THE ABYSS OF HUMAN ILLUSION by gilbert sorrentino


shortly after his great, brutal novel RED THE FIEND came out, i wrote what amounted to a fan letter to gilbert sorrentino, whom i’d had as a teacher. he was kind and always responded to my (shamefully hopeful) letters. in this response, he wrote that if his work had any common theme, it was an ever abiding and complete sense of loss.

it should be noted too that sorrentino was of course suspicious of the very conceit of a “common theme,” and would sometimes demonstrate its feebleness by arguing that a writer had only one or two ideas, really. the implication being that these ideas were not the key ingredient. beckett, for example, he would say sardonically, thought the world was bleak.

and now we have his last, posthumously-published novel — THE ABYSS OF HUMAN ILLUSION — the hint of which was given in a piece published in the spring 07 issue of GOLDEN HANDCUFF REVIEW. that short piece openly announces its autobiography (so much that perhaps we’re obligated to question it) containing admissions like the below short excerpt.

what struck me as i read this last novel was sorrentino’s clear understanding that while he was here (and perhaps throughout his career) dealing with absolutely common, almost bathetic episodes of human misery, each familiar trope nonetheless is relieved (variably, here, certainly–but at times transcendentally) of its mundane moorings and wrestled into artifice.

to me, this transformation is something of great mystery. the furious ravings of a cuckold or drunk, nostalgia, even the confessions of desperate or envious or dying writers are made into something else: something somehow simultaneously witty, inexplicably sad, and determinedly fake. the latter out of a sense of integrity, the moral that art is not a transparent glass through which we can see reality, but an opaque, additional reality (to which, perhaps, we might compare our own).


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.

And so he continued to do it, correcting and revising each newly made page with a feeling of weird neutrality, with a feeling that he was simply passing the time: this or solitaire — all right, this. Surely, the other old writers he still knew felt precisely this way. Did they? He surely wouldn’t ask such an impertinent question.

He had recently received a letter from a dear friend, who, it so turned out, died soon after. He took the letter from his files one morning, before he started what he now thought of as “work,” scare quotes flaring, and found in it what he was sure he had read. The friend had confessed to him that his last book was, indeed, his last book, that he had given up or lost — it made little difference — the ability and the desire to write another word…

He sat at his desk, and read the letter again. He wished, oh how he wished it wasn’t so, but he was choked with envy of his friend’s sterility: not to be able to write, not to want to write, to be, as they say, “written out,” or, more wonderfully, “burnt out” — lovely phrase! But it was a gift that had not been given him, and, he knew, despairing, that it would never be given him. He was doomed, damned, if you will, to write on, and on and on, blundering through the shadows of this pervasive twilight, until finally, perhaps, he would get said what could never be said.

buy it from the publisher. find it at your local library.

info for an event on 2/20/10 in celebration of the book’s publishing. with reading by walter abish, david markson, susan daitch and others here.

a reminiscence i wrote on sorrentino for the brooklyn rail here.

portrat of gilbert sorrentino by christopher sorrentino


go over to the granta site to see a photo of gilbert sorrentino at eighteen along with a remembrance by his son, christopher sorrentino. a rather amazing shot of a babyfaced teen who grew up to be one of the more ferocious writers of last century’s america.

HÔTEL SPLENDID by marie redonnet and SPLENDIDE-HÔTEL by gilbert sorrentino

these two take their title from the first poem of rimbaud’s ILLUMINATIONS [“And the Hôtel-Splendide was built in the chaos of ice and polar night.”]

HÔTEL SPLENDID is one of marie redonnet’s trilogy of death — the others are FOREVER VALLEY and ROSE MELLIE ROSE. i haven’t read the last, but like FOREVER VALLEY, HÔTEL SPLENDID is a thin book packed with modern anxiety in an oddly proto-modern setting. this time we’re in a rustic hotel set amidst a sucking, sulfuric swamp. less effective for me i think than FOREVER VALLEY (possibly because the hotel is a more familiar device and thus more in danger of being used as a cliche) HÔTEL SPLENDID was still impressive for its accumulative feeling of anxiety. its main character’s desperate attempt to keep up the rotting, leaking building as well as attend to her sisters ailments and hostilities, was perfect allegory for the burden of all our constant anxieties: bourgeois real estate phobias, hypochondria and contagion paranoia, and the melancholy in seeing the flesh’s various evidence of its encroaching age.

redonnet’s work is particularly virtuosic with time. time contracts and leaps in her writing. within a paragraph, between sentences, we can oddly jump weeks and then linger for pages on a single incident only to pass through a night in a phrase’s brief flourish. the effect is somewhat like reading an irregular diary — quickpenned and intense during moments of drama but languishing for long trials or spurted into with a feverish insight. and yet also her writing undercuts this diary-like inconsistency with its repeating, inescapable and unchanging obsessions. maybe a better comparison than diary is the fever dream, which moves forward in jumpcuts and then traps you in over-hot, looping nightmare scenes.

sorrentino’s SPLENDIDE-HÔTEL is a beautiful artwork of prose, constructed with just the slightest bits of conceit and image: the idea of rimbaud’s hotel and an alphabet primer (and maybe doc williams’ wheel barrow). from these he plays riffs on his favorite themes: the necessary artifice of literary work, our ceaseless acts of corruption, a paradoxically unsentimental nostalgia for mid-century america. i always thought SPLENDIDE-HÔTEL was ever-so-slightly marred by its occasional interluding poems which, even in his parodic modes, necessarily fall short in comparison to his dazzling sentences. nonetheless sorrentino delivers some of his best work here. the paragraphs are a wonder of shifting and connected precise perceptions; he’s enormously funny — a pitch black humor; and the sentences that have that old world panache so one can’t help but think: they don’t make them like that anymore…

here’s a bit:

B-b-b-b-b. The sound an idiot makes. I remember Jo-Jo, ah, a perfect idiot name. A Mongoloid, shuffling down the street on the arm of his grey and faded Irish mother, punching himself in the face. Yet we all stand now as idiots in the face of the mass devastation of feeling that abounds. A culture that can give no sustenance, and yet the remedies are for still more “useful skills.” Useful skills, and the heart dies, the imagination crippled so that mere boys are become mass murderers or drift blindly into a sterile adulthood. The young, the young! In a stupendous rage of nonbelief–faced with a spurious culture, the art that can give life sullied or made unavailable. What art there is is cheap and false, dedicated to a quick assay of the superficial. Don’t believe for a moment that art is a decoration or an emblem. It is what life there is left, though ill-used, ill-used. The young crying for nourishment, and they are given the cynical products of the most fickle market. “Look at what passes for the new,” the poet says. Put a handle on it and sell it, cotton candy: to be gone in a moment and leave no memory other than the memory of sickening sweetness (p. 9).

buy redonnet’s HÔTEL SPLENDID from its publisher

buy sorrentino’s SPLENDIDE-HÔTEL from its publisher.

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.]

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