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.


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.]

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

heeded a thankfully persistent whisper of walser walser walser and fell hard. i’d heard the gossipy parts: how kafka dug him, how he lived his final years in a madhouse, how he died on a long walk in the snow, how he wrote in a pencilled hand so small that people thought it was a secret code but it wasn’t–it was just very very small.

i’d tried THE ASSISTANT, which is recently translated but earlier walser and could see the charm, but i was prejudiced against how its proto-modern style took too long to move things along (a similar feeling i got from zweig’s BEWARE OF PITY)… and so was wholly unprepared at how JAKOB VON GUNTEN broke me down and hollowed me out. it’s at times so shockingly beautiful i was, despite myself, moved to tears. not tears of empathy for some character caught in a melodramatic clutch–but tears for the friggin beauty of the writing. the dude writes like an angel–wherein modesty is one of the highest virtues, with pure charm, and with a scrambled semantic nonetheless crystal clear, which must be the emblem only of seraphim.

walser writes with the freshness and immediacy of a journal entry, but also with a constant self-consciousness that makes the entry have the permanence and art of a poem. christopher middleton’s translator’s intro is a good brief. here’s coetzee: “In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser’s prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox.” and elsewhere in the same review coetzee quotes walter benjamin who describes walser’s characters as like those from a fairy tale but after the fairy tale has ended.

[this book is a dream diary of a boys’ school and i kept thinking it was an unintended translation of hui neng’s platform sutra… or, it reminded me of the orphanage scenes in edward dahlberg’s BECAUSE I WAS FLESH… and i heard jakob as the flipside to mush tate’s equally pure sermons that extolled with the hypnotic, “think you’re in school, think you’re much, know you’re living…“]

[also suffering through a very real school’s very hectic end-of-the-year traffic jam, i was all too happy to read about this ideal school (where the teachers are all gone or asleep.)]

o i forgot to mention: it’s very very funny…

buy directly from the publisher or buy used or find in a library

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