Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Bonus post: Five books for the new year

1. 10th Grade, Joe Weisberg
2. The Horned Man, James Lasdun
3. A Billion for Boris, Mary Rodgers
4. Tlooth, Harry Mathews
5. Fisher's Hornpipe, Todd McEwen

Under the Sign of Sontag (4-6)

"Thinking, writing are ultimately questions of stamina. The melancholic, who feels he lacks will, may feel that he needs all the destructive energies he can muster." —Susan Sontag, "Under the Sign of Saturn"

"The compulsive nature of his character shows plainly in his style and method, wholly apart from the violence of his diatribes and the fury of his onslaughts. He seems compelled by some irresistible urge to pile up adjectives, to accumulate synonyms, to follow every theory and describe every cure, even those he despises. He cannot let any idea go until he, it, the reader, and the language are exhausted." —B. Evans, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ROBERT BURTON

6. "...I will adventure through the midst of these perplexities, and, led by the clue or thread of the best writers, extricate myself out of a labyrinth of doubts and errors..." —Burton, THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY, pt 1, sec 1, mem 3, subs 4

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Oriental Hotel/Hotel Orienta: Wong Kar-wai not?

Q: Wong Kar-wai. Wong Kar-wai. All day with your Wong Kar-wai. Is that all you ever talk/think/write about?

A: Yes!

The ending of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, in which Tony Leung's character whispers into a hole in a stone in Cambodia, haunts me still. The scene is echoed in 2003's LOST IN TRANSLATION (Bob whispering to Charlotte), is maybe predicted by Emily Dickinson ("Could mortal lip divine/The undeveloped freight/Of a delivered syllable/’Twould crumble with the weight"), is explained in WKW's *2046*, which I'm watching, slowly, on DVD—savoring it over the course of several weeks.

2046 is the name of an alternate world, identical with the year 2046 (one imagines), though the film's frame unfolds in the 1960s. It's also a room number at the Oriental Hotel. It could be other things, too. I haven't finished the movie yet.

But the Oriental Hotel . . . Years ago I spotted, on West 79th or thereabouts, a name incised above a doorway: HOTEL ORIENTA. I love the formal names of apartments and SROs, love to imagine a time when you would jump into a cab and say, "To the 'Oliver Cromwell,' buddy—and step on it!"

The sighting of the H.O. led to the creation of a file on my computer called "Hotel Orienta." It started as a sketch for a story, then became a notebook, then was abandoned. This happens on a regular basis.

I've written at length about the Brown Notebook of yore, and now present to you the first of three extracts from the file "Hotel Orienta," an address of mild comedy, numerous questions, and astonishing solipsism:

"How do I explain to Marjorie that the robots no longer exist? It would take too much time, too many words. I imagine her preserving the balled paper that I lob out three or four or fifteen times a day, though I’ve expressly told her that these are to be destroyed. Somewhere in the basement, perhaps, every scotched scenario, every line of scumbled dialogue, hangs pressed and illuminated, with a bit of wall text explaining its genesis and possible relation to the rest of the epic being penned by the man upstairs. (Who *is* this remarkably informed curator?) My pencil rests and I daydream myself a culture hero, a secret historian; a Prometheus, a Merlin; a hermit, a zombie, a freak."

Under the Sign of Sontag (1-3)

"The notebook is the perfect literary form for an eternal student, someone who has no subject or, rather, whose subject is 'everything.' It allows entries of all length and shapes and degrees of impatience and roughness, but its ideal entry is the aphorism. Most of Canetti's entries take up the aphorist's traditional themes: the hypocrisies of society, the vanity of human wishes, the sham of love, the ironies of death, the pleasure and necessity of solitude, and the intricacies of one's own thought processes." —Susan Sontag, on Elias Canetti

For "notebook," read "blog."

Irresponsible but unshakable thought: Sontag's death comes in the wake of the disastrous tsunami.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Top 10 apocryphal cat's cradle maneuvers

10. The Hanging Gardens
9. Three's Company
8. American Gigolo
7. There and Back Again
6. Relative Humidity
5. Hey Hey Hey
4. Sleepless in Seattle
3. Plan B
2. Mama Say Mama Sa Mama Cu Sa
1. It's Supposed to Look Like That

The reverse numerical order makes me dizzy.

Crazy Train . . . of thought!

Trollope's novel RACHEL RAY came up a couple months ago at a brunch—an elaborate story told by our friend M., involving in-laws and Bookfinder and Fire Island. We didn't know RACHEL RAY from CAN YOU FORGIVE HER?, and immediately our thoughts went to bestselling cookbook author and diminutive Food Network deity Rachael Ray. (Diminutive next to Emeril, at least.)

Another name mentioned at that brunch was Randi Rhodes, the Air America host. As I hadn't listened to A.A. (I *still* don't know where to find it on the dial), I thought at first that Ozzy Ozbourne's old guitarist, the laudably flashy Randy Rhodes, had turned into (or revealed himself as) a staunch liberal. That was the brunch of mistaken identities.

I bring all this up because the New York Times Book Review has scooped me. This past Sunday, Dwight Garner wrote a clever bit in which he compares Trollope's Rachel to the current flesh-and-blood one (or as I like to call her, *my* R.R.). Even better, the piece is headlined THE RACHEL PAPERS—still our favorite Martin Amis novel.

I'm sure someone's made the Randi/Randy joke already, but I thought I'd register the events of that distant brunch all the same. I should also note the unusual fact that both pairs of almost identical names share the initials R.R.

All this blogging has made me grow piqued—time, no doubt, for a 30-minute meal.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

House of Moody Heroes

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE’s Maggie and Tony sublimate their desire by writing martial arts serials. I like thinking of HERO as the rapturous result, with its elegant alibis marshaled in the form of a brain-tingling regicide plot against the king who (as Borges notes) both built the Great Wall and burned all the books. Hit man Jet Li—like Odysseus to the Cyclops, like McKinley’s assassin—is nameless, nobody, no man. So too is Takeshi Kaneshiro, traceless as the “Wind,” to Zhang Ziyi’s Mei in HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS—a small-scale companion piece to HERO, in which the carpet-pulling identities are the deadly filigree on a tale less about the agonies of empire than simply in the mood for love.

What was the question again?

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Turtles and newts

OK—fine! Five more books for you five-book-at-a-time readers!

1. Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban
2. Rendezvous in Black, Cornell Woolrich
3. War With the Newts, Karel Capek
4. A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes
5. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Lawrence Block

Here's a passage from Hoban's TURTLE DIARY—one of several I wrote out in the Black Notebook (about which, more later):

"The sandpipers, the curlews and the redshanks, all pure Bewick, seemed to draw serenity from the sheer detail of their markings. A puff was bathing with its ruff spread out as large as possible. It looked of the film world and as if it might call everyone 'Darling.'"

Voir Dire

The novelist Joseph McElroy (ACTRESS IN THE HOUSE, WOMEN AND MEN) has long been working on a novel with the great title VOIR DIRE, a term familiar to anyone who's reported to jury duty. But what exactly does it mean? Literally, of course, "to see to say." During the little information session that kicks things off on your first morning at the courthouse, you'll learn that it means "To see them say"—an opportunity for the lawyers to ask questions and agree on the juror selection.

But the last time I served (I was picked for the jury . . . they *always* pick me for the jury), the scatterbrained but kind of charmingly maternal Linda Lavin-y judge said, "It means 'to speak the truth,'" which must have struck everyone as not quite right, but we let her say whatever she wanted—she was Linda Lavin-y!

A few months later, nursing a wounded foot in Calgary, I found this in a local paper: "In the statement, played earlier in the voir dire (trial within a trial), 'K' told police the other two boys— 'P' and 'M'—repeatedly took turns stabbing Wong, 42, until the knife blade broke . . . "

"Trial within a trial"? I love how this leads to the Kafkaesque intials of the defendants. Some cub reporter is trying to write the great American novel while on the job—rather, great *Canadian* novel.

Munhaddon Dogsbody

From the Brown Notebook (26i01):
"Yesterday morning, heard that scientists determined that rats dreamt of the mazes they ran during the day. (Reward: chocolate flavored sprinkles.) I got up, took a shower, but then had to take a nap. I dreamt of getting ready for work."

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Speak, Memory — or at least look up the damn quote!

I read this morning in William Boyd's upcoming story collection, FASCINATION:

"Wasn't it Nabokov who said the best response to hostile criticism is to yawn and forget? I yawned. I forgot." ["Adult Video."]

This evening I found myself dipping into Nabokov's collected stories, which I haven't looked at in years. I thought of reading one of the many I haven't touched yet, then just zoomed to the back to marvel at "The Vane Sisters," which for all its trickery is an unimpeachable and wholly pleasurable piece, the master working at the top of his form and so on. I came across this line, which reminded me of how I feel on particularly productive, optimistic, stimulus-soaked days: "I walked on in a state of raw awareness that seemed to transform the whole of my being into one big eyeball rolling in the world's socket."

Which somehow recalled a favorite passage in Charlotte Brontë's VILLETTE, about doing a "prodigious amount of living" one morning.

Let's not trust me on that one, and consult the abandoned commonplace book (hereafter ACB): "Prodigious was the amount of life I lived that morning. Finding myself before St. Paul's, I went in; I mounted to the dome: I saw thence London, with its river, and its bridges, and its churches; I saw antique Westminster, and the green Temple Gardens, with sun upon them and a glad, blue sky of early spring above; and between them and it, not too dense a cloud of haze."

Which is of course a hundred times better than the fragment I misremembered. I love the commas after river and bridges, and were I the kind of fellow keen on making literary history proclamations that he doesn't really have the knowledge to back up . . . oh hell, I am that kind of fellow! — I'd say this was one of the most exquisite uses of the semicolon in the English language. There's drama; a kind of heroism; accurate conveying of information (visual); and, finally, not a little inexplicable sadness.

(For more on Nabokov's "The Vane Sisters," see my article "The Oblique Case," Keeler News, No. 30, Dec. 2000:

Dream lover

This is the point in which the readership, already hovering at nil, potentially dives into the magical world of negative, maybe even imaginary, numbers.

Dream 1: I spend hours in a deli jammed into an exurban plaza. Here I spend an hour (both in real and dream time) trying to decide what to eat. Everything looks too dry, too unhealthy, etc. In short, I lose my appetite. Figures from high school drift in and out.

Dream 2: Takes place in a combination diner/museum gift shop/record store. The main thing you need to know is that I purchase a record for $9, which is (I deduce) by the group Social Distortion. The album and song titles are all very long—complete sentences.

Danger zone

Weihenmayer said that on several occasions he was able to find his wife, who was standing still in an outdoor park, but he admitted that he also once confused her with a tree. Another time, he walked down a sidewalk and almost went off a bridge.
—Sandra Blakeslee, "New tools to help patients reclaim damaged senses," New York Times, November 23, 2004

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Dryden on Caliban

"His language is as hobgoblin as his person."

Make it stop

Five more books, to induce mild melancholia:

1. Vertigo, W.G. Sebald
2. Six Records of a Floating Life, Shen Fu
3. Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
4. I Am the Cheese, Robert Cormier
5. I Never Liked You, Chester Brown

Note: Immediately chase with one Tintin book and/or two to five chapters of P.G. Wodehouse.

Five more minutes—five more shortish books are guaranteed to like.

1. Crippled Detectives, Lee Tandy Schwartzman
2. Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists, Gideon Defoe
3. My Mortal Enemy, Willa Cather
4. Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov
5. True Grit, Charles Portis

I should just get one of those lists on Amazon. Except Crippled Detectives only exists online, published in 1978 by Stone Soup (a magazine for children). Somebody bring this out as a book!

A final instant top 5 for the a.m.—some poetry admitted:

1. The Young Visiters (sic), Daisy Ashford
2. Nadja, Andre Breton
3. A Nest of Ninnies, John Ashbery & James Schuyler
4. The Captain Lands in Paradise, Sarah Manguso
5. Actual Air, David Berman

If length were no object, how about:
1. The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong (aka Hanjungnok)
2. The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton
3. The Marceau Case books of Harry Stephen Keeler, including: The Marceau Case, X. Jones—Of Scotland Yard, The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne, Y. Cheung: Business Detective, The Mysterious Mr. I, and The Chameleon
4. A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell (in 12 volumes)
5. In the Realms of the Unreal, Henry Darger (15,145 pages, never published in toto)

That's enough top five for now, or forever.

You have five minutes

To pick five books from your shelf, to read for the next year. (Backstory? Oh, OK: You're being sent to the Sakhalin Islands as part of a diabolical student exchange program—you filled out all this paperwork months ago, half drunk, and didn't know what you were agreeing to.)

If you're me, you maybe select the following:

1. The Scorpions, Robert Kelly
2. Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith
3. Prater Violet, Christopher Isherwood
4. Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, P.D. Ouspensky
5. Afternoon Men, Anthony Powell

A bit too British, and none of these are by Nabokov or Charles Portis—but that's fine. You will like these books. Some are comedies. Some are eerie. All are quite short and can be savored again and again.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Unlikely inspiration for the Ed of yore

The brown notebook contains general observations, a few brief diaristic episodes, dreams, and would-be novelistic formulations. But mostly it consists of notes on reading—quotes from assorted books I may never see again, as well as from two writers who served as unlikely inspiration for me back then: Edward Payson Vining, author of AN INGLORIOUS COLUMBUS (dedicated to the theory that a Buddhist monk from Afghanistan journeyed to the new world in the fifth century A.D.) and other works, whom I no longer read; and Harry Stephen Keeler, prolific Chicago writer of "webwork" mysteries, whose oeuvre continues to taunt and entertain me. Along with curious passages, diligently copied out, one finds my reflections on these two authors. (I would eventually write an article on Vining, and have written several on Keeler.)

Possible titles for the brown notebook

The Anatomy of Melancholy
An Inglorious Columbus
A Book for the Opening of the Mouth

He writes this in fear that the document will go missing

Brief physical description of the brown notebook: raw cardboard covers, maybe a millimeter thick, say 4" x 6", bound with 13 double-spirals; "30vii0-28i1" black-penned minusculely on the front; with two blue "PAR AVION/AIR MAIL" stickers on the front and one on the back, which I used to obscure the fact that the notebook is a GlaxoWellcome tchotchke for Wellbutrin or something. Inside, a glossy chart, "Key to Scoring the Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale," followed by 99 leaves—198 pages—with 19 lines a page.

The Brown Notebook: An Introduction

I like the idea of classical wisdom that exists today only because the wisdom-dispenser's acolytes took notes—the original manuscript does not survive, or the w.d. never wrote anything down to begin with. Cf. Confucius and—is it Plato or Aristotle? Aristotle, I think. His students took good notes.

He taught Alexander the Great.

I bring up the idea of good note-taking because the thing I've been reading lately, the thing I've been living inside of these last couple weeks, is a brown notebook that I kept from July 30, 2000 to January 1, 2001. My notebook-keeping is such that I write in several notebooks concurrently; often, notebooks remain unfilled for years. But the brown notebook seems to have been a pretty straight shot.

Typical of my notebooks, I'm not entirely sure which entries are factual (i.e., observations on my real life) and which are practice runs for something I want to put into a novel or short story. What to make of this?:

"I spent most of the day before I turned thirty curled in a fetal ball, eyeing the clusters of dust and hair and crumbs that had colonized the wood floor."

Totally depressing! Yet I have a dim feeling that that's not what happened at all; indeed, that turning thirty wasn't such a big deal to me, for some reason.

I just flipped a few pages forward in the brown notebook, and came across an entry not unrelated to the theme of this project, THE DIZZIES:

"Pisa Syndrome (in THE LANCET): excessive leaning to one side, found in those treated for Alzheimer's."

Unfortunately, the recent nonfiction book TILT does not discuss Pisa Syndrome.

This entry is running out of theme-steam, so I'll end with a quote—about DeChirico's "habit of declining to recognize his early works and repudiating all responsibility for them."

I am not repudiating the brown notebook. In fact I am rather in love with the brown notebook. I am its most devoted scholar. I would require three more notebooks, or three hundred, to explain its contents.

The Book Ark Top 34

On July 30, 2000, I created a list of books purchased at Book Ark, a great subterranean store on West 81st Street. Years later, we would move nearby, only to see that it was closing. They were selling everything at discount. They were even selling the shelving. I believe my last purchase was a Japanese novel, Inoue's THE COUNTERFEITER.

Without further ado—here are the books purchased as of 30vii0, in the order they sprang to mind. I am now 34 years old and I don't think there's a clunker in the bunch. Even the titles I haven't finished (or, really, read at all) are the sort I'd bring to a desert island. These days when they strand you they let you bring one book for every year you've lived.

If I ever teach a class, let this be the syllabus.

1. The Decameron, Boccaccio
2. The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels, Harry Mathews
3. The Enormous Room, e.e. cummings
4. Selected Writings of Sir Thomas Browne
5. A Question of Upbringing, Anthony Powell
6. A Buyer's Market, Anthony Powell
7. The Banquet Years, Roger Shattuck
8. The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges
9. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, Kawabata
10. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki
11. Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, P.D. Ouspensky
12. The Life of the White Ant, Maeterlinck
13. The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton
14. Pornografia, Witold Gombrowicz
15. Cosmos, Witold Gombrowicz
16. Hugging the Shore, John Updike
17. Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers
18. Tout Ubu, Alfred Jarry
19. Mount Analogue, René Daumal
20. Yale: A Short History, George Pierson
21. Two book catalogues from Goodspeed's bookstore, Boston
22. The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison
23. Mistress of Mistresses, E.R. Eddison
24. A Fish Dinner in Memiston, E.R. Eddison
25. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Edgar Allan Poe
26. Icefields, Thomas Wharton
27. A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov (transl. Nabokov; cover art by Edward Gorey)
28. Forgers, Dealers, Experts
29. The Valley of Bones, Anthony Powell
30. The Soldier's Art, Anthony Powell
31. The Military Philosophers, Anthony Powell
32. The Narrow Corner, W. Somerset Maugham
33. My Mortal Enemy, Willa Cather
34. Atlantis, Ignatius Donnelly

I just woke up and this is what I read

"The drive to sleep originates deep within the brain and is as powerful as the drive to eat or breathe."
—Harvard Mental Health Letter, August 1994

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Title of a North Korean painting

"The Great Leader Kim Il Sung Crosses the Amrok River With the Lofty Aim of Liberating the Country"

Now *that's* a painting!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Nothing doing

"Magnification to nothingness occurs or tends to occur in all cults; unequivocally we observe it in the case of Shakespeare. [. . . ] Hugo compared him to the ocean, the possible forms of which were infinite."
—Borges, "From Something to Nothing"

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Another bad idea

I contemplated publishing portions of my novel in progress, but this seemed like another bad idea.

Spent rest of the day cleaning the house, picking up lint, hair, small pieces of paper: dry-cleaning tags, inspected-by notifications, fortune-cookie fortunes.

The anti-vertiginists say: Any activity involving stooping is good.

When I finally emerged to do some shopping the air felt clean and my head seemed to expand by about 23%.

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