A few small gifts from New York Review Books

“‘Merry Christmas!’ the man threatened.” — William Gaddis, The Recognitions

A few months ago, the publicity department at New York Review Books (NYRB Classics) was kind enough to send me review copies of their new editions of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955) and J R (1975), the first with an introduction by Tom McCarthy and the second with an introduction by Joy Williams. Handsome and necessarily sturdy the new editions of these lengthy novels are, too; what’s more, this is the first time either book has been corrected and re-set in decades, following careful readings by Gaddis experts. I had been hoping to have the time to re-read both of these, but time presses more now, even when time has seemed to become more abstract than usual. I do have a few moments, though, to welcome these new editions, perhaps the seminal satiric novels of post-war America.

Their accomplishments as satire have been overshadowed by their reputations as proto-postmodern novels, leading to a general conclusion that the books are just very hard to read because of their formal and stylistic innovations. Gaddis himself demurred about this characterization, considering himself the heir to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and T.S. Eliot, if anyone. And the style itself, exemplified by just the first few pages of The Recognitions, is redolent more of a dry, distanced wit and humor, more down Evelyn Waugh’s alley than William Burroughs’. An example from page 10 of the new NYRB edition:

Nevertheless, they boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor, provided for against all inclemencies but these they were leaving behind, and those disasters of such scope and fortuitous originality which Christian courts of law and insurance companies, humbly arguing ad hominem, define as acts of God.

On All Saints’ Day, seven days out and half the journey accomplished, God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted: Camilla was stricken with acute appendicitis.

The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they persisted as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonnière sometimes appeared through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, proved to be of paper, and he looked like the kind of man who scrapes foam from the top of a glass of beer with the spine of a dirty pocket comb, and cleans his nails at table with the tines of his salad fork, which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin. …

A self-portrait by William Gaddis

There, now that didn’t hurt much, did it? What’s more, the three paragraphs alone introduce almost all of the major themes of the book, which is a catalogue of spiritual, social, and aesthetic fakery, falsity, and fraudulence in post-war American culture (not to mention fate: “the unswerving punctuality of chance,” a phrase that appears in all five of Gaddis’ novels) — an admirable economy. And there’s a body count: the “ship’s surgeon” is in reality a counterfeiter who botches the surgery and ends Camilla’s life, setting the entire action of the 933-page book in motion.

One day I hope to get to writing some more about Gaddis; in the meantime I celebrate these timely holiday offerings from NYRB Classics. To read more about these reissues, I point you toward Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times (“Read The Recognitions and J R as great, funny, tightly constructed, vastly populated, deliriously inventive and happy books. Because that’s what they are”), Craig Hubert in the Observer (“It may be that after 65 years, the world has finally, for better or worse, caught up to Gaddis’s vision in The Recognitions“), and perhaps best of all, Dustin Illingham in the Point:

The immense pessimism of his fictions grows out of [a] sense of rootlessness. Gaddis’s America is cut off from the redemptive potential of continuity, be it in God, or art, or a shared sense of tradition. He is an heir to Eliot, whose quests, imposters and enervated landscapes haunt his novels, as well as the great Russians — Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev — with whom he shared the hope of civilizing a benighted nation. That such an undertaking was doomed to failure lends his work its paradoxical idealism. His novels refute utopian imagination, but always with a sense of frustrated longing. This longing — contemporary in its contradiction — is the skeleton key to his fictions. Where so many postmodernist writers envisaged a range of possible futures, Gaddis dreamt of an unbroken past that would render his satire unnecessary.

Those who wish to dig deeper are directed towards Joseph Tabbi’s biography of the novelist, this collection of Gaddis’ letters (a bit pricey at the moment), Steven Moore’s seminal monograph on the writer, and this anthology of recent essays about Gaddis’ work. And below you can watch a rare interview with the novelist, conducted in 1986 by Malcolm Bradbury.

Tonight: Some perfect truths

Tonight at 8:00 Eastern time, Jeffrey Swann and my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken will team up for “Perfect Truths,” a concert that is part of the NYU Steinhardt Beethoven the Contemporary festival. Jeffrey will sit down in the university’s Black Box Theater to perform Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 106 (the “Hammerklavier”); then he’ll abandon the bench to make room for Marilyn’s performance of the landmark American sonata by Charles Ives, the Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.” Beethoven’s 1818 sonata is considered one of the most technically demanding of the composer’s solo piano compositions, and Ives’ 1915 composition (published in a revised version in 1947), a veritable though highly idiosyncratic catalogue of American musical forms, is no less complex; so complex, in fact, that Ives himself “introduced” the work with the book-length Essays Before a Sonata in 1920.

The concert will be available beginning at 8:00 p.m. at this page and will be available for re-streaming following its debut. It’s free.

A toast to … cynical pessimistic dads

I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that several of the writers and artists I admire, angry and cynical misanthropes nearly all of them (and there’s plenty to be angry and cynical about, especially these days), are nonetheless parents — an odd choice, adding more people to the world they hate. Joe Heller, R. Crumb, William Gaddis, you name ’em; they’ve got spawn running around even as we speak. Even W.C. Fields had children. I’m here to tell you, it ain’t easy, bearing these two contradictory experiences in mind. And kids themselves, being human, ain’t necessarily so innocent and pure either.

I’m not sure you can say that parenting inspires hope, or vice versa. It could be just a way for us to say, “Hey, at least we’re trying.” Some days it’s easier than others — and all too often we get caught up in the contradictions inherent in the situation. I think Crumb put it best, catching a bit of the self-pity involved when laughter fails us, below: and its ambivalent final panel is possibly all that can be said.

See you at Cafe Katja later today.

 

Goin’ down to the river some day

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, if only because there hasn’t been much to report. We are careening into the new year with light at the end of the tunnel but, if the virus experts are right, with the tunnel buckling just as we’re getting to the exit. We’re somewhere near the bottom tier of those expected to get the vaccine over the next six months, so the winter will be … well, whatever the common cliché is. It has rendered me even more taciturn than usual; my three regular readers have been patient, so thank you.

On the other hand, there are ways to get through the night. As a part of my readers’ reward for their patience, I note that the latest issue (#39) of Mineshaft magazine was released earlier this fall, and I suggest you get a copy now. I also know that a few Mineshaft contributors may wish to join me in revisiting the fine Hoagy Carmichael song “Washboard Blues,” originally recorded by RCA Victor in 1927 with Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra,  Carmichael soloing on vocals and piano. Carmichael was then 28 and at the start of a long career (perhaps he is best known as “Cricket” in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not), during which Carmichael contributed several songs to the American popular music pantheon, not least “Stardust” (which Carmichael recorded just before “Washboard Blues”), “Georgia on My Mind,” “Rocking Chair” (a personal favorite), “Two Sleepy People,” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

“Washboard Blues” is a characteristic Carmichael composition: eccentric and vernacular. An anonymous Wikipedian wrote, “Though the verse, chorus, and bridge pattern is present, the effect of the song is of one long, cohesive melodic line with a dramatic shifting of tempo. The cohesiveness of the long melody perfectly matches the lyrical description of the crushing fatigue resulting from the repetitious work of washing clothes under primitive conditions.” One must, at this late date, overlook the dialect in which the lyrics were written by Fred B. Callaghan, but catch the midwestern air of Carmichael’s half-mumbled half-wailing high-baritone-almost-tenor lament. The below is not the Whiteman recording, but a solo recording released some years later, and more haunting for all that. If you haven’t heard it before, you’re in for a treat. Enjoy this; and I’ll hope to be back soon.

A toast to … Huckleberry Finn

For about the third or fourth time in as many years, I’m picking up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn again, finding that it appeals, as all great satires do, as a comment on conscience, conformity, and corruption: the integrity of and respect for the individual conscience, conformity to community values, and the corruption of the human spirit, especially as it expressed itself through the institution of slavery in the United States. And all this in the 300 pages or so of the Penguin Classics edition.

Ordinarily such a book wouldn’t stand up to re-reading as frequent as that, but it’s an extraordinarily rich novel and seems, with every year, to become richer. Certainly the Western liberal idea of the integrity of the individual is, in 2020, under attack around the world, even in the West; there’s increased social, political, and military pressure to walk in lockstep with puritanical and exclusionary ideas about the ideal community and ideal behavior; and, finally, systemic racism in America is perhaps for the first time under profound investigation. The problematic final third of Huckleberry Finn becomes less problematic if one reads it as Twain’s commentary on the Redeemer movement in the South, which started about ten years before the book’s publication in 1888 — a movement which, if nothing else, proved that racism and slavery did not end in 1865 with the close of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy. (The book, set in the 1830s or so, exemplifies the “double vision” of most satiric literature: a criticism of the present through a story set in the past.) Though theoretically “free,” Jim becomes a pawn in Tom Sawyer’s cruel game, and he continues through the end of the book to be regarded as less than human by the Phelpses and their neighbors, even though he’s demonstrated great empathy and courage (more, perhaps, than anybody in the book with the possible exception of Huck Finn himself).

Not to mention that much of the book is extraordinarily funny and in terrible, horribly bad taste, especially when it’s at its subversive best.

Only eleven years after Twain put the final touches on Huck Finn, and only 160 miles to the southwest from Twain’s home town of Hannibal, MO, Scott Joplin published “Maple Leaf Rag” through John Stark’s music publishing company in Sedalia, and from then on ragtime and Twain flourished through 1910, the year of Twain’s death. Twain was perhaps the most celebrated and recognized figure in America through those years, and ragtime the nation’s most popular and celebrated music. The enthusiasm for ragtime faded about the time the First World War began, and indeed both Twain and ragtime were in cultural eclipse until after the Second World War, when Twain’s work began to be reluctantly admitted to the academic canon and a few ragtime aficionados tried to keep the form alive and recognized as a distinctly American music.

If we can’t actually live sanely, we can at least read sane books and listen to sane music until — and if — the current storm of insanity passes. Which is why I’ll be raising a glass to Huckleberry Finn at Cafe Katja this afternoon, safely distancing and all the rest of it. Prost!