Tag Archives: Summer 2014

Surrealism and Photography in Czechoslovakia

surrealismOn the Needles of Days
Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Michael Richardson, and Ian Walker
Ashgate ($104.95)

by Paul McRandle

Photography has been unusually fruitful for Surrealist artists perhaps for an obvious reason—in denaturing sight it exposes the unconscious of vision. The image “Paris Afternoon” by writer/collagist/photographer Jindřich Štyrský provides a powerful example by the simplest of means. On first glance this black and white picture couldn’t be any clearer: a somewhat overexposed image of spider webs in a basement. But any time spent peering at the photograph, as co-author Ian Walker does in his sharp analysis, makes it only less obvious:

It seems to have been made in an interior; there are cobwebs and what looks like broken furniture. But even that is in doubt given the unformed amorphousness of the image, which takes Štyrský’s fascination with degradation and disintegration a stage further than in his more direct photographs. Perhaps it is a collage or maybe there is some solarisation. One may even suspect that part of the image’s effect is caused by damage to the negative . . .

Even when Walker reveals what Štyrský has actually done, the essential mystery remains intact. Taking a cropped image of the interior of a crypt, Štyrský rotated it ninety degrees clockwise. We know the technique, but the photograph is no less strange and now all the odder in its arbitrary twist. It is as concrete and irrational as Dalí could have wished.

Each of the photographers in this concise and pleasurable collection of essays explore sight in deep and subtle ways, taking us well beyond Lotar’s abattoirs or Boiffard’s big toe (which can seem a bit obvious in retrospect). Štyrský is among the most famous, and justly so, with his series On the Needles of These Days providing the book’s subtitle. That work presents his photographs of window displays, religious iconography, and peculiar objects to which Jindřich Heisler’s poetic text stands in “precarious” relation. In them we find the “entranced examination of the everyday” by which Petr Král characterized the approach of the Czech circle. It was and is a “daylight surrealism.”

Those who followed Štyrský offer much to explore: In a brief 182 pages the authors discuss the work of eighteen artists over a period of eight decades. Emila Medková is certainly the stand-out among those less well known here and her scratched walls, coal chutes, and cancelled signs deserve a full-scale exhibition in a major U.S. museum. Her work documents the blocked lives of Communist-era Prague by means of tightly cropped, straight-on photographs of street objects haunted by their own suggestiveness. Vilém Reichmann’s series Wounded City, which he completed after the end of World War II among the ruins of his hometown Brno, is a more immediate record of trauma and embodies André Bazin’s comment that photography is “a hallucination that is also a fact.”

The authors all have deep backgrounds in the study of Surrealism and photography and their contributions weave together in seamlessly in this short work. Unfortunately the book’s high price will prevent many from enjoying their contribution to the history of photography, but those who read it will find its pages “very rich for eyes.”

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

The French House

frenchhouseAn American Family, A Ruined Maison,
and the Village that Restored Them All
Don Wallace
Sourcebooks ($14.99)

by Linda Lappin

Imagine an old house—a ruin, really—on an island across the ocean waiting for you to claim it. For many people such a proposition would be pure folly, but for others, an irresistible enticement. So it was for Don Wallace and his wife Mindy, two struggling writers from Honolulu who received a letter from a friend in the early 1980s, summoning them to a small island off the coast of Brittany where a bargain piece of real estate had just been put up for sale. Nearly thirty years would pass before their property becomes habitable, and in the process they make a family, lose a friend, and become fixtures of a foreign place, as Wallace recounts in The French House: An American Family, A Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All.

The couple had first visited the island while returning from a long stay in Paris, where, with portable typewriters in tow, they had failed to fulfill the writer’s dream of mingling fame and café life. Their novels remained unsold, but Mindy had passed her bar exam and it was time to decamp. Before flying home, they took the ferry out to Belle Île where Gwened, a former professor of Mindy’s, lent them her house for a few days. It was love at first sight for the Pacific-born couple. They respond viscerally to the island’s surfing potential and its rough magic, which Wallace celebrates in sinewy prose:

Cliffs crumble, dark masses of seaweed cover the beaches, rows of cypresses fall, ripping up the earth with their roots. Fishermen and tourists are washed away to become crab bait. Early in the morning after a storm, the island tries to convince you that its bruises mean nothing, calling your attention instead to the sun-kissed mists and drifts of spume, taller than a man, that collect in the coves and creeks. The shadow of violence in her eyes haunts you, however. Never turn your back on the sea.

Gwened leads them by the nose on an adventure spanning decades, not a moment of which they come to regret. “The village will be good for you, and you will be good for it,” she promises. The house needs them; the villagers have even taken a vote that they want the Wallaces and not anyone else to buy it. The argument convinces them and they soon sink their scanty savings into a 155-year-old hovel with treacherous floorboards, a dangerous roof, and the inside walls covered in black moss. Mindy throws up when she first sees the place—she’s pregnant—so they give instructions to a contractor and return to New York, where they start a family, slave away at their jobs, hang a map of the island by the bathroom door, and dream of their house by the sea.

Circumstances are such that they can’t visit Belle Île very often to see how the restoration work is going; meanwhile, the dollar is falling. Friends at home object: Why have a house in France if you can’t go there? Gwened and the villagers complain: You’re taking too long to fix this eyesore up! And house-hunters from Paris accuse: You are depriving French citizens of their right to a house in their homeland. But the Wallaces hang on, and board by board, penny by penny, the house is made habitable; one month out of every year, it shelters their most cherished dream.

Village life vignettes, the sensual celebration of island pleasures, eccentric neighbors, cuisine, beach life, natural history—readers will find a smattering of all that in these pages, but it’s the story below, like the unshakeable foundations of the house itself, that makes this such a satisfying read. In the end it’s a story about how places and dreams of places take possession of us, teach us about them, and live through us—until it’s time to relinquish our stewardship and pass on the keys.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Not in My Library!

notinmylibrary“Berman’s Bag” Columns from The Unabashed Librarian, 2000-2013
Sanford Berman
McFarland ($35)

by Kelsey Irving Beson

The many laudatory blurbs on the back cover of Not in My Library! variously describe Sanford Berman as “a modern-day Diogenes,” “an advocate for the disadvantaged,” “fire for the mind,” and “the biggest mensch in librarianship.” Berman is a noted (some might say notorious) Twin Cities librarian, muckraker, activist, and all-around loudmouth; he agitates stridently for everything from rational cataloging practices to homeless rights, and has been a thorn in the side of the various authorities with which he has been clashing for over half a century. Not in My Library! collects Berman’s columns from the magazine The Unabashed Librarian from 2000-2013. These articles include excerpts from a multitude of sources, such as correspondence, editorials, newspaper articles, zines, freethought publications, and alternative and mainstream library magazines. The breadth of Berman’s interest is apparent here—he has a librarian’s curiosity, a trait informed by decades of subject cataloging.

One of the highlights of Berman’s career has been to revolutionize Library of Congress Subject Headings. Cataloging-related issues might not seem like such a big deal to non-librarians, but a bad bibliographic record can render a book impossible to find, even with keyword searching. For example, Berman agitated for years until the heading “Vietnamese Conflict” was finally updated to “Vietnam War” (in 2006!). Understandably, headings can become outdated, but some are so ossified that they seem deliberately obfuscatory, such as “Canada. Treaties, etc. 1992 Oct. 7” to refer to what any normal person would call “NAFTA.” Despite the fact that he is now eighty, Berman comes off as really hip: he pushes for new subject headings on everything from cyberchondria to mountaintop removal (and he’s the reason that there is a Library of Congress authority record for “strap-on sex”). These articles document his effort to make bibliographic records more humane in terms of both equitability and usability. Berman’s open letters to the Library of Congress push a breath of fresh air into the world of librarianship, which is often insular and slow to change.

The Library of Congress is not the only organization with which Berman has butted heads—Not in My Library! also documents disputes with entities such as the Hennepin County Library and the American Library Association. Points of contention include Banned Books Week (which Berman insists is a farce), rights for marginalized library patrons such as the homeless, and hierarchical library management, which he likens to a “medieval fiefdom.” The thread that ties these articles together is Berman’s deep commitment to activism, which borders on workaholism. A hardline reformer who doesn’t want to hear that things are better than they were, he only cares about the gold standard of how things should be. The only negative thing one could say about this book is that it can occasionally feel monotonous—a lot of the columns cover the same territory. However, if they are repetitive, it’s because the same issues keep popping up over and over. If anyone could single-handedly solve these problems, it would be Sanford Berman, whose incredible, lifelong commitment to people-oriented librarianship shines through every page of this book. Why do libraries maintain their relevance in a digital age? Berman best sums it up himself: “Is there anything more satisfying than making it possible for people—irrespective of class or appearance or age—to learn, to laugh, to reflect, and to relax in their own public space and without being exhorted to do this or buy that?”

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Other People’s Stories: A Conversation with Colum McCann

mccann photo

Interviewed by Thomas Rain Crowe

Colum McCann was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1965 and now lives in New York, where he is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hunter College. His work has been published in 35 languages and has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Paris Review, Granta, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Tin House, Bomb as well as in international publications such as New York Times, The Times, The Irish Times, la Repubblica, Die Zeit, Paris Match, The Guardian, and The Independent. He studied journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology and became a reporter for The Irish Press Group, where he had his own column and byline in the Evening Press by the age of twenty-one.

McCann’s novels include Songdogs, This Side of Brightness, Dancer, Zoli, Let the Great World Spin, and TransAtlantic. His short story collections include Fishing the Sloe-Black River and Everything in This Country Must. His literary awards include the 2009 National Book Award, the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and several other major honors. He is a founding member of Narrative 4, a global organization headed up by some of the world’s most renowned and influential authors, artists, and community leaders that promotes empathy through the exchange of stories.

In early April of this year, McCann and I sat down and talked late one morning at Western Carolina University, where he was one of the featured speakers for the college’s annual LitFest. Late last fall I had bought a copy of his novel TransAtlantic (Random House, $16) for my wife, because she had recently returned from a trip to Newfoundland, where portions of the book are set. I ended up reading the book before she did.

Thomas Rain Crowe: Maybe the best place to start is at the beginning. Talk a little about Ireland and even your early years there before you came to live in the U.S.

Colum McCann: I always felt that I belonged up in Northern Ireland in a certain way. I liked going up there. My mom was born on a small farm in Derry. It always amazed me that you’d go past the border and suddenly everything changed. The roads were different, the postboxes were red. Why would the postboxes be a different color? Why? And then a young soldier would get on the bus . . . it was like stepping into a new and rather frightening world. In those days growing up in Dublin no one in my group of friends really cared much about what was going on up north, as if it were a completely foreign and different country. But for some reason it was in my blood. As a teenager I could ride on my bicycle and get up there. Belfast was only a hundred miles from Dublin and only seventy miles to the border. I used to do it in a day and come back the next night. But it was always the same place to me—all of Ireland. Thankfully, now, all those borders are gradually dissolving since the peace accords.

Also, I loved the West of Ireland. I worked for a newspaper in County Mayo when I was seventeen. That was a great experience. There are some beautiful places there along the coast—I loved walking the strand in Louisburgh. It was called a “famine beach” by the locals. Sometimes the waves would unearth bones. That eerie poetry of place.

TRC: Have you ever been to the pub The George there along the coast in County Mayo? I was there on my first trip to Ireland and had a great night of drinking Guinness and singing and reciting Robert Service poems.

CM: Oh God, yes, there are some great pubs out there. I lost my head in a few of those places! But, you know, the Irish pubs are dying now. First of all, the Irish economy has collapsed. Then, the huge taxes on the beverages. A pint sometimes costs $8 (five pounds) now over the counter at the pubs. So the whole tradition is changing and the nature of conversation is shrinking and people are not going out like they used to and are staying at home and drawing the curtains. And when people draw the curtains, they are drawing the curtains on the imagination, too. Maybe something new will take its place, but that’s all happened in the last five years.

TRC: That’s very sad. The pubs, the socializing and the music are what attracted me to Ireland in the first place and then brought me back again.

CM: When were you last there?

TRC: In the late 1990s—for the launch in Dublin for the contemporary Celtic language anthology that I edited and published with the press I run, New Native Press.

CM: A few years later, in the early 2000s—2003, 2004—Ireland became kind of decadent. Everyone was talking about their upscale apartments and their new BMWs. It seemed kind of vulgar to me. I would go home and a lot of people I knew were getting caught up in all of that. Quite frankly, Ireland was not the nicest place to be. And there was an arrogance about it, too. It seemed very adolescent—as if you were young again, and the parents were gone for the weekend, and you were having a big party. People are jumping from the stairways onto the chandeliers and all that carrying on. And then, about five o’clock in the morning, someone shouts, “the parents are coming!” And the parents happened to be German bankers. And the party was over, which is what happened to Ireland. The German and the Swiss bankers—they owned us. We had mortgaged ourselves and mortgaged our future. And our government had sold us out. It was really, really bad. The people got sold down the river.

TRC: Sounds a lot like what happened here in the U.S.

TransAtlanticCM: It was ten times worse in Ireland. And nobody got busted. They had enough money to get away with it. I tried to write a little bit about that in TransAtlantic—when Hannah loses her house. I think that the two big Irish stories for the last twenty-five years have been the collapse of the economy and then the peace process. One good, one bad.

TRC: Maybe the English will finally give up their hold on Northern Ireland. I thought that maybe Blair would come to that conclusion and do something about it. But he didn’t.

CM: Well, you know, the Queen, she came and bowed her head in the Garden of Remembrance. And for Irish people that was a big deal. But . . . there is still a lot of work to do in Ireland. There is still a sectarianism in Nothern Ireland—still a lot of kids going to separate Catholic and Protestant schools. The peace accords are now sixteen years old. George Mitchell can look at his son, now, and know the length of the peace process by knowing the age of his boy. I think that the peace process is one of our greatest accomplishments.

TRC: I was reading somewhere recently where someone who was interviewing you asked you why you didn’t write more about Ireland. I was puzzled by that, as I had just read all of your novels and short stories and found that a lot of what you have written is about Ireland.

zoliCM: Yes, this all depends . . . If they read Zoli or Dancer, there is no mention of Ireland in those two books. But in the other ones there’s always something. My take on this is that even when you’re writing a book that has no particular physical Ireland in it, it’s still there. Which is part of the process of expanding one’s own consciousness and maybe even the national consciousness in a certain way. We’re saying that every story belongs to us. And if we’re really going to be healthy, proper, empathetic people, we need to understand the stories of others. Yes, we need to understand ourselves, but first we need to understand the stories of others. So, you see, in books like Zoli and Dancer it’s still an Irish story even though none of it takes place in Ireland.

After reading Zoli I was wondering who that character may have been based on, as you had brought her to life for me. So much so that I was sure that you had modeled her after some specific literary character in history. Your portrayal of the diversity of cultures and the strata of lifestyles in your characters and what someone called “your attraction to ‘small people’” has fascinated me. I’m wondering what your attraction is to these so-called ‘small people’ and why you like to write about them.

CM: Yes, but there are a few characters such as Frederick Douglass and Senator Mitchell in TransAtlantic who aren’t your everyday people. But I do tend to write about characters who are more anonymous. Anonymous is a good word for these characters. I think it is our job, as writers, to be epic. Epic and tiny at the same time. If you’re going to be a fiction writer, why not take on something that means something. In doing this, you must understand that within that epic structure it is the tiny story that is possibly more important.

Everything in this country mustI’ll tell you where it actually all came from for me. After I finished my collection of stories about Northern Ireland, Everything in This Country Must, I was casting around for a novel that would be truly an international novel. I started with this singular idea that I was going to write a novel that would have in it every country in the world, somehow. Naïve, right? But, I’m sitting one night in a pub in New York and talking with an Irish guy named Jimmy who was the same age as me, but who had grown up completely different from me. I grew up middle class, suburban. He, by contrast, had grown up totally working class—in a small flat in Dublin. And he was telling me how his dad would come home at night and beat the living daylights out of him, almost every single day. So, he tells me this story, that one night in 1974 his dad came home carrying a large television set. So, long story short, his dad sets up the TV in the house and the first image that comes on and that this fellow Jimmy sees—is the image of Rudolf Nureyev dancing. What an amazing thing! I was fascinated by this story and the origin of my novel Dancer stems from that.

DancerI remember giving an interview about six months before that incident in the pub to Atlantic Monthly magazine, where I said that writing about real people showed a failure of the writer’s imagination. Talk about eating your own words—six months later I started writing a fictional account of the life of Rudolf Nureyev. Now that story that Jimmy told me about himself in the pub in New York would never make it into any official biography of Rudolf Nureyev. But it’s such a beautiful story—a nine-year-old working-class Dublin boy carrying the world’s greatest dancer in his arms and sort of falls in love with him. This supposedly anonymous story coupled with all the other possible anonymous stories that are similar might make up an alternative official biography. Rather than telling the biography of Rudolf Nureyev through the viewpoint of the official legislators, the official historians, the “big people” who are in charge of the Paris Ballet or the Royal Ballet, telling the story on the ground, close to the ground. That’s where the real action is. It’s a kind of poetic notion in a way. God, I often wished I could be a poet.

TRC: Be careful what you ask for! It’s not all that romantic “on the ground,” as you say. But, you know, your fiction writing is poetic in many ways. Which reminds me of another question I wanted to ask you—about a comment you made in a conversation with Michael Ondaatje some time ago where you said that you almost always start writing a story with an image, and then move toward sound and rhythm. This is a very poetic idea in terms of process. Can you expound on what you mean by this statement and this process as it applies to writing prose?

CM: Well, like any poet, I love the sound and the rhythm and the music. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Dylan Thomas were two of my early heroes. The whole notion of the sound of the landscape and the rhythm in the poem captivated me. I certainly liked listening to the recordings of Dylan Thomas that my dad would play on the stereo. Especially at Christmas time when we’d listen to A Child’s Christmas in Wales and his poetry. And also in school we were very much taught by learning songs and poems. This was very important to me. To find the inherent music. But you must have an image first. Something in which to plant the language. Something from which the language will sprout. To develop the branches and split the sky.

I think so much of the original growth comes from music, the way the words touch each other on the page, that orchestra of language. And this is why I say that I love poetry so much. It means a lot to me. I feel like I’m down in the well of the orchestra. And all that original poetry returns to me. In fact, I have three kids now, and the only thing that I ask for for Christmas and for my birthday is that each one of them memorize and recite a poem. Which they do and seem to enjoy. By the age of fourteen, my oldest boy had memorized all of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—the whole thing. Pretty amazing, huh?

Of course the importance of poetry and the importance of someone like Seamus Heaney looms large in the Irish culture.

TRC: I remember on my first visit to Ireland, the Irish friends we were staying with in Dublin drove us by Seamus Heaney’s home and we could see the light on in the second floor window and you could see the book cases and I imagined him up there writing his poems. A very vivid memory for me.

CM: That’s a very interesting story, as a friend of mine described him as being our national lighthouse. So, I love that you had the experience of seeing that image for yourself. Seamus was quite a character and so generous. And his generosity tortured him, too, in a way. Now, perhaps, it doesn’t seem like he may have given too much of himself away. But there were times when all he wanted was a little silence, a little solitude. All he wanted to do was to pull away from the world and to get back into the poem. By the time that he was in his forties he was already established and part of the literary establishment, as it were, and with all the awards and the accolades his time wasn’t really his own, and I think all that wore on him a bit and all that he wanted to do was to hide away.

TRC: I think the same fate was visited upon Dylan Thomas. All the attention drove him to drink when he was out in public. At home, he would saunter up to the Brown’s Hotel in Laugharne after an afternoon of writing in his shed and sip on a single pint of ale for a couple of hours while he talked to the locals and wrote down notes. I think, he, too, kind of craved the simple quiet life, but was driven to success by his need to make money to support his family. And so he would go to London or the U.S. and give readings or do reading tours and would be wined and dined, which led to his ultimate demise.

CM: Yeah, seventeen whiskeys at the White Horse Tavern is not a good idea for a diabetic!

ThissdeofbrightnessTRC: I think that of all your books, my favorite characters are in This Side of Brightness. I was fascinated by Treefrog and Nathan. And by the setting—of the underground “tunnel culture” in the subways and river tunnels under New York City. How did you come by this subject? Do you enjoy creating these real/imaginary worlds using the building blocks of factual research?

CM: Yes, Treefrog and Clarence Nathan Walker. I have a fondness for that story, too. I don’t know why, perhaps because I wrote it so long ago and can no longer recognize its flaws.

On a purely logistical level, I’d been living in Japan and then back in Ireland and I’d just moved to New York and got a contract to write something for the magazine Grant Street. And I was talking to this sociologist there named Terry Williams, and he was telling me about the homeless people who were living in the subway tunnels. “A couple thousand people are living down there,” he said. I’d been in New York about four or five months at that time and hadn’t even heard of this. As it turned out hardly anyone knew about this at all. It was kind of a myth that was floating around the city, but no one knew about any of the reality of it. So, I went down to the tunnels the very next day and started hanging out. Standing outside the tunnels. Having a cigarette. I’d stand there and have a smoke and after a while people would ask me for a cigarette. When you light a person’s cigarette, you look them right in their eyes and cup their hands, and touch them, and then give them fire. There’s something Promethean, something primal about this. You make up your mind about someone in this situation very quickly. And, so, I was invited to go inside the tunnel by these people and they would show me where they lived. For the next year and a half I got to know them. And then I wrote the book and it was one of those books that sort of came out of nowhere, or at least out of a small coincidence.

TRC: I’ve noticed in this book, as well as in Songdogs, Let the Great World Spin, and TransAtlantic, you’ll dovetail multiple story lines, multiple characters, and even play with time. This would seem to be something of a stylistic pattern of yours.

CM: Yes, there are two different stories in This Side of Brightness—one taking place at the beginning of the 20th century and one taking place at the end of the 20th century. But they’re like train tracks and they eventually meet.

TRC: All your stories, long and short, visit other cultures, interesting characters and other centuries, but that one was almost like visiting another planet.

CM: Well, it was crazy down there. It was really, really crazy there. When you see people living in those situations it is like a brother from another planet. But I learned so much—just in learning how to talk to and get along with them. And the fact that I was Irish, that really helped. These guys were mostly African Americans and being Irish they identified me, rightly or wrongly, as not being part of the oppressive regime that had forced them to live underground. And so there was an ease when they would talk to me. They were very interesting people. There was a woman down there whose name was Denise. One time I went down there and I had with me one of those airplane sachets—you know, the moist towels that you clean your hands with that they give you on the planes. Turns out she loved these things. And so every time I’d go into the tunnels I’d bring her a couple of these sachet towels. These little towels made her so happy. And she’d carry these around in her pocketbook and she’d clean her hands. So, one day I decided I was going to be really nice to her and so I bought a big box of these towels. Not in sachets, but just a big box. And her immediate reaction was to cry. I was surprised and saddened by this. And what it was was that she loved the dignity of carrying around these little sachets and using them in a dignified way. And for me to bring her down a big box of towels somehow was insulting or too pointed, if you see what I mean. And it’s little interactions like that that help you to see and understand the world and how it works. The bottom line is: we have to listen to other people’s stories. That’s the thing. And that’s the only way that we eventually get to know ourselves. So, it’s a bit ironic for me to be here in this situation today, at this moment, as I like to listen and here I am blabbing away. (Laughs).

TRC: In terms of stories and listening, you’re in the right place here in the Southern Appalachian mountains, as this region is rich with its history of storytelling and the oral tradition. The Scots and the Irish who migrated and settled here generations ago have left their legacy in these hills. My mother, who is of Scottish descent, used to read, recite and sing to me at night when I was young. Mostly Scottish fiction, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bobby Burns’s poems and nursery songs. So, like you, I grew up listening to stories and songs. Now, I still listen, but also love to read. There’s nothing better than a good story.

CM: How do you feel about the “Southern writer” tag?

letthegreatworldspinTRC: Generally, I don’t like labels. The South and Southern writing, and particularly Southern fiction, have changed over the years. Previously you’d hear about writers like Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams, but now there’s a “Southern Appalachian” renaissance going on with Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, Pam Duncan, Wayne Caldwell, and others, most of them coming out of the Blue Ridge Mountains—from right here—which was not the case fifty years ago.

Getting back to your writing and the development of characters, I was reading somewhere that the character of Corrigan in Let the Great World Spin comes from the real life person of Daniel Berrigan, the legendary social-activist priest in New York City.

CM: Yes, that’s true. He is still alive and lives down in the Village now and is not well, I hear. I must get down to see him when I get back. I will do this, as I think he is one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever come across. He inspired the character of Corrigan. And in fact, when I first started writing the character of Corrigan, I called him “Berrigan.” I really wanted to get the texture of the real man to penetrate the character on the page. And then I changed the name from Berrigan to Corrigan later. In truth, the character of Corrigan is an amalgam of an Italian man that I knew—my wife’s cousin, in fact, and was a monk in one of the Catholic orders—and Daniel Berrigan.

TRC: I have to tell you that I was heartbroken when he was killed off early on in Let the Great World Spin.

CM: Well, you know, that’s exactly how I felt, as well. I was writing away with this Corrigan character, and I was enjoying it and all of a sudden this strange thing happened. And it was almost like this car crash happened to me. And I’m saying to myself “you can’t do this, you can’t do this. You can’t kill off your main character in the first third of the book.” But . . . I believe that the characters in one’s writing should have a life of their own. I could have put Corrigan on a life-support system in the local hospital and had him end up okay. But in this particular case it was as if the character of Corrigan insisted that he must die. And I couldn’t understand this. Really couldn’t understand this for a long time, because this was not the way that I wanted it to happen. But the only way that really felt true and authentic and proper and right was that he would die. But it took me a long time to come to terms with this. Not like Nabakov who felt that his characters were his galley slaves.

TRC: And then there’s the “common thread,” if you will, in Let the Great World Spin—of the side story of the Frenchman who walked a tightrope wire between the World Trade Center buildings, which was an international news story when it happened.

CM: Yes, when I found the picture—that I’ve put in the book—of Philippe Petit crossing the wire between the World Trade towers and with the plane in the background, I said to myself “that’s it!” which is what inspired the writing of Let the Great World Spin. And you’re right, that event, that character is what all the characters in the book have in common—a touchstone, a common thread.

TRC: Given everything we’ve been talking about here, I’m wondering what you think about the way that publishing and all the current technology is going. Has that affected how you write and how you see the future of literature and books?

CM: Would you believe fifty years ago we’d even have thought that we’d all be walking around with our lives all in one little machine? I’m not overly concerned with all the technology that we’re having to deal with now. I think people will be looking back nostalgically on the way things are today saying, “Ah, back in my grandfather’s day in 2014 they didn’t have any chips inside their brains.” So, we’ll be nostalgic and romantic for these days, just as we now are beginning to be nostalgic and romantic for paper books, telephones and television.

While it’s true that we are experiencing a kind of technological revolution at the present moment, I think that one of the great revolutions of the future will be how we perceive the imagination. Right now we tend to perceive our imagination as being not a physical thing. We think of the imagination as being kind of airy, that kind of floats and is non-corporeal. But I think that as time goes on and as technology keeps progressing that we’ll eventually come to see our imagination as a physical thing. And in keeping with how things usually go, the powers that be will eventually try to monetize our imagination. To put a monetary value on it. By then our imaginations will be as important to us as are our hands and our fingers.

TRC: Your ideas, here, about the imagination remind me of what the great ecologian Thomas Berry said back when there was a lot of talk during the W. Bush administration of people going and living on the moon after we’d depleted the resources on planet Earth. Berry’s response was that living in such a desolate and barren place as the moon, which is devoid of diversity of atmosphere, plant and animal life, etc., would compromise our imagination, which is dependent upon a universe of diversity. He was very confident that in such an environment the imagination would dry up and wither away, which would precede the demise of the rest of the human body, which would eventually dry up and wither away, as well. His premise was that we need our imaginations in order to exist and function fully as human beings.

CM: Absolutely. And speaking of Berrys, do you know Wendell Berry? I think he, too, is one of the great souls in our midst these days. A great writer and someone who reminds us of how we should be walking on the earth, consciously, and with reverence and respect.

TRC: Good words to end on. And may our great world continue to spin and your great writing, as well.

CM: Thank you. That’s very kind.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Three Stories by J.D. Salinger

JD Salinger portrait New York 1952

essay by Shane Joaquin Jimenez

Last November, a pirated publication of three uncollected stories by J. D. Salinger, entitled Three Stories, appeared on torrent and file-sharing sites. The origins of the edition are murky—assembled and printed by someone in 1999, sold sometime later to someone else on eBay—but it appears to be the genuine thing, offering three stories that will be brand new to most readers: “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” “Birthday Boy,” and “Paula.” While Three Stories has been expunged from much of the Internet (one can only assume by Salinger's literary trust), and the PDF is now more difficult to obtain, this pirated collection offers a fascinating look into the much-discussed, little-seen fiction work that sustained Salinger financially before the runaway success of The Catcher in the Rye crashed into his life.

The real story of interest here is “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” which is vintage Salinger. It describes the last day of young Kenneth Caulfield’s life, a day in which he travels around his home in Cape Cod, touching the lives of those around him with his preternatural wisdom. Narrated by the eldest Caulfield, Vincent, the story throws us into a world that is unmistakably Salinger’s, where wise, young siblings try to save our souls as a quirky voice pulls us breathlessly through the pages. But Kenneth is the centerpiece of this story. A lover of baseball who copies lines from his favorite poems on his catcher’s mitt (famously evoked in The Catcher in the Rye), Kenneth is an almost mystically pure-hearted boy who dispenses sage advice to his older brother Vincent. Vincent is a writer, or at least trying to be one, and comes up with a rather mean-spirited story about a man whose wife only allows him to go bowling once a week. After he dies, she discovers another woman leaving flowers on his grave, and the story ends with her throwing the bowling ball through a window. Kenneth says:

But if you’re just making stuff up, why don’t you make up something that’s good. See? If you just made up something good, is what I mean. Good stuff happens. Lots of times. Boy, Vincent! You could be writing about good stuff. You could write about good stuff, I mean about good guys and all. Boy, Vincent!

Vincent notes: “He looked at me with his eyes shining—yes, shining. The boy’s eyes could shine.” One can’t help but be reminded of another sage young character of Salinger’s: Seymour Glass, the voice of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” whose mystical rhapsodizing was attacked after the story’s publication as a form of self-indulgent, literary waywardness on the part of the author. We think too of young Teddy, the other Vedanta-inspired Glass brother, whose precocious enlightenment extends even to a knowledge of his past reincarnations—paralleling Kenneth’s confident promise that he will “stick around a while” when he dies.

“The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” finds Salinger’s prose spare, lean, and engaging, allowing his larger ideas about youth and morality to shine unimpeded. A review by Jay Parini in The Guardian says the story “would not have seemed out of place next to ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ or ‘Teddy’,” and that is no exaggeration. A thoroughly enjoyable read for long-time fans and non-initiates alike, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” also provides one of the keener assessments of Holden Caulfield in print, coming from Wise Kenneth: “He’s just a little old kid and he can’t make any compromises.”

It is certainly strange to think that now—four years after Salinger’s death in 2010 and five decades since the publication of his last book—is perhaps the most exciting time to be a fan of the author. Most of his uncollected stories, printed in the literary magazines of his day, are easily found nowadays on such labor-of-love resources as Dead Caulfields. And the recent book/documentary film Salinger promises that five new books are forthcoming, further expanding the Glass and Caulfield family sagas, as well as shedding light on Salinger’s experiences with war and the Upanishads.

The other two stories in the collection—“Birthday Boy” and “Paula”—are more like drafts, underwhelming at times yet offering fascinating insights into Salinger’s writing and editing process. But should they have been made public against his wishes? The pirated collection does give readers access to these stories, locked away as they are at the Princeton University Library and Harry Ransom Center—and, in the case of “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” not legally available for publication until 2060. But here’s another perspective: these stories show a formidable writer learning his craft, exploring new narrative angles, making mistakes, failing. Perhaps Salinger did not want them out in the world because a finished piece of fiction is something like a magic trick—the more effortless it appears, and the less we know about the long work that went into creating it, the more we appreciate its effects. With these “new” stories from Salinger, as well as all the promised forthcoming material, the problem we are faced with is how to remain fans without ruining the magic.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

The Deepest Human Life

deepesthumanlifeAn Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone
Scott Samuelson
University of Chicago Press ($22.50)

by Scott F. Parker

With The Deepest Human Life, Scott Samuelson adds to the steady output of philosophy books aiming to return philosophy to its core motivations: “This book is my attempt to bring philosophy down from its ethereal theorizing and put it back on the earth where it belongs, among wrestlers and chiropractors, preschool music teachers and undertakers, soldiers and moms, chefs and divorcées, Huck and Jim—you and me, in fact.” A passage such as this risks making philosophers out as having absconded with the “love of wisdom” for deviant purposes (publication, tenure, elitism, etc.), but we needn’t disparage professional philosophers to say that much of their work is not relevant to what the democratic “we” are looking for—namely, sound advice on how to live.

The primary reason there are so many books like The Deepest Human Life—just in the past few years we have James Miller’s Examined Lives and Astra Taylor’s Examined Life (not to mention, going back to 1990, Robert Nozick’s The Examined Life), as well as Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? and Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, to name only a few of the most well-known titles—is not that we’re still awaiting the knock-down argument that will win philosophy back from “them”; it’s that in each iteration of this sub-genre we as readers are presented with models for how we might philosophize for ourselves, assuming as these books rightly do that to do philosophy is part of what it means to be human. Not philosophizing, after all, is merely to philosophize badly.

The approach Samuelson takes to make his introductions is to overlay a history of philosophy with a series of questions central to the era (e.g., “What is philosophy?” “What is happiness?”) that he colors with anecdotes from the classroom (he is a Ph.D. and a professor of philosophy at a community college). About half of The Deepest Human Life is devoted to the Greeks. Samuelson, like many democratizers before him, begins with Socrates and uses a healthy share of his ink on the Hellenistic philosophers the Epicureans and the Stoics, who tended to orient their philosophies explicitly around issues of human flourishing, and who are frequently neglected in the academy.

A common next move in such a history is to jump to Descartes alone in his bedroom utilizing a method that is still available to each of us today to interrogate everything he knows. Samuelson does get there, but only after making an unexpected and pleasant deviation to consider the work of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a Persian Sufi philosopher of the 11th century. The discussion of al-Ghazali occurs in the context of the question “Is knowledge of God possible?” As a mystic, al-Ghazali answers in the affirmative, pointing to a direct experience of the divine. Of all the philosophers in the book, it’s probably al-Ghazali who is the best example of what Samuelson calls “real philosophy”:

. . . an odyssey with distinct stages. It begins in a wondrous and often problematic relationship to common life. It goes through a stage of questioning that leads to a blinding skepticism. Insofar as it continues, there’s a moment of illumination, which leads to a form of critical theorizing (this is where professional philosophers often take up residence). But its final destiny is to return to common life and “know the place for the first time.”

From here it is back to our familiar Western philosophers, including Descartes and Pascal and the moral philosophy of Kant. At times, the choices seem arbitrary, as if their function is to teach readers about philosophy rather than to lead them back to their own philosophizing, which is otherwise the book’s aim. Even so, the text remains lively and is greatly bolstered by the discussions Samuelson has with his students, many of whose plainly spoken insights appear as profound as what many of the canonized philosophers have on offer. Simon Zealot, for example, who takes his name from a little-known apostle of Jesus and is a.k.a Martin Kessler, asks,

Do you find that most of life’s problems can be solved with a little creative shopping? Is television your primary form of entertainment? . . . Do you find that there’s just not enough time in the day, especially for things like exercise? Are you tired right now? Despite this constant lack of energy, do you believe that everything will work out in the end? . . . If you answered “yes” to most or all of these questions then you might be suffering from an illness called phobosophitis, or, as it’s known by its more common name, the zombie disease.

Reductivity notwithstanding, Simon demonstrates the eternal truth that to earn its name philosophy must engage contemporary obstacles to the “good life.” What to do about Internet addiction, for example, is a serious problem for today’s philosophers, just as Pascal might remind us when he writes, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.”

The Deepest Human Life offers us the kinds of tools we have always needed to face Pascal’s implicit challenge to face ourselves, difficult though the task may be. As Samuelson writes, “We go on the journey of philosophy, the search for wisdom, despite what is comfortable, despite what is sensible, often into the depths of our loneliness—impelled by the force of a truth we don’t even know, but that somehow we know we must know."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

Unaccompanied Minors

unacompaniedminorsAlden Jones
New American Press ($14.95)

by RT Both

Alden Jones is a wanderer. In her travel memoir The Blind Masseuse (University of Wisconsin, 2013) she writes about her journeys from Costa Rica to Cambodia. In Unaccompanied Minors, her first short story collection, Jones’s characters can be found spending the night at a homeless shelter or minding children at a country club pool, hiking mountain trails or lingering on the litter-strewn streets of a down-at-heels tropical paradise. As the book’s title suggests, the characters here are mostly young, though not all are minors. Some of these stories are about women who love women; one is about a man who loves a young male prostitute. For all of these stories one thing seems true: the characters’ wants and needs are utterly peculiar to themselves. There’s something bracing—even slightly shocking—about the honesty of their desires.

As a traveling companion, Jones is full of surprises. The first sentence of the collection’s lead story boldly announces, “We’re in a homeless shelter in Asheville, NC.” It’s tempting to continue quoting, because you don’t expect a couple of broke girls who’ve been spending their nights on an Appalachian mountain with stolen camping equipment to be quite so brash about their choices. The story is short on plot but long on arresting detail, on the spasmodic, hyper rhythms of its language, and on its absolute disavowal of anything resembling victimhood.

In fact, one of the things that’s most refreshing, even heartening, about Jones’s characters is their refusal to be shut down by experience. The teen mom who gave up her baby and now takes care of a little girl the same age and the babysitter who bears witness to a family’s grief following a tragic accident play familiar female roles in unstereotypical ways. And this collection is perfectly ordered; by the time we get to the next story, “Freaks,” we are almost prepared for how disarmed we are going to be. It’s not completely clear what the narrator of “Heathens” is up to, because by the end of the story she’s willing to throw in the towel and admit she’s not going to get whatever it is she wanted. But the mere fact of her desire, and the bold and rather twisted way she pursues it, makes this story a rare glimpse into a do-gooder mission trip to a small Latin American town. The collection’s final story takes us back to the mountains, this time on one of those character-building wilderness rehabs that turns out to be a long slog through miserable terrain (as character-building so often is); one of the remarkable things about this trek is that, in the end, some character actually gets built.

Expect the unexpected from Alden Jones. Expect her characters to be up to no good, as unaccompanied minors often are. But be prepared for good to come of the rigorous honesty of her prose.

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Spheres of Disturbance

spheresofdisturbanceAmy Schutzer
Arktoi Books ($16.95)

by Laura Maylene Walter

A pregnant pot-bellied pig, a life-sized Elvis cutout, and a garage sale hoedown might share space in Amy Schutzer’s novel Spheres of Disturbance, but quirkiness aside, the novel also grapples with far more solemn subjects: the inevitability of death, the renewal of life, and how characters either confront or avoid mortality.

Spheres of Disturbance is structured in short chapters that alternate points of view. While the cast of characters is large and, at times, a bit unwieldy, the heart of the novel’s action surrounds the poet Avery, her girlfriend Sammy, and Sammy’s dying mother, Helen. As Avery prepares to host a garage sale that morphs into a full-blown neighborhood hoedown, Helen, a terminal cancer patient, makes plans to end her life on her own terms. Sammy, meanwhile, is willfully oblivious of the fact that her mother is dying and does all she can to distract herself from this reality.

The novel’s other myriad plot lines trickle into new territory like so many tributaries: Helen’s estranged family members, who long ago cast her from their home, seek her out in her last days; Avery struggles to maintain her relationship with Sammy while facing tension with an ex-girlfriend; and fifteen-year-old Darla comes of age to discover she, too, might be a lesbian.

That Spheres of Disturbance is consumed with life as much as death can also be observed in the surprising form of Charlotta, Avery’s Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. As the only non-human character granted a point of view in the novel, this pig and her gentle charm nearly steal the show. Charlotta is heavily pregnant and waits for the birth of her piglets with quiet resignation as the party carries on around her:

     She drifts, her eyes soft, staring out the door’s window; dusk settles in. The red light bulb is on outside and casts a rosy blush. The snow falls through the light like powdered sugar. The scent of wood smoke swirls with the wind that enters each time the front door is opened and closed. Wind and wood smoke, snow-tinged, brisk, and merry as the river. Curly patterns, lovely smells. Her eyes close as if something—the snow, the wind—has closed them for her, and the pinky light from the bulb outside has taken up residence inside her. What sweetness to roll in crackly red maple leaves and scout the woods for odorous morsels? There is more mud and fungi and the loot of decay, and Charlotta is drooling when the two girls find her napping.

Set in late autumn, the novel skillfully mirrors death through the changing seasons: as the book progresses, the temperature drops and the first snowfall drapes the world in white. These natural details call attention to Schutzer’s luminous prose: “The maple and linden leaves continue to pour down and scurry in circles. The river carries them like streamers. Many rise, like flames, off the water, then settle down for a long drift.” And Helen’s serene moment of viewing the newly fallen snow creates a moment of both peace and surrender: “She looks outside at the snow, and all of a sudden she is in tears, joyful. This is a last bit of good fortune, to witness the grace of snow, as nature surrenders to it, to be buried beneath its beauty without resistance.”

If the novel’s momentum feels a bit stagnant at times, or the ever-rotating point-of-view characters overwhelming, it is the persistence of the novel’s inevitabilities—birth, death, community, life, love, anger, and forgiveness—that come together to create the striking and beautifully ambiguous ending that lays to rest the complexities of the characters’ struggles and pleasures.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2014 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2014

The Parallel Apartments

parallelapartmentsBill Cotter
McSweeney's ($25)

by Jenn Mar

Family history guides Bill Cotter's tragicomic The Parallel Apartments, an infectious, off-kilter novel that might best be described as the aftermath of a domestic drama that has been eaten alive by outsider genres. The Parallel Apartments follows Justine Moppett, a 34-year-old pregnant woman, as she flees an abusive relationship in New York to uncover her birthright in Austin. The novel spans three generations of Justine's dubious family history and sprawls into other storylines that careen toward a terrifically disastrous conclusion.

Cotter fearlessly brings on stage a sizable cast of over-a-dozen misfits, a number of whom are inconsequential to the plot, but whose appearance contributes to the colossal, offbeat production that is The Parallel Apartments' twisted parade. Cotter's weirder character portraits include Murphy Lee Crockett, a pathetically clumsy young man whose fear of blood prevents him from fulfilling his calling as a serial killer; Marcia Brodsky, whose growing credit-card debt inspires her to become a raunchy entrepreneur in the robotic sex industry; Marcia's prostituting android Rance; and April Carole, a deranged soap-opera singer whose ticking biological clock sends her on a sexual rampage.

For this 500-page novel, Cotter achieves a nearly flawless symphonic performance that masterfully arranges multiple storylines and switchback timeframes. There is a surprising amount of action in every chapter and plenty of red herrings and plot twists to keep readers guessing. The book's climax is the ultimate end point from which the chaos of these dozen-or-so-characters' interfering lives can be seen as intelligible, albeit from a downright sinister perspective.

At times, The Parallel Apartments feels like a soap opera rewritten by a literary prose stylist in thrall to a menacing, drug-induced vision of a gruesome world order. This is because Cotter subverts literary traditions with conventions from the thriller/horror arsenal. It's no coincidence that Justine watches marathons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, a television series about psychopaths and their sexual-based offenses. Like the television show, The Parallel Apartments features psychopaths, ultra-heightened suspense, and titillating scenes that are inextricably paired with terror and gore. The beams of Cotter's novel, however, flex and groan under the strain of its more graphic depictions. The lurid content is sometimes meant to be tongue-in-cheek and other times meant to inspire horror; squeamish readers may find the passages excruciating. In one chapter, we're made to endure the cringe-inducing details of a geriatric's murder, a process involving electroshock therapy and an intricate contraption of tubes and a blood-pumping valve. While these scenes arguably achieve the jaw-dropping pyrotechnics of a literary spectacle, one comes to suspect that the sado-erotic violence serves less for character development than for entertainment.

McSweeney's has been marketing Bill Cotter as a Texan Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and this comparison has leapt into early reviews of The Parallel Apartments. Indeed, Cotter's prose shares the same stylistic exuberance, the echoing salience and delicately phrased, potty-mouth witticisms of Garcia Marquez's writing. Consider the drama and symmetry of this whopping sentence:

After ejaculating in her mouth, Franklin, Justine's first and last customer, gave her ten dollars, took her by the hand, brought her upstairs to Forty-Second Street, hailed them a cab, lectured her on insisting on payment before performing the next time she fellated a stranger, and brought her home to his apartment in Hell's Kitchen, a not-unpleasant one-bedroom, where she spent the next half of her life tolerating a triple-bogey boyfriend, denying him a child, avoiding his rampant, bar-sinister penis, and growing to like him less and less, while at the same time he grew less and less likable, more aggressive, meaner, more controlling, more Franklin.

Besides their shared love of the baroque sentence, there are other similarities between Cotter and the late Nobel laureate. Like Garcia Marquez, Cotter juggles multiple storylines and shifting perspectives within a marvelously disobedient structure, one that evokes the tangled mess of old Christmas tree lights in storage—surely, one of the more highly technical feats of storytelling. Yet Cotter's novel lacks the fraught poignancy, the graceful state of sustained incomprehension that Garcia Marquez so famously defined in his depictions of life and death, rebirth and suffering, and the menace of history repeating itself.

Cotter’s novel is undoubtedly a tour-de-force. Cotter has mastered, from the lowest to highest orders, the elements of fiction; his sentences are as grand as the sweeping architectural details of his book's structure. These features alone make it more than worthy of the reader's investment. But perhaps the one thing missing from The Parallel Apartments is that it lacks a coherent ethos, or simply a moral one. Cotter's novel is committed to an aesthetic of storytelling that is immediately pleasurable, but at the expense of a more lastingly gratifying metaphysical order. After all, The Parallel Apartments is a postmodern representation of an absurd, malfunctioning universe to which all human responses are inadequate. His characters struggle with problems that cannot be resolved, and the novel's recurring motif of the matryoshka doll will come to symbolize not only the nesting histories of a five-generation matriarchy, but the logical exhaustion of their tragicomic existence.

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Winter Journeys

winterjourneysGeorges Perec and the Oulipo
Translated by Ian Monk, Harry Mathews and John Sturrock
Atlas Press ($34)

by Steve Matuszak

Is it possible that when he wrote his short story “The Winter Journey” in 1979 as part of a publicity bulletin for the French publisher Hachette, Georges Perec sensed he was initiating a collaborative novel that would involve almost two dozen contributors and span more than three decades in the making? It seems unlikely. After all, the story is modest in length and was relatively unknown by the time of Perec’s death in 1982. Yet, in his introduction to Winter Journeys, which collects the collaborative novel into one volume, editor Alastair Brotchie claims that “The Winter Journey” has become Perec’s “most oft-reprinted text, especially after his early death.” Then there are the other “Journeys,” those stories inspired by Perec’s that make up the bulk of Winter Journeys. The first appeared in 1992. Eight more followed by 2001, prompting a first edition of Winter Journeys to be published, and in the ensuing twelve years, that number more than doubled, necessitating this new edition. It is an impressive history for an almost forgotten story, and it doesn’t seem accidental. The very structure of Perec’s story invites one to make a “Journey.” And this invitation has been avidly taken up by his fellow travelers, members of the group of writers and mathematicians who call themselves the Oulipo, the “Workshop for Potential Literature,” who are devoted to creating and exploring new possibilities for the creation of literature.

Of course, Winter Journeys opens with Perec’s story, which tells of Vincent Degraël, a young literature scholar, who while staying with a friend outside Le Havre shortly before the outbreak of World War II discovers a curious book titled The Winter Journey by unknown author Hugo Vernier. Degraël quickly recognizes Vernier’s most striking lines from their appearance in works by other late nineteenth-century French poets. But as is evidenced by the publication date of The Winter Journey, Vernier didn’t steal from them; they stole from him. Increasingly sure of Vernier’s importance to French literature but lacking proof—even the copy of The Winter Journey that he’d read in Le Havre was destroyed during a bombing raid—Degraël ends his days after the war in an insane asylum.

The next two “Journeys,” by Jacques Roubaud and Hervé Le Tellier, establish something of a template for most of the others that would appear by 2001: they draw on all the preceding “Journeys”; their titles, to quote the (fictional) author Reine Haugure, “retain elements of the verbal (rather than graphic) sonority of George Perec’s original title” (Perec’s title is Le Voyage d’hiver, while Roubaud’s and Le Tellier’s are, respectively, Le Voyage d’hier and Le Voyage d’Hitler); and they claim that Perec’s story was true, not fictional. Their stories, then, expand the implications of “The Winter Journey” by adding new characters and settings as well as by drawing attention to the porous boundaries between fiction and reality.

As a whole, the “Journeys” are playful and erudite, deeper implications often glimpsed in their gamboling, ludic surfaces. But for all of the invention on display, and for all of the intriguing ideas they hint at, there are times when Winter Journeys seems to exhaust possibilities rather than raise or explore them, a feeling expressed by Marcel Bénabou in his entry “The Forthcoming Journey.” Appearing near the end of Winter Journeys, Bénabou offers what is essentially a work of criticism that deepens the myriad “Journeys” through his observations. At first expressing admiration for the other “Journeys,” Bénabou admits to feeling a degree of satisfaction in not having joined in. When he had thought about writing a “Journey,” he tells us, his “sole ambition was to carry out systematic research into the potentialities of Perec’s text,” an ambition he feels was not shared by the others, who instead “had given way to a self-congratulatory exhibition of virtuosity” that closed off potentialities, weakening his desire to make a contribution.

Ironically, it is what Bénabou admires about Perec’s works that might have led to such a proliferation of “Journeys” in the first place. As Bénabou enthuses, “For those who know how to approach them, Georges Perec’s writings not only provide a rare pleasure, they can also sometimes offer an even rarer gift: a sort of light, yet tenacious fever from which the only means of recovery—almost with regret—is to take up a pen.” In fact, sometimes their structures encourage writing. Bénabou tells us, for example, that following its own logic, Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual should have had one hundred chapters but had only ninety-nine, and Perec’s autobiographical work I Remember (receiving its first English translation this May) which consists of 480 entries all beginning with the phrase “I remember . . . ,” contained blank pages at the end.

“The Winter Journey” makes a similar invitation. The Winter Journey is the title of Hugo Vernier’s book, comprising two sections. The first tells of a young man on a journey that appears to be some kind of failed initiation rite. The second, making up eighty percent of the book, is “a long confession of an exacerbated lyricism, mixed in with poems, with enigmatic maxims, with blasphemous incantations” from which the other poets plagiarized. The Winter Journey is also the title of Vincent Degraël’s 400-page research diary, the last 392 pages of which were blank. Finally, “The Winter Journey” is a story by Georges Perec that tells of Degraël’s and the narrator of The Winter Journey’s failed searches. If it resembles its namesakes, Perec’s story too has a second part, one that is implied, including all that lies outside of it. While it might be true, as Bénabou claims, that “if these Voyages [“Journeys”] would one day come to an end, and make up a huge narrative jigsaw puzzle, in the spirit of Perec, it would be better if one piece were missing.” But he must also be aware that by leaving the puzzle unfinished, he invites more contributions, thereby reviving what he hopes has run its course. Thankfully, whether or not another “Journey” is written, it hasn’t.

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