a pause for station identification

skimming blogs, i came face to face with the following verities:

Starting a small publishing company takes an angel’s combination of idealism, passion, unreasonableness, innocence, naiveté and blind obedience to an inner voice telling you to go heart- and head-long into something utterly likely to fail. It would in fact be a kindness if the venture failed, because success requires so much time and intellectual and emotional energy that it squeezes to death every last healthy impulse you had to start with.

& elsewhere:

Back in 1979/80 I remember talking with the publisher of Alfred A. Knopf after CORRECTION by Thomas Bernhard had been published. This guy reported to me that to date they had sold a combined grand total of around a thousand copies of all three Bernhard books they had published, GARGOYLES, THE LIME WORKS AND CORRECTIONS.

which reminded me of this from i believe the last, or one of the last, published stories of gilbert sorrentino:

But this was all he knew how to do. He wasn’t much good for anything else, and what he did know how to do — even when, he smiled ruefully — even when he knew how to do it, proved nothing, changed nothing, and spoke to about as many people as one could fit into a small movie theater.

but all that simply reiterating what, in 1941, edward dahlberg wrote in CAN THESE BONES LIVE:

“There has been no more clinkered land for the artist to live in than America. All artists, everywhere, are pariahs. However, some counties gravel them the more, and so hinder their fates that their lives, like the three throats of Cerberus, are brutishly peeled…”

dahlberg was talking about melville.

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and… later that same day i come across this nice dose of schadenfreude for the trades–but it too is bitter tasting. E.g. Roth might’ve been optimistic:

“Fifteen years ago, Philip Roth guessed there were at most 120,000 serious American readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade.”

[but what that article doesn’t mention in its death-of-publishing prognosticating, is the renaissance of small presses, doing all the important work once done by the james laughlin’s and the barney rosset’s of yester-millennium. literary history of the 21st century probably will mention knopf and random house less, and maybe even FSG less, than that of the independents–both the more “established” like dalkey, fc2, green integer, and soft skull and the new and scrappy like calamari, dzanc, les figues, starcherone and clear cut.] [that is: publishing is dead; long live publishing; et cetera.]

three by ann quin

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a fascinating but subtly disappointing book, ann quin’s THREE is a formally radical novel. arguably more daring in form than her contemporary b. s. johnson–with whom she’s often lumped partly because they committed suicide in the same year–she’s here also more cagey and unfortunately more predictable.

the style innovations are daring. the book consists of several modes: a line-breaking poem-like stream of consciousness; a fast-cutting, alternating POV style that reminded me of donald breckenridge’s 6/2/95; and, reminiscent of both sarraute and gaddis, a skillful use of dialogue alone to reveal character.

and yet this book, which focuses on the bizarre love triangle of one airless bourgeois marriage and an interloping free-spirit femme fatale, somehow rang hollow. maybe because it was unclear how much of it was a critique of the malaise of middle-class marriage and how much of it was a self-pitying confessional narrative from that state. or: somehow it’s central content–which did seem central, not auxiliary–crippled the serious play of its language games. so i was left with a dull feeling, a disappointment at unfulfilled potential.

course i could be wrong. and the destabilized, unreliable narrative and narrators might have hidden reward which alluded me. plan to try her BERG soon down the line. despite what disappointed–another review called its style a “muted lyricism”–it’s definitely worth checking out.

a good overview of her work.

and, from an interview quoted here:

“Form interests me, and the merging of content and form. I want to get away from the traditional form. . . . I write straight onto my typewriter, one thousand words an hour but half will in the end be cut out. When I write the first creating parts of my book I can go on for three hours without a stop. When revising I can work up to seven hours, with breaks.”

buy from dalkey or find at your local library.

three novellas by thomas bernhard

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maybe not the bernhard book to start with, but very useful to see the young old master’s development–and the early, shocking bang of his talent.

AMRAS–originally published in 1963–shows the large ambitions of his theme and iconoclasm are already in place, driving the writing. this one literally breaks down. it begins coherently though darkly with the assessment by the sons of a family’s partially failed suicide pact (the parents were successful) and then becomes beautifully and infuriatingly fragmented. as if to document the approach to death or insanity…  if anything this earlier novella is more sincerely nihilistic than the later bernhard in that when bernhard arrives at his later method, at least there’s the minimal solace of continuous (albeit repetitive) form. and the dark jokes seem to have punchlines and don’t just break off into menacing silence like they do here. on the other hand, the devastation seems more complete and impressive in the (later) long, relentless, incantatory voice without the–in comparison–cheaper gimmickry of the fragmentation here.

on its structural self-decimation, brian evenson’s excellent, brief intro has this particularly good insight:
“[C]ollapsing into fragmentation… [AMRAS] opts for the modernist solution of using a formal collapse. GARGOYLES, on the other hand, offers a voice that tears itself apart from within while leaving the edifice of monologue intact. We have the sense that, like Becket’s Unnamable, Prince Sarau [in GARGOYLES] is probably only getting started” (ix).

PLAYING WATTEN i think is the most memorable of the three, maybe only because it has the most concrete central metaphor: four citizens travel to an inn–which is tucked into a treacherously disorienting wood–in order to play a card game (the eponymous WATTEN). dense, repetitive (and here, the repetition is boring in a way the later bernhard somehow manages to avoid), but also beautiful and (already) devastating. an early–maybe the first?–version of his unparagraphed style.

WALKING is at times (too) straight-forwardly didactic, so that bernhard’s fiction gets almost turgid (at least for me) carrying the freight of its philosophical rhetoric. but if it’s didactic, it’s also ambitious, marching uninhibitedly through its themes: the misery of existence; the baseness of the (austrian) state; madness; language, thinking itself.
the translation throughout seems incredible, almost transparent. WALKING in particular, with its dependence on abstractions and its recursive structures, would seem mind-bogglingly difficult to translate.

find used or find at your local library

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