The first is today (October 3, 2012) at the Instituto Cervantes in New York. Details.
And the next is October 11th at Baruch Colleage (take note: it’s at 12:30 in the afternoon). Details.
Notes from NYRB Classics
Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done so once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
—Kingsley Amis is known as much for his drinking as his writing, in an article at Hyperallergic he is called “the great alco-bard of English letters.” And today we start our attempt to balance the scale and return Amis senior to his rightful place as one of the great 20th-century British novelists, with the publication of two of his best books: The first is of course Lucky Jim, his maiden work, a huge success (re-read annually by Joseph M. Schuster in The Millions), and often called the funniest book ever written (including in today’s B&N Review); and the second is The Old Devils, winner of the 1986 Booker Prize and considered by his son Martin to be his finest novel. The American Conservative has a good article on why Kingsley fell out of favor in the U.S. (quick hint: celebrity, politics, opinions, and a famous son), but if all you are interested in are the drinks, come Raise a Glass to Kingsley next Thursday at Housing Works Bookstore for an event hosted by Vol. 1 Brooklyn and have a glass of gin on us. Just try to avoid a hangover like Jim Dixon’s.
No one sang Greece more profoundly than Fermor, and no one tried more ardently to argue its core importance to Western culture, both now and—a more radical argument—in the future. Roumeli and Mani are his twin love songs to Greece, but it is in Mani that he most eloquently lamented the disappearance of folk cultures under the mindless onslaught of modernity and celebrated most beautifully what he thought of as an immortal landscape in which human beings naturally found themselves humanized. Consider his illustration of the Greek sky that always seemed to hang so transparently above his own house: ‘A sky which is higher and lighter and which surrounds one closer and stretches further into space than anywhere else in the world. It is neither daunting nor belittling but hospitable and welcoming to man and as much his element as the earth; as though a mere error in gravity pins him to the rocks or the ship’s deck and prevents him from being assumed into infinity.’
—Wall Street Journal Magazine has a feature article on Patrick Leigh Fermor and his relationship with Greece in its current issue. Mani and Roumeli, Leigh Fermor’s books about Greece, of course come in for serious discussion, as does In Tearing Haste, a collection of letters between Leigh Fermor and Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and junior ‘Mitford Girl.’
We’ve just learned that translator Michael Henry Heim died over the weekend. Go to Susan Bernofsky’s Translationista blog to read a fuller obituary, with more to follow, but our tribute is a sample of his translation from Czech to English of Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, not an easy book to excerpt since it is all one long sentence, which goes to show how hard it must have been to translate. We’ll start at the beginning:
Just like I come here to see you, young ladies, I used to go to church to see my beauties, well, not exactly to church, I’m not much of a churchgoer, but to a small shop next to the parish house, a tiny place, where a man by the name of Altman sold secondhand sewing machines, dual-spring Victrolas from America, and Minimax fire extinguishers, and this Altman he had a sideline delivering beauties to pubs and bars all over the district, and the young ladies would sleep in Altman’s back room, or when summer came they set up tents in the garden and the dean of the church would take his constitutional along the fence and those show-offs would put a Victrola out there and sing and smoke and tan themselves in their bathing suits…
Frequent readers of this blog know we have an interest for all things Australian. So we were particularly thrilled to see our so many of our books on display at the great Melbourne bookstore Readings—a bookstore that one staff member basically grew up in, and has since that time moved location (across the road on Lygon St, Carlton) and expanded to five stores. Next up, gleebooks of Sydney.
Hey, Waldo did you hear that we were offering a bunch of books in our kids’ series at a special discount?
No, seriously, your fans can buy Wolf Story at 30% off the retail price. And by the way, Waldo, have you listened to your old friend Mike talk on NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered about how his father, William McCleery wrote Wolf Story for him all those years ago? Go on, it might cheer you up.
Ogdon! You seem to know all about this sale already. Can we ask how you’re feeling about your book, written by Rhoda Levine and illustrated by Edward Gorey, being available again?
Excellent. The only thing that better would be if that giant dog in your back yard gave up the secret of his name—but he’s not talking.
So all that remains is for everyone to spread the word. Cheerful, it looks like you’ve already started talking to some real chatty types. Nice work!
Now on sale at 30% off the retail price (but not on sale forever):
Lit blog and big NYRB Classics fan The Mookse and the Gripes has started a podcast featuring our books. The first post is on Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams (author of Stoner), and up next will be Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Follow the discussions by subscribing to their podcast on iTunes, or just keep your eye on their site. We know we will.
We’ve been waiting for this day. Electric Lit's Recommended Reading has chosen one of our books! It’s Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk, and not only do you get an excerpt from the book, but you can read how we bullied Michael Cunningham into writing the introduction, and why he accepted (not because of our bullying, because the book is really good, and perhaps because it’s so short). A longer post than normal but we think it’s worth it.
Vol. 5, No. 3
The first mystery, where novels are concerned, is how anyone manages, ever, to write a book that’s any good at all.
Sure, go ahead, simulate life, using only ink and paper. Take the words offered by the dictionary, the same words that are available to everybody who can read, and arrange them so strategically that they simultaneously illuminate and deepen the mystery of human existence.
Do so in a way that’s cogent and compelling, that grabs readers with the opening line and doesn’t let them go until the final one. Don’t make it too neat and tidy—that will come off as trivial. But don’t make it too messy and sprawling, either—that won’t feel like much of anything at all.
You don’t have to have written a novel to fully appreciate how nearly impossible that undertaking is. It helps, though.
This initial mystery—how does anyone, ever, pull it off?—is followed, over time, by a second one.
Why does history remember some novels, and forget others? Okay, because most novels are forgettable. But there are some, a handful or two, that brush up against greatness itself, and yet don’t seem to get a ticket on the literature train. Hence, Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk.
One summer day several years ago, I got a call from Edwin Frank, editor of The New York Review of Books Classics, asking if I’d like to write the introduction to a new edition of Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk.
Edwin told me that The Pilgrim Hawk was surprisingly good. Possibly even great.
I told him I’d never heard of it.
He assured me that hardly anyone had, which was a crime. Which was why he wanted me to write the introduction.
I confess that I thought, but didn’t say, If it’s that good, why doesn’t anyone know about it? Which is, of course, precisely how the sentence of obscurity, once imposed upon a book, is hard to get reversed.
What I said was, Thanks for asking. But I’d rather write novels than introduce them.
Edwin told me that the book was short. Quite short. Read-it-in-a-couple-of-hours short.
I hesitated. He moved in. He asked if he could send me a copy, just so I could take a look at it, no strings attached. I told him he could.
The book arrived a few days later. I knew, by the time I’d read its opening page, not only that I’d write the introduction, but that it would be an honor.
Like most significant books, the best way for a reader to appreciate The Pilgrim Hawk is, simply, to read it. Think of me as your own private, personal Edwin Frank, urging you to abandon whatever reluctance you may harbor, insisting that history’s verdicts are not always just or accurate.
I’m urging you to experience something like what I did, in consenting to read an obscure novel, an experience that involved not only the discovery of the novel itself but the attendant realization that the world is host to such novels—call them the “invisible classics.” Call them “Canon B.” It makes for a richer, more fabulous sense of what might be out there, beyond the titles one read (or pretended to have read) in college.
Like most good novels, The Pilgrim Hawk resembles nothing but itself.
It is, for one thing, a marvel of concision. There are seven characters, and one hawk (though the hawk is so vividly rendered, so thoroughly seen, that we really we should include it among the characters). There is just one setting, a villa in the South of France. It is, just as Edwin Frank assured me, quite brief—125 pages, to be exact.
And yet, it has epic qualities. Think The Great Gatsby, or Henry James’ The Aspern Papers.
All of which raise the question a reader should ask of a good or a great book: How did the writer do it?
How did Wescott manage, in those 125 pages, as many layers and levels of romance and desire as there are in a Shakespeare comedy? How did he produce a book that, along with its compelling plot, encompasses fundamental human issues like domesticity’s capacity to be both life-saving and soul-destroying; the annihilating but animating powers of lust and jealousy; the secret war between social classes; and aging and mortality themselves, among many others?
There’s no reason to go into detail regarding the plot, beyond the fact that there is one (for which I, for one, am generally grateful), and that it involves a rich American heiress who lives in France, her visiting American friend (the narrator), and the unexpected arrival of the Cullens, a long-married Irish couple. The wife steps out of their car with a trained hawk on her arm.
“‘I brought my hawk,’ Mrs. Cullen unnecessarily announced.”
The deadpan humor of that line is typical of Wescott’s style. He is marvelously able to write with ease, and a certain lightness of heart, about matters of life and death.
As is the case with all major novels, the famous and the obscure, the writing itself matters as much as do the depiction of people and places and events. Wescott’s human characters will, of course, produce considerable episodes and developments. A small avalanche of them.
That’s enough from me. The Pilgrim Hawk is a small miracle of a book. It’s profound, it’s beautifully written, and it keeps surprising the reader, right up to its last line.
Just read it. Okay?
Excerpted from the novel by Glenway Wescott
Recommended by Michael Cunningham
NOW CULLEN HAD RISEN and was standing at his wife’s elbow, shaking his finger at the falcon teasingly. I thought that the bird’s great eyes showed only a slight natural bewilderment; whereas a slow sneer came over his face and he turned pale. It was the first revelation I had of the interesting fact that he hated Lucy.
He would willingly have sacrificed a finger tip in order to have an excuse to retaliate, I thought; and I imagined him picking up a chair or a coffee table and going at her with smashing blows. What a difference there is between animals and humans! Lucy no doubt would be disgustingly fierce when her time came; but meanwhile sat pleasantly and idly, in abeyance. Whereas humanity is histrionic, and must prepare and practice every stroke of passion; so half our life is vague and stormy make-believe.
Mrs. Cullen merely looked up at her husband and said in a velvety tone, “The trouble with Ireland, from my point of view, is that they don’t like our having a falcon. Naturally Lord Bild disapproves; but I don’t mind him. He’s so unsure of himself; he’s a Jew furthermore; you can scarcely expect him to live and let live. But our other neighbors and the family are almost as tiresome.”
Cullen thrust the teasing hand in his pocket and returned to his armchair. Her eyes sparkled fast, perhaps with that form of contrition which pretends to be joking. Or perhaps it pleased her to break off the subject of their Irish circumstances and worldly situation and to resume the dear theme of hawk, which meant all the world to her.
The summer before, she told us, an old Hungarian had sold her a trained tiercel. “I took him with me last winter when we stayed with some pleasant Americans in Scotland. There’s a bad ailment called croaks, and he caught that and died. They had installed their American heating, which I think makes an old house damp; don’t you? Then their gamekeeper trapped Lucy and gave her to me. Wasn’t that lucky? I’ve always wanted a real falcon, a haggard, to man and train myself.”
In strict terminology of the sport, she explained, only a female is called a falcon; and a haggard is one that has already hunted on her own account, that is, at least a year old when caught.
Except for that one deformed bit of one foot, Lucy was a perfect example of her species, Falco peregrinus, pilgrim hawk. Her body was as long as her mistress’s arm; the wing feathers in repose a little too long, slung across her back like a folded tent. Her back was an indefinable hue of iron; only a slight patine of the ruddiness of youth still shone on it. Her luxurious breast was white, with little tabs or tassels of chestnut. Out of tasseled pantaloons her legs came down straight to the perch with no apparent flesh on them, enameled a greenish yellow.
But her chief beauty was that of expression. It was like a little flame; it caught and compelled your attention like that, although it did not flicker and there was nothing bright about it nor any warmth in it. It is a look that men sometimes have; men of great energy, whose appetite or vocation has kept them absorbed every instant all their lives. They may be good men but they are often mistaken for evil men, and vice versa. In Lucy’s case it appeared chiefly in her eyes, not black but funereally brown, and extravagantly large, set deep in her flattened head.
c. Sept. 16, 1962, letter from JFP from to a friend
Publication Day was marked by two events, a phone call at 4 A.M. from Johnny Berryman, poet, critic, University of Minnesota professor teaching this year at Brown, in his cups, and reading the book, and saying he’d phoned (from Providence) to tell me that a night letter was coming, which did, in fact, arrive. The day itself was like other days, with the author napping on the floor in the middle of the afternoon, and then in the evening there was a surprise party preceded by any number of telltale clues, Betty not going to bed at her usual time, having her hair combed, and wearing shoes, plus the porch light being on, and somebody had even flushed the toilet. A gay evening, Guinness mixed with beer. Today no mail at all, and so it goes. I am much cheered by your predictions of success, and would still not bet against the book, but let’s face it, it’s being slammed into the rails on the turns.
—taken from Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J. F. Powers, forthcoming from FSG, August, 2013 and edited by his daughter Katherine A. Powers. September 14th was the 50th anniversary of the publication of J. F. Powers’ Morte D’Urban, his first novel and winner of the 1963 National Book Award for Fiction. D. G. Myers takes a look at the book and Powers’ relationship with Catholicism in an article at Commentary, and hopes that “readers continuing to stumble across copies of it in another 50 years.”
The whore was in despair, kneeling before the candlelit altar.
’Save your skin! If you don’t go, Major del Valle will come and arrest you!’
Nachito was terrified. ‘Foul, foul hag!’
He curled up in a ball, his feet under the tail of his shirt. The colonel picked him up by his hair. Veguillas flailed wildly, his shirt yanked north of his navel. The colonel bellowed, ‘Is del Valle under orders to arrest me? Out with it.’
Veguillas’s tongue was hanging out. ‘I have committed suicide!’
Gay: … The most bizarre thing is how Wolf reduces female sexuality to the vagina. It’s so…. like, I don’t know, but Freud would approve.
Dean: Nah, Freud eventually abandoned the seduction thesis and as such ended up disconnecting from the body, no? Isn’t that what In the Freud Archives is all about?
Gay: I don’t know. I’m not well read on Freud. It just sounded fancy.
Dean: I am not either, just on JANET GODDAMN MALCOLM.
Browne was a kind of writer dear to many readers’ – and writers’ – hearts: sceptical, whimsical, keen to stray from the point, capable of baffling and exasperating but then coming up with a great phrase, or a neologism which sticks. Here is a list of some of his coinages, one or two of which I bet you have used from time to time: literary, medical, ambidextrous, hallucination, indigenous, electricity, anomalous, ascetic, carnivorous and fritinancy. (The last means the noise insects make. OK, not all of them stuck – but that one is still in the OED.)
—from Nicholas Lezard’s review of Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall, in The Guardian. He also writes that, “reading Browne is like going for a walk in a country mist and every so often coming up against something looming out of it with astonishing clarity.” We love lyrical book reviews.
Depending on what kind of kid you were, you may know Finnish author Tove Jansson as the author of the delightful Moomin books — but in our opinion, her success with children’s books has overshadowed her beautiful, glistening prose for adults, particularly The Summer Book, a collection of twenty-two vignettes on the nature of summer, each one its own perfect bauble to be cherished and shined once a year.
—Emily Temple, for an article titled "10 Underrated Books Everyone Should Read" in Flavorwire. The Summer Book has been a not-so-secret favorite for many NYRB Classics super-fans and staff. And if this doesn’t pull you in, Buzzfeed points out that Tove Jansson is one of "30 Renowned Authors Inspired By Cats."