Saturday, July 29, 2006

In "Campo Santo", the eponymous essay of his posthumous collection, Sebald describes a visit to a Corsican cemetery. In excellent Sebaldian style he plunges past the yawing headstones and surrounding shrubbery to the underlying cultural practices -- the surround. In describing the local theatrics of mourning, he has this (which seems somehow emblematic) to say:

"In truth of course there is no discrepancy between such calculation and a genuine grief which actually makes the mourners seem beside themselves, for fluctuation between the expression of deeply felt sorrow, which can sound like a choking fit, and the aesthetically -- even cunningly -- modulated manipulation of the audience to whom that grief is displayed has perhaps been the most typical charateristic of our severely disturbed species at every stage of civilization."

Of course now, here, almost five years out from his own death, his description of physically and mentally wandering around in a cemetery feels like an instance of horrible, reified prescience. But then so did all his work. Strange, moving to register that his catalogues of/meditations on doom and destruction were so beautiful too.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Books I'm currently reading and not finishing and feeling moderately oppressed by

A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur -- Proust
The White Bone -- Barbara Gowdy
Voyage along the Horizon -- Javier Marias
The Poetics of Space -- Blanchot
The Foucault Reader
Hard Boiled Wonderland -- Haruki Murakami
Twilight of the Superheroes -- Deborah Eisenberg
The Secret Goldfish -- David Means

The not finishing/oppressed by thing has nothing to do with the books. I'm just in that leaping from book to book in search of something/who knows what states of mind that too often afflict me.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A decade ago I underwent some emergency surgery in a Bay Area hospital. Before going under, I recited some of Apollinaire's "Le Pont Mirabeau" (I was living in Paris at the time -- what I was doing in SF is a story to do with the heart and its conundrums). Just before everything went black, the surgeon leaned over me and recited some of it back to me. When I woke up, said surgeon, Dr. Specter (really his name), confessed to a love of Apollinaire and of that poem in particular. Very strange. He gave me his card and said to keep in touch, actually meaning it. I went back to Paris and, alas, didn't. On Thursday, I will be reciting the poem for the movie I'm in. It won't be apparent, when the film comes out, that I will be thinking of Dr. Specter as I recite, but that is absolutely what I will be doing. Here is the poem:

Le Pont Mirabeau

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l'onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

L'amour s'en va comme cette eau courante
L'amour s'en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l'Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

Friday, July 21, 2006

An interesting review/essay in the recent issue of Context by Marty Riker steered me to Piotr Szewc's Annihilation. An extraordinary slender novel set in a small Polish city some years before the holocaust, which is never directly mentioned although it saturates every page. It's a collection of moments, perceptions, memories, observations of things and people about to vanish forever. Dalkey has had the book out for quite a while -- it's great that they regularly run these pieces and breathe fresh life into their backlist titles.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Here is an early version of the opening of The Impossibly --

The first time we met it was about a stapler, I think. I knew the word for it, and she didn't, and although in retrospect it seemed to us certain that she would have finished by making her interest in acquiring a stapler understood, I had carefully examined and tested three pens, two mechanical pencils, and a highlighter, and still she stood at the counter calmly gesticulating, so I stepped forward, slightly, and said the word.

And here is what it became until near the very end of the revision process --

The first time we met it was about a stapler, I think. I knew the word, and she didn't, so I stepped forward, slightly, and said the word.

And what it is in the book --

The first time we met it was about a stapler, I think. I knew the word, and she didn't, so I stepped forward, slightly, and said it.

The substantive cut above was suggested by my editor Chris Fischbach, who rightly felt the thing got too clotted too quickly.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Michael Martone by Michael Martone is the Summer Read This! pick over at the LBC. Other interesting books being discussed there as well.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

As we slowly continue the move in process in this new place I came across a copy of a wonderful but very short-lived (never went past the pilot phase) magazine called March edited by Adam Van Loon, which was kind enough to run some of The Exquisite. This was 4 years ago so it was pretty early stuff and represented a kind of time capsule on the piece. It made me think of just how radically, at times, and subtly, at others, the process of bringing something toward publication can change a text. This is not just a function of an editor's green pen, although that can be a big part of it. It is also a function of the way the mind shifts around a work as it starts to enter the reifying cauldron of publication. I thought it might be interesting to paste in the opening paragraph of The Exquisite as it was for most of its life as a manuscript and then what it became over the course of this past year.

Here is how it opened (and indeed more or less the first stuff I wrote on the book):

New York is no place to die. I have this recurring dream that Death, dressed as a hot dog vendor, or, better, as a cab driver eating a hot dog, rips me out of my shoes as I'm walking up Avenue B. People do die here, of course -- by the thousands, by the millions even, they are falling over onto concrete, into gutters, out of windows, off of fire escapes, down brutal flights of stairs; and, as they lie there breathing their last, there is the sound of a train screaming down the tracks towards them, or of a power saw slicing into steel, or of a mother screaming at her kids. Or smaller sounds, muffled. You are sitting collapsed in the glow of a low wattage light bulb in the center of a dark room in the middle of the night, while in the kitchen the faucet is dripping onto unwashed dishes; in the apartment below you the endless conversation, several voices, continues, the one you could never quite understand; you sit collapsed in the dim light, so dim that it seems a logical and even a beautiful part of your dying, and someone is walking back and forth over loose floorboards, the same someone as always, somewhere above your head. Well, fuck you, I don't want it; but you will have it, Henry, you must have it, my dear friend Mr. Kindt once told me, my dear friend who is now dead.

And here is what it has become (with some of the lost material resurfacing later in the first chapter):

Uh, uh, no way, I don't want it. But you will have it, Henry, you must have it, my dear friend Mr. Kindt once told me. My dear friend who is now dead.

I still like the original approach, as prose, as gateway to something, but it just didn't make sense for what followed. Too much happens too fast and it sort of overpowered the surround.

I'll see if I can dig up an early opening for The Impossibly too. There the change was subtler, but just as important.

Friday, July 14, 2006



sort of thing seems so strange to me. As in, what, exactly, does that mean? I just can't help dropping in on some of these things from time to time. Not long ago Zadie Smith joined the thread of a conversation of people trashing her latest on some blog or other: a lively moment. I like the idea of throwing the door open just a little every now and then...

(apologies for my inability to do a proper link -- something wrong with blogger)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Today I had the quite remarkable pleasure (usually the arrival of Fedex makes me, inexplicably, anxious) of seeing Fedex pull up outside our house with, as it turned out, an advance copy of The Exquisite, just back from the printer. Amazing the feeling of holding the first copy (well, first for me) of the finished thing in your hands -- hard to describe. I actually couldn't look at it for a while. Eleni went over it as Eva hollered and climbed on things. I've been working on The Ex since '98, and to have it now, at hand, as a book ready to go out and brave the world -- well, it's pretty wonderful. And quite moving. Not least because Coffee House makes such great-looking books. This one will be the first paperback original of the novels (The Paris Stories, from Smokeproof, was paper too) -- so happy about that. Seems to me (and there has been quite a good deal of discussion about it in various venues) that these days novels with any kind of a kick are likely to be better served by paperback.

The Ex won't be generally available until Sept 1. But I couldn't help but shout out it's arrival. Even if it's just, for now, to 1180 Edinboro Drive. And the Coffee House offices in Minneapolis.
This Times article linking the actions of Meursault (in The Stranger by Camus) and Zidane's now famous head butt in the final of the World Cup is worth a read. Meursault and murder (+ no remorse); Zidane and head butt (+ we don't know what he feels or doesn't feel) -- not, um, exactly the same thing, but interesting to see literary a tie-in to anything in The Times...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Yesterday I got called onto the set for some "spinning cells" shots -- where one gets filmed in different positions without speaking. Shots that may or may not get dropped into the film. So I found myself leaning against the sink in Anselm Hollo and Jane Dalrymple-Hollo's kitchen, with lights and thingies being adjusted all around me (the terminology is great -- C-47s are clothes pins, jokers are shades, the 200 is a kind of lamp, etc.) having the odd experience of pretending to read a book -- a cookbook I had been handed. I read, like most of us do, all the time, so it was really unsettling and not easy to pretend to read. Why didn't I just read? Well, my head needed to move just a bit during the shot -- like I was pouring over something I was interested in (was how I interpreted what I was asked to do). While I was pretending, Ed (Bowes -- the director) kept saying, "good, really good, beautiful..." Which eventually, as I sunk into the thing, had me imagining some ghostly entity standing nearby as I read for real, say, Rebecca Brown's The Terrible Girls, and whispering "good, really good, beautiful..." And how at times its almost like that -- reading I mean: good, really good, beautiful...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Two words for excellent, elegant, unostentatious, eerie, tough, smart, sock-you-in-the-gut-but-make-you-smile fiction:

Rebecca Brown

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Apologies for having let this slip into a dead zone of late. Teaching at Naropa's Summer Writing Program and acting in a movie (Against the Slope of Social Speech -- by excellent indie film maker Ed Bowes -- I play a guy called Reason) and still (after two weeks) stuck on Earthlink dial-up because of the move have conspired to make posting a tricky proposition. More to come soon though.