The unhappiest book(s) ever written

Joseph Heller and William Gaddis.

I’ve become somewhat intrigued lately about not only my own genealogy but also that of some of the novels that I’ve been reading and re-reading for years. As my lovely wife points out in her own book, the spectral music of the middle-to-late twentieth century has its roots in the music of Liszt and Debussy; literary works, too, have precursors. Specifically, the 19th-century Russian novel and the poetry of T. S. Eliot that gave rise to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Jaroslav Hašek without which we would not have Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 are indicative of the subterranean rivers that lie beneath these novels as influence and models, acknowledged as such by their authors. Lately I’ve been going back to Eliot, Dostoevsky, Céline, and Hašek; because I’ve been doing that, I republish below a short related essay that I first posted here on March 22, 2016.


I do ask something of the reader, and many reviewers say I ask too much … and as I say, it’s not reader-friendly. Though I think it is, and I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so that it ends up being between the reader and the page. … Why did we invent the printing press? Why do we, why are we literate? Because of the pleasure of being all alone, with a book, is one of the greatest pleasures.

William Gaddis

At breakfast this morning I mentioned Joseph Heller’s 1975 novel Something Happened to my wife. I read it upon its publication and found it as near to a masterpiece as Heller’s first and far more highly regarded novel Catch-22, though after submitting my wife to William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic a few months ago I didn’t feel the need to recommend yet another unremittingly dour and unrelentingly pessimistic fiction. In his New York Times review, Kurt Vonnegut called it “one of the unhappiest books ever written,” and Carmen Petaccio called it “a punishingly bleak novel” in an appreciation of the book written for the Los Angeles Review of Books two years ago, the 40th anniversary of its publication:

It’s dense and overlong, sometimes sadistically so, and it offers a minimum in the way of resolution or plot. If the novel’s worldview were a color, the human eye would likely fail to perceive its darkness. What is surprising, though, is how by virtue of that same bleakness, Something Happened becomes one of the most pleasurable, engrossing, and in retrospect moving American novels ever written. If you’ve read Something Happened, and you get why others haven’t, then you make it your little mission to convince people that they should.

My own missionary days were over long ago, so I’m not ready to convince anyone that they should read anything. Upon further consideration, though, I wondered why I, already constitutionally pessimistic, or anyone else should read or re-read anything of the kind (though Petaccio’s essay has encouraged me to seek Something Happened out again) — and, especially, what pleasure I or anybody else could be expected to get out of these novels.

Because, indeed, it is pleasure. Both Gaddis and Heller — and their obvious progenitor Mark Twain, especially the Twain of The Mysterious Stranger — are satirists, so some laughter can always be expected, but it’s laughter of a most jaundiced variety. All three writers, though, as they progressed through their careers, became more pessimistic rather than less, and even the rather mild forms of joie de vivre found in their earlier works dissipated almost completely in their later.

Gaddis and Heller were almost exactly contemporary, and their careers arched over the fifty years following the end of World War II. Their books were continuing records of America’s and the world’s decline. Like most satirists, they could picture a better world, if only by implication; like most pessimists, they doubted it would ever improve. Their anger and disappointment lay in this dual consciousness, their laughter (and ours) in a recognition of this irony.

And yet these are far from period pieces. They may even be described as prophetic. And just as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels hasn’t aged as much as we might like to think, neither have these novels; decline has continued; five minutes reading the front page of the New York Times every day is confirmation enough of that.

Of course, none of the characters in any of these novels possesses this consciousness. Bob Slocum could no more write Something Happened than John Yossarian could write Catch-22; Wyatt Gwyon, Stanley, or Otto Pivner could write The Recognitions; or Edward Bast J R. They are far too caught up in their despairing worlds to fully recognize their situation. That recognition is left to their creators and to those who read these books.

Perhaps most of us, too, are too caught up in our own despairing worlds. Ultimately, the value of these books might be to provide some confirmation that we’re not alone in our despair, that it’s shared with these writers, and that these writers through their ability to transcend this despair in the act of creation — especially of comedy — permit us some compassion for others and consolation for ourselves. This compassion and consolation must emerge in shocking fashion (given their origins in a fundamentally satiric vision) in most of these books. As Petaccio notes:

Even Slocum’s most damning characteristic, the wish that his younger, mentally handicapped son would die, is rendered so histrionically it constantly reminds the reader of its fictiveness as it enters the zone of high comedy, all while dragging [the] reader to the limits of empathy.

These limits are reached when What Actually Happens happens. Slocum plays witness to his older son being hit by a car, and, in what he perceives to be an act of mercy, he smothers the boy to death. Later, in the hospital, he learns that the boy’s wounds were entirely superficial. The only response he can muster is, “Don’t tell my wife.” It takes a patently warped psychology to read this passage as dark comedy, not crushing tragedy. Something Happened spends every sentence up to that decisive moment ensuring its reader’s mind is sufficiently warped to arrive there. The reader laughs where he or she would have cried, understanding that the line drawn between comedy and tragedy isn’t fixed. Ultimately, Slocum’s smothering his son is as paradoxically noble as Heller’s writing of this book: it is meant to alleviate suffering.

Perhaps “pleasure” is the wrong word for what I and other enthusiasts for Heller, Gaddis and similar writers derive from these novels. I suspect that these novels provide what all great art provides: clarity, an exploration of the texture of our own despair, and perhaps most importantly a comfort that we are part of a community of souls who share this perspective. These writers transcend their despair through its expression in comedy, and their readers transcend it through recognition and laughter. It’s the kind of pleasure that Gaddis was talking about and that provides some measure of redemption — that we’re all in this together, and none of us gets out of here alive.

Making a real sound

William Gass selects William Gaddis’s The Recognitions as one of the “12 Most Important Books in His Life”:

The Recognitions was a thunderclap. It was a dull decade, the 50s, but here was a real sound. … And the 60s would be the novel’s best ten years. But here was Mr. Cranky to accompany Sir Style. Here was a man even madder about the general state of things than I was. Here was a man whose business was seeing through — seeing through bodies, minds, dreams, ideals — Superman was Mr. Magoo by comparison. And here was a man who immediately reminded me of another hero (they can’t all be present), the Viennese culture critic Karl Kraus, because this man collected mankind’s shit, too, and knew where to throw it, and knew where to aim the fan.

Via LitHub

Roundup: A belated word about Armistice Day

Passchendaele.

This week I recommended a lovely start to the Christmas season and a worthwhile documentary about the 2013/2014 Maidan protests in Ukraine.

Last Sunday’s Armistice Day marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, which led to the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire of which my grandfather Max was a citizen before he emigrated to the United States in 1914. He left his home in Berezhany, Ternopil, in what is now Ukraine, as a result of the typical Hunka family desire to avoid conflict (as I like to think of it; that sounds better than fleeing military service); with typical Hunka family luck, however, the United States entered the war in 1917, three years after he arrived in New York. I mention this only to suggest that my long-time interest in Central and Eastern Europe has a somewhat personal origin, and though I’ve never been to Ukraine myself, about twenty years ago I spent a year in the region, so I’m always drawn to headlines and literature about these borderlands between Europe and Asia.

It’s also worth noting that as a young, unskilled, and uneducated laborer fleeing the violence in his country, he wouldn’t have been allowed into the United States had Donald Trump anything to say about it.

Karl Kraus, the great Viennese satirist, called the Habsburg Empire of the era an “an experimental station in the destruction of the world,” and the years following his death in 1936 continued to bear him out. It was only following the cessation of hostilities in 1945 that, cognizant of the harrowingly destructive wars they’d suffered over the previous 31 years, Europeans theorized that closer economic and cultural ties like those promised by a European Community may prevent further conflict. Until now, they’ve been right; there have been no European land wars in more than 80 years. At solemn Paris ceremonies marking Armistice Day last Sunday, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel appeared to appreciate that; obviously, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom managed to show up late, did not.

The nationalistic tendencies among Europe’s nations, and especially within the various communities of the Habsburg Empire, were one of the most important ingredients in the impetus towards the violence of 1914 and the despair that came after. Alas, these tendencies seem to be once again leading to greater conflict, as Anne Applebaum recently reported in this important essay for last month’s Atlantic magazine. Applebaum traces both the personal and the historical implications of this polarizing nationalist tendency, common enough here in the United States as it is in her adopted country of Poland. It is a sobering read in the wake of last week’s Armistice Day festivities; you can find it here. And me? I suppose I’ll be lifting a glass to the memory of the Habsburgs — as ambivalent as their downfall was — at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

Winter on Fire


In doing a little background viewing as I read The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, Marci Shore’s 2017 history of Ukraine’s Maidan protests and their aftermath, I came across the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, released in 2015 and directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. Unlike Shore’s book, Afineevsky’s film covers only the events of the 2013/2014 winter in Kyiv during the Maidan, but it is nonetheless illuminating. Citizens in Western Ukraine were fighting at first for their right to join the European Union — but later, to align themselves with the human rights and democratic traditions of the West — in the face of Russian-led efforts to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. The film, developed from the viewpoint of the protestors, may prove an inspiring example to those who have become cynical about the efficacy of protest against a totalitarian, corrupt government. (That’s already the case in Venezuela.) But in Ukraine, this protest had a high human cost, as the documentary reveals, and even today, four years later, the future of Ukraine, still engaged in a war with Russia in its eastern regions, is far from certain. (And what impressed me was the extent to which Kyiv resembled the great cities of the former Habsburg empire such as Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, rather than Moscow or even Belgrade.) Of just as immediate relevance is the fact that, as Timothy Snyder pointed out in The Road to Unfreedom, Ukraine served as a laboratory for Russia’s disinformation campaign strategies, which they then rolled out for the U.S. election of 2016 — not to mention Paul Manafort’s suspicious ties to the region.

As Shore mentions in the preface to her book, “I hope that the chapters of this book about the war in the Donbas can play some small role in providing a human face to yet another tragedy of the kind Neville Chamberlain described as a ‘quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.'” Winter on Fire certainly does so; it lacks detachment, but not passion; those seeking a more objective view of these events will have to look elsewhere. The film was a 2016 nominee for the Best Documentary Oscar, as well as a nominee for the “Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking” Emmy. You can watch the documentary on Netflix; the trailer is below.

Christmas with Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen.

If you need a little help getting into the holiday spirit this year, I suggest you head on down to the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street on Monday, December 10, for a complete performance of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental 1944 piano work Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus). Originally composed for Messiaen’s long-time collaborator Yvonne Loriot, the two-hour, 20-movement work will be gang-performed by five prominent pianists — Anthony de Mare, Margaret Kampmeier, Taka Kigawa, Blair McMillen, and Marilyn Nonken — and accompanied by what the web page for the concert describes as “visual projections, compiled by Fr. Frank Sabatté, C.S.P., Senior Curator of The Gallery at the Sheen Center.”

Poet Michael Symmons Roberts wrote this interesting essay about the work for the Guardian in 2015, and Francis Wilson in Interlude described the piece thusly:

The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and songs around the Christmas tree: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross,” if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.

Messiaen is an acquired taste, though I’ve acquired it, and you may acquire it as well. You’ll be able to decide for yourself on December 10. I’ll see you there; tickets available here.

Below, Loriot’s performance of the full work: