challenging my brain, though I like doing so on my own timeline, when I don't have to. And there is the side benefit of actually knowing what the heck I'm talking about when talking literature, philosophy, etc., with random strangers I meet (or whom I hope to meet in a post-pandemic world). Nothing quite like talking Gödel's theorem with someone on the shuttle to the rental car place, you know? Heartwarming.

This isn't my first dance with Beckett. Many years ago, probably about twenty years or so, I took a train ride from Chicago to Salt Lake City for work (yes, I do have a fear of flying, but I'm better about it now then I was then). During that trip, I tortured myself read through Beckett's "trilogy" of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. It was a harrowing experience, not because of the subject matter, but because of the sheer tediousness of it. But I wanted to understand them. So, I plugged ahead. It was slow going. It took a two day trip one way, reading every night for a week while in Salt Lake City, and a two day trip back. In fact, I don't think I even finished it then, but had to slog my way through a few more days after I got home. It was, in a word, agonizing. And yet, I couldn't pull myself away from it.

You see in those novels, you just have to know what happens to those characters, and you have just got to know what happened to them in the past. They are like human train wrecks that you can't look away from. I am reminded of Jim Morrison's (in)famous childhood encounter with a car wreck in which he saw bodies strewn all over the road and heard the screams of the wounded and dying. He claims that an Indian's soul leapt up and took over his body. I feel the same way about Beckett's characters. They leap up and jump into your soul. You can't get rid of them without an exorcism, and I don't know the method for doing so or another person who does. If you don't want to be possessed by Beckett, it's best to just stay away.

But for those who won't or can't, here are a few of my disjointed notes. The analogy of watching a car wreck just kept coming back to me again and again as I read, so you might find strands and echoes of this throughout. These notes are not in the order they appeared in the book, as the order really doesn't matter except to contextualize "more experimental" and "less experimental" periods or, one might say "more readable" and "less readable". I find Beckett's short fiction to feel like a long, aimless meandering walkaround and through the liminal places, the little used alleys an abandoned lots, of a town. Not a city or village, but something between, and only those spaces in between. Whereas the 3 novels are like a marathon, this is a series of day trips. You just concentrate on whatever interests you, with no compulsion to "see the sights".

Beckett is the master of entropic literature. The old black | white partitioned sandbox with the child running clockwise, mixing it all up. Send him back around counter-clockwise and it doesn't reverse the process, it makes even more chaos. This is actually an appropriate analogy to the works throughout the volume. Beckett's masterwork is undoing, and I can't help but watch, fascinated, like seeing a passenger trainwreck in slow-motion or watching a cow being folded and crushed in a meat-grinder. Utterly disgusting and fully engaging. One feels simultaneously sickened and fascinated.

The story "Fizzle 1," however, just left me feeling sick. I'm continually amazed at how a story like "Fizzle 1" can trigger in me such a feeling of claustrophobia that I have to remind myself to breathe while reading it. Exhausting and uncomfortable, Beckett knows how to wriggle into your brain and flood your insides with oppression. It's like having a bull sit on your chest, slowly crushing the breath out of you.

I am more than willing to give Beckett's experimental works the benefit of the doubt, but "The Image" was a complete flop. Probably should have just kept this one on a private notebook or sent its ashes up the chimney flue a'la Kafka. That said, I was greatly intrigued and entertained ("enjoyed" is exactly the wrong word) by the other experimental work in the volume. There is a smartness to most of the works that isn't "oversmart". This story was "oversmart". It just plain tried too hard and looked stupid doing it.

In "Fizzle 4" consciousness asserts its independence from the body. A rather successful little piece of experimental fiction, possibly the most successful of the fizzles. I think that this is what Beckett was trying to do with his trilogy of novels, or something akin to it. But this little piece did it without becoming in the least bit tedious. I rather liked this one.

I suspect that Brian Evenson read and was influenced by "The Lost Ones" early in his writing career. Perhaps I'm wrong, but boy does this read like an Evenson tale. That's a good thing. This was possibly the most "approachable" of the stories in this volume, while also being the most strange and surreal. I would loved to have an entire collection of Beckett stories in this mode, but alas, such stories don't exist beyond this one. A definite favorite.

"Heard in the Dark 2" is Eros and Thanatos, entwined in a car wreck. Messy, but you can't stop looking. I warned that this analogy was going to keep coming back. It's like herpes - you can't get rid of it!

I would be remiss if I didn't quote the man himself. So here is a nugget that stuck out to me because it exemplifies the mindset of many of Beckett's characters; so much so, in fact, that one wonders if Beckett even had more than one character, or if this poor sap was trapped in an eternally-recurring loop of dissolution?

Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it's me?

Here you have Beckett's short-story oeuvre, in a nutshell.

As an addendum, something dawned on me as I was reading the end-notes (talk about tedium!).

The "Notes on the Texts" gives a perfect example, under one cover, of Machen's differentiation between Art and Artifice. This section is as dry and soulless as a ledger, while Beckett's short stories, while difficult and sometimes near-undecipherable, clearly have "soul" and at least approach, in their own strange way, that "ecstasy" that Arthur Machen spoke of in Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature, as defining Fine Literature. It's an excruciating road to get there, but rewarding to the mind and heart, whereas these last notes are just pure academic/bibliographic dross. A car wreck you really can't be fascinated by, no matter how hard you try, unless you're just trying to look smart.

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Malevolent Visions: The Art of Der Orchideengarten - 1920 - Issues 9-15


Malevolent Visions: The Art of Der Orchideengarten • 1920 • Issues 9 - 16Malevolent Visions: The Art of Der Orchideengarten • 1920 • Issues 9 - 16 by Thomas Negovan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I supported the kickstarter for this volume, the fifth in the series, mostly because I could get the book and a set of postcards featuring art from Der Orchideengarten for about the same price as just buying the book later. I'm using the postcards as postcards for a snail-mail roleplaying game that I am participating in, which is set in the year 1921. What better way to add authenticity than by using postcards showing macabre art from the year 1920 in a snail-mail RPG set in 1921? I've sent one thus far, and it seems to have done the trick of giving the player to whom it was sent a visual to go with the (handwritten) words of my character to his. Verisimilitude helps.

And what of the book itself? I'll admit that, because I was so focused on the use of the postcards, I didn't read or didn't absorb the fine print in the kickstarter. I had expected (ignorantly) that the book would include facsimiles of all the issues of Der Orchideengarten for the stretch of issues indicated. I was mistaken. While there is some interesting commentary about the stories and their authors, there is little directly quoted from them. There are decent summations of many of the stories, but they are merely summations. The information about the artists lends a bit of depth to the book, especially as it relates to how the artist's political sympathies were manifested, in time (you can imagine why), but the real focus of the book is the art itself.

At this, it succeeds wonderfully. Certain artists predominate, most notably (the notorious) Karl Ritter, who did the majority of the covers for the issues examined in this volume, but there is a variety of styles shown throughout. Wilhelm Heise's "Nocturnal Garden" is akin to a black-and-white illustration in the style of Der Blaue Reiter; Paul Neu's illustrations for the story "The Elevator" and Carl Rabus' illustrations for "Giulio Balbi's Disappearance" are heavily-influenced by cubism, but with an art-deco flair, and Ritter's work is composed of grotesque, but fine line work with a sort of Aubrey Beardsley depth, albeit far darker in both its subject matter and its artistic tone. There are also several illustrations that are purely anonymous, which somehow seems appropriate for a periodical focused so much on the grim and macabre arising out of Germany's interwar years art scene.

The book is, as you might imagine, lavishly illustrated with plates showing full-color covers and even one maquette of Karl Ritter's shown opposite the final cover for issue eleven of Der Orchideengarten, an intriguing pseudo-diptych of the expressionist work-in-progress alongside the finished product. One wonders why various changes were made by the artist, what led to the alterations? It also shows that this cover, at least, wasn't just a fever-dreamed off-the-cuff outpouring of artwork, but something more methodical and thought-through. Many critics of "modern art" don't understand (or don't believe) the crafting that goes into many modern (and "post-modern") works. Such dismissiveness is, I believe, to be dismissed. Here and elsewhere, Malevolent Visions shows both the art and artifice needed to generate these enduring (if somewhat forgotten) works of strange art.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Hieroglyphics: A Note Upon Ecstacy in Literature

Hieroglyphics; A Note Upon Ecstasy in LiteratureHieroglyphics; A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of course, I am a huge fan of Machen's ethereal, even oneiric fiction. His non-fiction, at least in the case of his exploration of Art versus Artifice, Hieroglyphics; A Note Upon Ecstasy in Literature shows a great level of precision in its arguments, even as the narrator confesses that the largely-inexplicable, but precisely knowable concept of "ecstasy," is difficult to pin down because of the slipperiness of language, or, rather, the slipperiness of our use of the language in trying to describe and categorize that which is nearly indescribable and far from easily categorizable. Still, at least a part of Machen's early career was taken in cataloging (works of the occult, no less), so he brings a level of exactitude to the argument eventually, after circling around the subject, like a whirlpool spinning his interlocutors around in a dizzying series of arguments before pushing them down into the depths of his logic.

This doesn't mean that he is entirely successful. At least not in the end. His assertion that all ecstatic works are "Catholic" is less than convincing, perhaps because I, as a reader, see the capital "C" and assume that he is talking about the institutional church of the same name, rather than the concept of universalism, which might have been a better word choice around which to center his final argument. Yes, I know he didn't mean The Catholic Church, but using the term "Catholic" with that attention-grabbing "C" and all it implies, distracts from what could have been a more elegant argument.

Still, I find it hard to argue with his assertion that: A gold nugget may be as pure and fine as you like, but it is not a sovereign; it lacks the stamp; and it is the business of art to give its stamp and imprint to the matter of life.

And: . . . you must never tell me that a book is fine art because it made you, or somebody else, cry; your tears are, emphatically, not evidence in the court of Fine Literature.

This doesn't make Machen a high-falutin' snob. Far from it. He admits to the enjoyment he takes in reading laugh-out-loud books and enjoying a well-spun yarn, but he does not yield in his argument that Fine Literature is fundamentally different than most "popular" books. I use the word "most," because Machen admits that even within Fine Literature, there are matters of degree. He also says that many of these more popular works might have elements of Fine Literature, but without the ecstasy that he struggles so long to explain (and which I will not explain here), they cannot cross that line. He uses Austen, Dickens, Quixote, Collins, and Rabelais as examples to form his arguments, and with great effect. Now I need to read Rabelais!

Two interesting sub-theses stuck out to me. The first, about poetry, states:

The most perfect form of literature is, no doubt, lyrical poetry which is, one might say, almost pure Idea, art with scarcely an alloy of artifice, expressed in magic words, in the voice of music.

He goes on to argue that lyrical poetry, rather than being artifice, as he has defined it, is highly natural. This seems to contradict his earlier arguments that artifice is largely a manner of structure that lacks true spiritual inspiration. Poetry, however, he claims, is a different matter. Think of children out playing - if they are by themselves, they quite naturally form "poetry" of a sort as they learn that words have cadence, that rhymes can be pleasing, etc. Because these things happen at a very young age, Machen seems to see this kind of structure as emerging from the very soul of innocence, whereas the artificial construction of popular stories, novels, etc., stray from this innocence into a form of connivance.

The second argument I find extremely intriguing is how Machen ties in drinking in literature with Dionysian worship, of a sort, man becoming divine through wine. He points out that if we miss this, we might be missing the entire point of some Fine Literature. This, to me, is a very interesting take on the Mysteries, that sacramental truths can be revealed in the drunken-ness of the characters of Fine Literature. Perhaps he sees this as akin to returning to child-like innocence and, thus, the shedding of the shackles of "civilization"?

If so, I'll accept his "catholic" views, so long as they remain with a lower case "c". Case matters.

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Thursday, March 11, 2021

A New Hobby Emerges: Bookbinding!

 As if I don't have enough things taking up my time, I got "the bug" to want to try my hand at bookbinding. I've watched a couple of youtube videos and subscribed to Vintage Page Designs channel, started following some book-binders and paper marblers on Instagram and Twitter, etc. But the best thing I did was purchased a DIY bookbinder kit from the American Bookbinders Museum

The kit comes with instructions and everything you need to create a small bound book. The instructions were fairly straightforward and the quality of the materials was excellent (so far as I know, but I'm just a newbie). After familiarizing myself with the instructions by reading them a couple of times (just to be sure - measure twice, cut once, right?) it took about 45 minutes from the moment I started folding to the time I put the finished book between some heftier books to flatten and dry. Not too shabby! Here are some pics of my progress:

No pics of the finished product yet, but if you look at that last picture and imagine another black, book-cloth-bound board on the right side of it, that's what it will look like. I'm already thinking about the next project(s). I've been thinking of doing some incredibly over-priced RPG supplements or adventures, hand-made. I'll need to save up to buy some more materials, however. You do need the right materials. And I have a thing for marbled endpapers . . . I mean: a Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu adventure with marble endpapers - what's not to like (except for the price - this won't be inexpensive, I'm guessing)? This might be the start of something, who knows? And I might just make some books for myself and friends, too.

Like I needed another hobby!

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Feathered Bough

The Feathered BoughThe Feathered Bough by Stephen J. Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books are books, except when they are performative grimoires, the sort of book that opens itself to the reader as the reader opens their soul to the book. This is one such grimoire, a ritual descent into a labyrinth of madness and memory, and the shutting out of memory. It is no mere mechanical work, however, being suffused with a spirit of both sympathy and vengeance, a human spirit.

I've made no bones about my love of Stephen J. Clark's fiction. Thus, I was pleased to see a sort of continuity here with his astounding novel In Delirium's Circle. A "sort of" continuity because the protagonist of The Feathered Bough has completely forgotten that he is the protagonist of In Delirium's Circle, or at least they share the same name. The twist here is that the traumas suffered in the first book lead to a willful disavowal of the person in the former by the (same) person in the latter. The man who has found The Feathered Bough wants nothing to do with the man who existed in his body, who looked through his eyes, In Delirium's Circle.

As with any work of fiction, that is merely one reader's interpretation. The wonder here is that, as a grimoire, different acolytes will be led to different forms of gnosis. Though the ritual is the same for all, the insight gained from its performance is keyed to each individual's experience, capacity, and need.

Regardless of your personal gnosis, however, we all descend into another world, exploring its dark, verdant caverns echoing with the caws of rooks and seething with shadows, until that world prolapses into our own, turning an escape-route from trauma into an explosion of such into this dimension. Reality, then, is turned inside-out, as above, so below.

The author helps this along by illustrating the work throughout in his signature artistic style, letting that other world seep deep into our own through our eyes, directly into our brains. It is at times sinister, at other times almost playful, but whatever the emotion evoked, the visualizations help to add yet another dimension to this darkened place.

This is a book-as-artifact that should not be missed. Zagava has bound this as a "tight" package, each part supporting the other. It is as immersive as a book can be without a soundtrack (though I do have a recommendation for that, as well). And while the subject matter may trend toward the esoteric, the book is readily available in paperback, numbered limited-edition hardback, or an absolutely stunning lettered edition. Whichever way you enter, tread carefully, and with eyes wide open.

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