Saturday, December 30, 2006


The M Press has released a fine new collection of eight stories by Elizabeth Hand, the author of Winterlong, Mortal Love, and the forthcoming Generation Loss, as well as a number of other books. Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories contains four more or less independent tales (one of which, “Cleopatra Brimstone,” provides the entomological occasion for the splendid critter on the cover) and four that are gathered under the heading of “The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations.” According to Hand's afterword, these latter four are inspired by an epistolary friendship with a man she has met in person only a few times, as well as by the conception (borrowed from Alain-Fournier) of a domain perdu, a lost world.

The first and briefest of the quartet, “Kronia,” (the title may be a reference to a Greek harvest festival of the same name), serves as a kind of overture, giving an indication of the general plan through which Hand will work her fictional variations. Addressing an unnamed man and outlining the course of their relationship, the narrator at one point refers to her own children, then states several paragraphs on that she is childless; she says that she has never left the US, then immediately contradicts herself. Narrative possibilities alternate, overlap, exclude each other, but the two poles — the woman and her distant correspondent — retain the same orientation, circling each other in opposition. The three more conventionally developed stories that follow, “Calypso in Berlin,” “Echo,” and “The Saffron Gatherers,” explore at greater length other possible trajectories for the same couple under different guises.

Though each of the three has a contemporary setting, they are constructed on a substrate laid down in the ancient Greek world. This is most evident in “Calypso in Berlin” where the nymph who once held Odysseus captive for seven years has continued her career into the present day, but it is there in the other two as well. “The Saffron Gatherers,” for instance, is set in California, but there is much talk among the characters of ancient Thera, where a volcanic explosion in the second millenium BC entombed a thriving city in ash. The female figure here, Suzanne, is a novelist with a background in archaeology; she has been to the ruins of the city once, and is about to make a return visit. Her lover — he is called Randall — makes her a present of a rare illustrated volume, The Thera Frescoes by one Nicholas Spirotiadis.

The narrator and central figure of of “Echo” could easily be Calypso's sister, and though the title of the story itself may be ambiguous her monologue explicitly alludes to the myth of Echo and Narkissos/Narcissus, as well as to the story of Jason and Medea. Living on an island in Maine with a wolfhound for her only companion, she addresses a man who had apparently been at one time her lover, then a distant and increasingly sporadic correspondent. It is a few years from now, and away from the island things are not well; there is talk of global warming, terrorism, perhaps worse. Communication between the island and the outside is dwindling; the woman has stocked her cabin with provisions and will fend for herself. It is apparent that she will never see the man again.

“Echo” is, I think, a little more, and a little darker, than it first appears to be. I won't risk spoiling the reader's pleasure of a first encounter with the story, except to ask whether, in two brief, seemingly innocent sentences on page 215, and in three unexplained words on page 218, there is not a suggestion of something sinister, and also very Greek, that might not have been immediately evident?

Friday, December 01, 2006

The stag

It wasn't that late, just a little after five, but on that evening in the last days of November it was already dark. There was too much traffic on the two-lane highway to use my brights, and as the oncoming cars approached the glare of their headlights made it even harder to see the road ahead. I drove on faith and memory.

I took a glance at the intersection ahead to the left, looking for any hint that the car waiting at the stop sign was about to pull out. Then my eye caught something directly in front of me twenty yards on, something indistinct that blocked the headlights coming the other way. I slowed down and saw the yearling stag step across my lane, moving without hurry, looking straight ahead. By the time I crossed its trail it had passed across the double yellow line. It continued on, taking no evident notice of my presence, and disappeared into the darkness and scrub before the car in the other lane drew near.

Only the day before I had seen a deer dead on the road, a mile or so on, another young stag. It had blundered into our world and, unlike this one, hadn't survived the encounter, the crossing of vectors of the known and the unknown.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

In the valley

They may have come from the north, those first ones, passing along the shore of the great deep lake and into the marshes between the mountains, searching in small boats for beaver and elk or for other game now gone forever from earth. Or perhaps they came from the south, through the low hills, in small numbers, camping but not settling, not at first. Maybe they even came straight across the mountains to the west; in midsummer, pursuing the trail of deer, they climbed to the tree-covered peaks and saw the long plain that lay beyond, and in the distance the parallel ridge of mountains on the opposite side. They descended from the heights to hunt and fish and stayed on until the nuts were ripe and then they went away before the cold set in again.

Later there were others, who burned the lowland scrub and planted crops along the creek beds, in places where the ground wasn't so stony and the scars of the glacier were covered deep in good soil. As their prey thinned out the hunters went further into the mountains, away for weeks sometimes. In the valley the villages became towns. Creeks were guided and divided, and along them fields stretched for miles, clinging to the land's gentle swell and fall.

For centuries there were travelers from beyond the mountains, carrying flint and shell in exchange for pelts and dried flesh. But when the new traders came, in their strange clothes, this time the sickness arrived with them. The towns were soon abandoned. The survivors retreated into the hills, hunting or taking what they needed to live, until their numbers thinned out and they were forgotten.

The settlers brought new tools, new seeds, beasts from another world, and slaves. They ploughed the lowlands and cleared the foothills for their stock to graze, built mills on the creeks to grind their grain. In the cold winters smoke rose from their houses above the white fields. Some starved, more died of fever, but in time their numbers increased. New towns appeared, clusters of strong stone buildings encircled by others of wood, ringed with fields and fences and orchards and connected by muddy roads.

Once or twice armies crossed the valley and skirmished, then marched away. The towns spread out. On the slopes that rose behind the mansions of the manufacturers, of the merchants and the bankers, the slums filled with immigrants drawn to labor in clattering factories. A few were drawn off to distant wars or answered the call of distant enterprise. Then the great mills died, leaving their stone carcasses behind.

The little city of silversmiths and academies grew slowly, in the new century's first decades; then the tourists brought money in. Still, outside of town the farms remained, utilitarian and trim. Later, the reckoning came beyond the mountains, and the bad years began. The valley declined in its turn, but only so far; its people were poorer but survived.

When the scholars began to build the first new town, according to plan in an empty field, they were ridiculed. Later, the idea was imitated, around the valley and beyond. Ingenuity replaced some of what had once been brought in from afar; the rest they did without. Every year, when the corn was brought in, they organized a feast; then they huddled together and steeled themselves against the long winter to come.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

In our time

A bonfire on a bare hill, whipped high by the wind. High clouds and a moon with no mercy. In the shadows apart from the blaze, scattered voices, a tongue now known to no one, rapid steps, then nothing but chill. The scuttle of dry leaves blown over hard earth.

In the cities the rain is falling harder now, as the cars wait for the lights to change to green, the rubber blades working furiously against the flood. Beyond the iron railing the sycamores stand like giant bones. A woman shuts the taxi's door, a white umbrella in her hand, and hurries off.

The traveller sees the belfry in the distance below and heads in that direction. Around his neck is a double horn, one bell facing either way. The shepherds far across the slope stand and watch as he descends, but do not wave. His heavy boots leave a trail of crushed acorns, pale and sour-smelling among their broken shells.

The woman looks out the window from the room over the bar. Her worn white robe wrapped around her, she listens to the buzz of the neon sign across the street. Its garish green has summoned an insect from the reeds along the shore. It swoops and rises in rapid figure eights, bumping its wings against the glass.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Planxty Page


The Humours of Planxty, Leagues O'Toole's collective biography of the Irish trad quartet has finally been released, a year after it was originally promised. Not that you can buy a copy of the book in the US, mind you. For reasons that escape me the US seems to be behind a wall for the group these days; the excellent live CD and DVD of their reunion two years ago have never officially distributed here at all, which really is mystifying given the reverence in which Planxty is held throughout Europe and elsewhere. All this while every kind of insipid pseudo-Celtic treacle is in every gift shop and New Age store — but don't get me started ...

In any case, I ordered my copy from Eason's in Ireland and it arrived with exemplary swiftness. I did so with a bit of trepidation, given that the last book to be published in which Planxty played a major part, Colin Harper's Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: A Secret History, was pretty much of a shapeless mess. I needn't have worried; The Humours of Planxty is a solid job. O'Toole lets the band members and their associates do most of the talking, but he weaves their recollections nicely together into a coherent narrative and makes judicious and largely on-the-mark observations throughout.

The book is admirably thorough, particularly for the early years; it takes more than 125 pages to reach the release of the the “black album,” the group's 1972 debut LP. It's an “official” biography, to be sure. Leagues O'Toole is not just the narrator but a minor character as well, since he was in part responsible for getting the band back together in 2004. He's not afraid, though, to let on when he thinks the lads were having a bit of an off day — usually as a result of too much bending the elbow. My only major quibble (other than the lack of color illustrations) is that the book has relatively little to say about the personal lives and later careers of the four founding members.

There are rumors that the book was delayed because of a legal squabble. Founding member Christy Moore seems to be alluding to this on his website when he says:
Leagues went to great lengths to get it right. Sadly, one key component is missing. One vital cog in the Planxty wheel denied Leagues the use of some brilliant insights and stories. For whatever reason the wonderful interview was quashed. (We still love you).
Not sure what that's all about, but I hope it's nothing that will keep the band from working together again in the future, if the spirit moves them.


Reading O'Toole's book seemed to provide an opportune moment to catch up with one of the later Planxty records I'd never heard in full, so I've lately been enjoying making the acquaintance of After the Break, the record the group released in 1979 during their first reunion. The first cut, “The Good Ship Kangaroo,” I already knew from Planxty Live 2004. Though the studio recording isn't as confident and rousing as the later live version — Christy Moore's signing isn't quite as inspired — it's still a treasure.

According to the liner notes, the song was collected “from the singing of the late Mrs. Elizabeth Cronin of Macroom, Co. Cork.” Whether that implies that she had anything to do with its composition I don't know. One thing's for sure, though, the song is way too clever to be casually filed away as yet another chance relic of “oral tradition.” Somebody wrote these lyrics, from beginning to end, and had a good larf doing it:

Our ship was homeward bound from many a foreign shore,
Manys the foreign present unto my love I bore.
I brought tortoises from Tenerife and ties from Timbuctoo,
A China rat, a Bengal cat, and a Bombay cockatoo.

Paid off I sought her dwelling in a street above the town,
Where an ancient dame upon a line was hanging out her gown.
“Where is my love?” “She's married, sir, about six months ago,
To a smart young man that drives the van for Chapplin, Son and Co.”

Oh, I never thought she would prove false,
Or either prove untrue,
As we sailed away from Milford Bay,
On board the Kangaroo.

Here's a health to dreams of married life, to soap, to suds, and blue,
Hearts, true lovers, patent starch and washing soda too.
I will go unto some for shore, no longer can I stay,
With some China Hottentot I'll throw myself away.


Oh, I never thought she would prove false,
Or either prove untrue,
As we sailed away from Milford Bay,
On board the Kangaroo.
There's some disagreement about exactly what “China Hottentot” means. The liner notes say that Hottentot (a name once applied to the Khoikhoi people of South Africa) was a slang term for opium. Leagues O'Toole doesn't buy this explanation and rather pointlessly adds that “the word 'hottentot' is nowadays considered offensive by the Oxford Dictionary of South African English.”

The song's verses and chorus are melodically identical, but Lunny's arrangement disguises that fact so cleverly that, according to Leagues, Christy Moore himself was never aware of it until recently.

Off the top of my head I'd guess the song dates from 1900-1940. Here's a health to its forgotten creator.


Another highlight of After the Break is a song called “The Rambling Siúler.” Sung by Andy Irvine, the song has a good deal in common with “The Jolly Beggar” from the black album. Both are about a man of high station who dresses up as a beggar and gains a night's shelter in a farmhouse, where like every good traveller he naturally takes advantage of the hospitality to win the charms of the farmer's daughter. In this case the beggar is really a colonel, who has donned rags as part of a bet with his commanding officer. The beggar first makes a show of flirting with a servant girl, but everyone just laughs that off. Then the daughter comes downstairs and ends up alone in the room with the beggar. She repulses his first advance, but later that night shows that she's not a bit shy:
When supper it was over
They made his bed in the barn
Between two sacks and a winnow cloth
for fear that he take harm
At twelve o'clock that very night
She came to the barn,
She was dressed in white
The beggar rose in great delight,
"She's mine," says the rambling siúler.
In the Anglo-Irish tradition this kind of thing generally ends with the girl ruined and the “beggar” riding away in triumph, but in this happier instance, after the colonel reveals all (in more ways than one), he and the girl both head for the general's house to collect on the wager and ride off together.

But what is a siúler? Though the word (which is pronounced shooler) wasn't in any of my dictionaries, an appeal to the forums at quickly brought some answers. It apparently derives from the Irish verbs siúil or siubhail with the meaning to go or to travel, the agentive form siúlóir meaning a rambler.

The interplay of Andy Irvine's mandolin and Dónal Lunny's bouzouki is particularly fine on this recording. Lunny's bouzouki (if that's in fact what it is) has a beautifully rich tone; after you've heard the song a few times try ignoring the words and listen for it.


Not a Planxty song, strictly speaking, but one of Andy Irvine's best, “Forgotten Hero” relates the story of Michael Davitt, the 19th-century Irish nationalist and founder of the Irish Land League. It's a highly polemical song, and one that provides an enormous amount of information about Davitt's life and political activities — more than you would think could be accomodated into a six-minute song. Here are the last few verses and the chorus:

With Parnell as its leader the land war held his course
Hold the rent and hold the harvest they can't evict us all
And Davitt crossed the ocean saying give what you can spare
And the Irish in Amerikay they paid up their full share

But not for the first time and neither for the last
The Dublin Castle bishops nailed their colours to the mast
And the altars rang with warnings, respect the law we say
For these Fenians and these Socialists are leading you astray

With the laws of private property and the army at his back
Buckshot Forster then arrested all the leaders of the pack
In the hallowed House of Commons the Gents did cheer and howl
When they heard that Michael Davitt was safely back in jail

And the treaty of Kilmainham Parnell threw it all away
It was the turning point in his career and he turned the wrong way
And the revolution missed its chance with victory in its sight
And fell down like a house of cards collapsing overnight

Davitt saw the Land War as the first step down the track
And he hoped to see the end of the Queen and the end of Union Jack
And I hope some tremor reached him where he lies in bleak Mayo
When they raised the Harp without the Crown above the GPO

O Forgotten Hero in peace may you rest
Your heart was always with the poor and the oppressed
A prison cell could never quell the courage you possessed
Forgotten hero never vanquished in the struggle
The song piqued my interest in Davitt, so I got a hold of a copy of T. W. Moody's Davitt and Irish Revolution, 1846-82, considered the definitive biography of the man. Andy departs from Moody in his assessment of Parnell, and never mentions the pivotal fact that Davitt as a youth lost an arm in an industrial accident. But he otherwise follows Moody's narrative in its general outline, and here and there even in language. (“His heart was always with [the cause of] the poor and the oppressed” was apparently picked up from Moody (p. 556), and “the turning point of his career” is a phrase Moody uses (p. xvii), though he applies it to Davitt rather than Parnell.)

“Forgotten Hero” can be found both on Andy's excellent solo CD Rain on the Roof and on Irish Times, the 1990 record by one of his other musical projects, Patrick Street. I recommend the former as the better version.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

How to Change a Flat Tire

See update (December 2020).

This was the unlikely name of a Celtic music ensemble that came together in 1975 at the California Institute of Arts, relocated to the East Coast, and was active at least through the summer of 1980. They released two very listenable LPs, both on Front Hall Records. On the first, Point of Departure, which was released in 1977, the band members were Jim Cowdery (recorders, mandolin, banjo, and guitar), Bo Hinrichs (flutes, fife, and whistles), Ginny Phelps (vocals, guitar, mandolin, etc.), Jim Martin (mandolin, guitar, banjo), and Dean Kuth (bodhran, spoons, bones, concertina, mandolin). If you're keeping score, that's four mandolin players, though I suspect some of those instruments were actually bouzoukis or something along that line.

By the time of their second record, Traditional Music of Ireland and Shetland, which was issued in 1978, Hinrichs and Phelps had moved on and fiddler Maggie Holtzberg had joined the band. Except for some tin whistle (credited to Cowdery) there are no winds on this second album, nor did anyone take over on vocals in the absence of Ginny Phelps. The credits for Martin and Cowdery now include “tenor mandolin.” The photo above shows the revised lineup.

I've been told that the group later issued a third recording that was only available on cassette, but I've never seen a copy. They appear live on at least one compilation, a locally produced LP called Fiddling Celebration: Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, Cross River, N.Y. This was issued by Soarin' Hawk Records in 1980 or shortly thereafter as SH-002. I saw the group live once or twice, at the (now long defunct) annual fiddle festival where that LP was recorded, though I didn't happen to be there that particular year.

As far as I can tell none of the group's music was ever issued on CD, and I suppose it's not very likely that it ever will. I think the group must have disbanded in the early eighties. Jim Cowdery, who seems to have been the arranger and band leader, became a musicologist and has compiled an instruction book on playing the Irish bouzouki. Maggie Holtzberg became a folklorist and the author of several books but has also remained active as a performer, with a group called the Flexible Flyers String Band. I haven't been able to find any record of the subsequent activities of the other band members.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


It's not always bird song. Sometimes it's traffic on the street below, the first gray light reflecting off stone façades. The fevers of the night extinguished, the sleeper wakes but doesn't stir, eyes watching thin curtains flick in the breeze. The air is close and heavy and sparse dust passes through the haze. The other drifts on for a while, limbs uncovered, a silent, dreamless sleep.

There is always one who leaves and one who is left alone. One who rises at last, bestowing a kiss on lips still drowsy and numb, dressing without hurry, crossing the floorboards to the window and looking down at the rows of trees, the passers by in their coats and dark hats. One whose head lies deep and centered on the pillow, awake now but too exhausted still to unfurl the fingers of a lifeless hand.

No one speaks. A door is shut behind, footfalls descend the stairs, and they are parted. A cool wind chills the lingerer's uncovered shoulders, or perhaps the heat of the day begins to fill the room, the curtains slacken and fall to rest. Their destinies resume their separate courses; the pale eyes of the one who lies in bed close again, the cafés open, the women walk their dogs.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


When we doused our lamps and went to sleep the great ship was still moored at the dock. From the windows of our houses along the harborside, curtains pushed aside, we could make out its vastness against the backdrop of stars. The sailors came ashore to do what sailors do.

There was rain in the night and a bit of wind. But we slept soundly, accustomed to worse. Down a back street somewhere a loose shutter banged, untended, for a while, but its rhythms never entered our dreams, which were long, silent, and grey until at once dawn broke and we stretched our limbs and stepped outside.

A crowd had gathered at the water's edge. The ship had slipped away — nobody ever found out how. There was no sign of broken chains at the moorings. It had simply gone. With no pilot or captain to steer it back to land, we imagined the passengers far at sea, hushed along the rail, watching the water as the ship drifted on to parts unknown.

And now nobody sleeps well anymore.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Drive time

My morning commute, of late, is a fifteen-minute drive, mostly on back roads through suburban woods. About halfway out a stream comes out of the woods and runs parallel to the road for a while. I take a left, cross a stone bridge above the stream, and continue into a stand of pines. Then the reservoir emerges, circled by trees with not a building in sight, a few swans in the shallows. A mile or so along its shore there's an intersection, a traffic light and a busier road, then five minutes more and I'm at work.

It's not news that bodies of water have a restorative effect on the spirits. I'm not much affected by the sea; I enjoy it and honor it but can't shake the feeling that the sea is not particularly interested in our activities, that no matter how much we try to muck it up its scale remains of another order entirely than ours. But I grew up near fresh water and so lakes and streams always seem right, especially when they're surrounded by an illusion of wildness. And it is an illusion, for the most part, because my ride isn't through wild country at all, it just happens to skirt watershed property that's been kept free of encroaching development, all in order to better slake the thirst of a far-off city that is one of the least wild places in the world.

An island, then, or better an archipelago of the wild, a reminder that all our involvements, compelling as they are, are not the only way to be in the world, that there was once and may be again and in a sense if we are fortunate always is a terrain beyond from which we came and to which we can always return, at least in the mind.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Under sentence

There is a story by Jorge Luis Borges called “El milagro secreto” (“The Secret Miracle”). It concerns a Czech writer, Jaromir Hladík, who is arrested by the Gestapo in the early days of the German occupation of Prague. Accused of a variety of “crimes” — that he has Jewish blood, that he has translated the Sepher Yezirah — he is condemned to be executed by a firing squad, the sentence to be carried out at 9 o'clock in the morning on the 29th of March, 1939.

Hladík's first reaction, when he is returned to his cell to spend the few days left to him, is simple terror, as he repeatedly imagines the horrific details of his execution. Then he begins to bargain:
He reflected that reality never coincides with what one expects to occur; with perverse logic he thus inferred that to foresee a circumstantial detail is to prevent it from taking place. Faithful to this feeble magic, he invented, so that they would not take place, atrocious eventualities; naturally, he ended by fearing that those eventualities were prophetic. Miserably, in the night, he managed in some way to convince himself of the fugitive nature of time. He knew that time was rushing onwards towards the dawn of the 29th; he reasoned aloud: This is the night of the 22nd; as long as this night lasts (and six nights more) I am invulnerable, immortal.
As the days pass, Hladík reconsiders his unfinished masterpiece, a verse drama called The Enemies, the completed portions of which he has committed to memory. Deciding that he would need a year's time to revise and finish the work, he prays to God to be allowed the time required. Later that night he has a dream in which he is told that God resides in one letter of one book in the library of the Clementium in Prague; he finds the book, touches the letter, and hears a voice declare that his prayer has been granted.

On the morning set for his execution Hladík is led outside where his executioners await. There is a delay of a few moments; then, as Hladík feels a drop of rain rolls down his temple, the sergeant gives the order to fire.

The next paragraph has only one sentence: “The physical universe comes to a halt.”

Everything, including Hladík, even the shadow of a bee that had been flying nearby, is instantly frozen, paralyzed. In quick succession various thoughts race through Hladík's mind: he is dead and in hell; he is crazy; time has ground to a stop. But then he notices that his thoughts are continuing, and he realizes that what he asked for has been granted.

For a year he stands motionless, mentally completing The Enemies. The moment he finishes the work he feels the raindrop resume its path towards his cheek. The rifles aimed at him discharge, and the story is over. The miracle is accomplished, though the only person who will ever know it is dead.

Hladík, in one sense, is a stand-in for his creator. Like Borges, he has published early poems that he later came to regret; like Borges, he has written an attempted refutation of time (or a vindication of eternity — which comes to the same thing). Hladík's anxiety under the weight of his uncompleted masterpiece could be any writer's mingled anticipation and apprehension in the face of the tasks yet to be undertaken, some of which may never be accomplished.

But to me, the story is something else as well; it is a parable about the essential liberty of the mind. Hladík is seized against his will and can not control his own fate; the Gestapo can at whim revoke his freedom and deprive him of life. Yet Hladík retains the one thing that can never be commanded.

You can interpret that narrowly, if you like. The tyrant who exacts outward obedience may believe that he also commands the allegiance of his subjects, but he will never know. The true despot of genius is the one who is not satisfied with mere acquiescence but seeks to shape the mind as well, for he knows that independence of thought is the seed of potential resistance. But in the end it all crumbles the moment he relaxes his grip.

Though Borges was not generally inclined to comment on political events, I don't think he chose his setting at random. When he wrote the story, in 1943, he would have been well aware that, for millions of people, Hladík's fate — or something comparable — was in quite concrete ways their own. And he would have also known that for them there were few miracles, secret or otherwise.

But just as K., the hero of Franz Kafka's novel The Trial is at once a victim of a bureacracy gone mad and a representative man condemned by the universal sentence under which we are all are forced, unjustly, to live, so “El milagro secreto” is a story written in the shadow of an evil time but it is something else besides. It is a defense of meaning, of mind, of art, in the face of mortality and oblivion.

I am not religious and thus can not say with any assurance that the word “soul” is anything more than a metaphor used to name a flickering state of consciousness that can be snuffed out at any moment. I am aware that free will may well be nothing but an illusion, that the mind is bound to the body and constrained by infinite chains of cause and circumstance, that it can be swayed and degraded in any number of ways. And yet the mind is at liberty enough to recognize that its own nature is contingent and ephemeral and nevertheless imagine it otherwise. Perhaps that imagining is its own and only vindication.

(Translations, which are a bit free, are my own.)

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Walser's Silence

In brief, the story of Robert Walser is more or less as follows.

He was born in Switzerland in 1878, apprenticed in a bank in his teens, tried his hand as an actor, and worked briefly as a butler (an experience he later transformed into a novel, Jakob von Gunten). He began to make his living as a writer, creating short, slight pieces for newspapers as well as more substantial fare, but when the money from writing began to dry up he wandered from place to place and from one menial job to another.

His mental health became progressively more uncertain. Exactly what ailed him is disputed; it sounds like severe and chronic depression, though he was eventually diagnosed as a schizophrenic. His handwriting, once precise and calligraphic, evolved into a stylized, impossibly minute, all but illegible pencil script. After his death the script in the manuscripts from that time would, at first, be mistaken by his executors for some kind of cipher.

In 1929, he entered an asylum, at first voluntarily. In 1933, at the prompting of his family, he was committed to another institution in Herisau, and from that time on he no longer wrote.

Robert Walser remained at Herisau all through Europe's own years of madness. In December 1956 he went missing from the asylum. His body was found in a field of snow nearby on Christmas Day, 1956.

A number of years ago, in an issue of The Georgia Review, I came across Guy Davenport's miraculous short story, “A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg,” which is about Walser. At the time Walser's name was new to me and little of his work was available in English. Davenport's piece intrigued me enough that I eventually tracked down a copy of Jakob von Gunten. The book didn't make much of an impression on me, though, and after that I didn't go out of my way to read any more Robert Walser for some time.

Now and then I would read something about Walser that made me think I ought to give his writing another try. J. M. Coetzee wrote an interesting piece about him in The New York Review of Books in 2000. New editions of his short fiction were published in English. The Brothers Quay, the stop-action animators who created The Street of Crocodiles, made an animated short inspired (if somewhat inscrutably) by Walser, and made a feature-length live-action film, Institute Benjamenta, out of Jakob von Gunten.

Not too long ago I re-read Davenport's story and found that I still enjoyed it. I borrowed a copy of the Farrar, Straus edition of Walser's Selected Stories from the library and tried a few of the stories. They seemed impenetrable; I stopped reading.

Nothing much happens in a Walser story; they're mostly composed of impressions and sentiments, the kind of thing that usually doesn't travel well from one language to another. I don't read German. But more than language separates Walser from the contemporary English-language reader; the whole world he lived in is gone and, to some degree, unreachable.

But all of that is actually not the point of this piece.

I don't want to talk about Walser's writing, but about his not writing. Why did Walser abandon his craft?

Walser's own explanation, such as it is, was recorded by a friend, Carl Seelig, who occasionally visited him at Herisau. When asked if he was writing, Walser replied, “I am not here to write, but to be mad.” It may be Walser's one immortal line, but exactly what he meant by it is a bit opaque. Perhaps he was just, as ever, being ironic. Perhaps he resented his institutionalization and stopped writing out of spite. But who exactly would he punish by his silence? His audience, which was presumably negligible? His family, who were probably embarrassed by him and happy to have him shut up (in both senses)?

In Bartleby & Co., the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas surveyed those “artists of refusal” who turned away from their craft and lapsed into silence, writers like Salinger, Juan Rulfo, and Herman Melville. For him, the Swiss writer is an emblematic figure, a supreme practitioner of what he calls “the art of the No”: “Walser's entire work, including his ambiguous silence of twenty-eight years, is a commentary on the vanity of all initiative, the vanity of life itself.”

Susan Sontag, in the Foreword to the Selected Stories, without directly taking up the matter of Walser's silence, seems to point in the same direction when she writes (incidentally though unintentionally suggesting one of the reasons Walser is so utterly frustrating to read) that “the moral core of Walser's art is the refusal of power; of domination.”

And then there is Guy Davenport, who, ending his fictional recreation of Walser's story, puts these reflections into the writer's last moments:
And their books, these people who keep writing, who reads them? It is now a business like any other. I try not to bore them with an old man's talk when they come, the few who want to ask me about writing, about the time before both the wars, about Berlin. I do not tell them how much of all that misery was caused by writers, by men who said they were writers. I do not tell them that I quit writing because I had nothing at all, anymore, to say.

There are tracks of the rabbit. I think they said at the table that today is Christmas. I do not know.

But let us desist, lest quite by accident we be so unlucky as to put these things in order.
For Davenport's Walser the equation of writing with power is explicit, and power, even just the ability to “put things in order,” is firmly and finally renounced, like Prospero drowning his book.

All of this tends to point to a connection between Walser's eventual silence and an aesthetic that was grounded in abnegation from the start. I'm not sure I buy it, or that his silence can be made to stand for anything other than the natural outcome of the progressive decline of a man who suffered through a lifetime of mental illness. It's true that I don't know how you draw the line to separate who Walser was from what his illness made him; to a degree at least, Walser was his affliction. So it may be a bit facile to think of him as, in the end, just a clinical case.

But if Walser really did stop writing because doing so represented the logical endpoint of his art, then he truly was a dead end. It would mean that he had followed the trail of “the No” to its ultimate emptiness, to the blank page and the field of snow.

At some point, before he began to slip into the abyss, Walser may have known that, may have understood that though there are worse sins than a passive life there is no hope for an artist who ceases to be willing to define the world as he sees it. And maybe he fell silent simply because he knew he no longer had the strength.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Late Bowles

When this slim volume was published in 1982, it was marketed on the jacket flap as a novel, which is the one thing it isn't, at least in any conventional sense of the word. Points in Time is, more accurately, a collection of tales, anecdotes, and vignettes set in Morocco and ranging, in chronological sequence, from the time of Hanno the Carthaginian to the late 20th century. The pieces vary in length from a paragraph or two to several pages, and the whole thing can be read comfortably in one sitting — which in fact is how it ought to be read. For there is a unity to the book, even though there are no shared characters or any direct connections between sections.

What does hold the book together is, to begin with, the author's interest in the country where he lived for many years, and his personal take on both the Moroccan landscape (which is always there, in the background, though rarely described in detail) and its succession of inhabitants (Berbers, Arabs, Jews, and Christians). The tales also have in common a decidedly fatalistic view of human existence: people scheme and plan, love and hate, but in the end nobody controls his own fate.

Even the land itself doesn't remain unchanged by time; the book begins with these two paragraphs, which get a page by themselves:
After a half day's voyage they came to a large lake or marsh. No such place now exists, the lagoons being all to the north of the cape. South of it the shore is either guarded by cliffs, steep slopes, or stony and sandy beaches.

Nor is there any sign of such a lake having existed, and the sudden winter rains which make every dry watercourse roar from bank to bank are not of a character fit to cause floods likely to be mistaken for a marsh or a lake.
Besides such quick illuminations, Points in Time contains a half dozen or so more or less fully developed episodes, all of them apparently retold from either historical or contemporary accounts. Like earlier Bowles stories like “A Distant Episode” and “The Delicate Prey,” these tales display an affinity for unpredictable outcomes and a merciless fascination with sudden, almost ritual violence.

The book is, in a way, a distillation of the author's entire output, or one side of it at least. In principle, at least, that's not necessarily a good thing; you could make a case, I think, that Bowles was at his most interesting when he wasn't being just one kind of writer. These stories, shorn of any kind of interior life or social observation, are not particularly representative of his full range, but they may represent his work at its most Bowlesian, that is, they show the aspect of his art that no other writer really shares.

And the distillate is very pure. The writing is beautifully controlled and efficient throughout; any sense of an authorial presence has been carefully shorn away. Having come, in his progress of tales, to the present day, he closes with the following brief final chapter:
The river runs fast at the mouth where the shore is made of the sky, and the wavelets curl inward fanwise from the sea. For the swimmer there is no warning posted against the sharks that enter and patrol the channel. Some time before sunset birds come to stalk or scurry along the sandbar, but before dark they are gone.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Once inside, past the vestibule and the women taking admission, the room is smaller than he expected, and before long it is filled with people. There are long tables laid out with food and drink, a few circular tables where families and old couples and single old ones have set down their glasses and plates and are chatting or just waiting, and on either side of the room there are rows of folding chairs, leaving a small space in the middle for the dancing to come. The rest of the crowd, women in their twenties and a smaller number of men, stand crowded together just inside the door.

The pipers march in and play a few tunes; people sing along to the ones they know. Then the pipers march away again and the master of ceremonies comes out and makes announcements and introduces the fetching young woman who plays the harp and reads a bit of verse. The old folk at the tables listen intently, except to turn their heads and try to hush the crowd standing behind them, who are more intent on talking and flirting than on music.

The harpist finishes, and a juggler comes on, a middle aged man who sings some songs in Gaelic while he juggles. Twice he drops a ring, but no one minds.

And then the haggis, the sacrificial sausage, is carried out, wrapped in plastic foil. A Burns poem is read in its honor, it is toasted and ceremonially cut and then served with the traditional sides. This out of the way, the band takes over, and the dancing begins, in disorder and good spirits.

He sips his sweet, aromatic beer straight from the dark bottle and watches the dancing, watches the crowd, noticing faces and the different ways that people dance or watch or stand together or move through the crowd. He is neutral and amused and at rest; he feels no impatience to leave. It doesn't matter but he will take it all in. He can not help it. It is his fate.

On the sidewalk outside, a group of men, cigarettes and kilts, and, suddenly, where the street slopes down to the river, the span of the great high bridge soaring overhead, vaulting outward into the darkness and mist.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Whisper of the Heart

I really didn't know what to expect with this one. Whisper of the Heart was the first (and I think only) feature film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo (or Kondou), who died at a relatively young age in 1998, three years after the film was completed. The screenplay, based on a manga by Hiiragi Aoi, is by Hayao Miyazaki, the director of Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and other animated masterworks. About all I knew when I ordered it was that it was a Studio Ghibli production and it had something to do with a cat.

Which it does, but really not that much. Though it's very much a Studio Ghibli movie, and though the US release is marketed as being “from the creators of Spirited Away,” Whisper is, outside of a few brief fantasy sequences, a much quieter, more naturalistic film than those statements might lead one to expect. It's also very appealing and beautifully made, a true gem.

The Ghibli films are sometimes contrasted with recent American animated features, generally much to the detriment of the latter. That's fair enough, but I think it may not go far enough. Whisper of the Heart has a humanity and integrity, an understanding of and respect for how ordinary people really live and act and feel, that Hollywood just can't seem to manage, even in live-action films. It may sound paradoxical that a “cartoon” could be less stylized, more down-to-earth, than a live-action feature, but in this case it really does seem to be true.

I won't attempt to summarize the story; if you're interested has a synopsis. It's basically a story of first love, centering on a girl named Shizuku and a boy named Seiji. There's also the cat, of course, in fact there are two, one an ordinary sort and the other a cat statue that has a very sad, romantic story attached to it. (The statue will come briefly to life, at least in the imagination, but the scenes in which that happens, although visually dazzling, are almost dispensable; this is, it should be stressed, not a fantasy film.) The settings and backgrounds are lovingly detailed, even by Ghibli standards, but not more so than the characters themselves. It's refreshing to see filmmakers who care enough about the people they have created to make sure to get them emotionally right. Do try to see it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


We can draw back.

You can come with your numberless armies, with your machines, but we will have moved on ahead of you. Even when you think we are surrounded we will not be there when you come.

We can live in your shadows. We can live under your houses. We can live in spaces you have built and then forgotten, in crevices you can not imagine.

We can always go farther away, farther down, farther inside. Because there is no space too small for us to inhabit.

We will take our scrolls and our memories and you will know nothing of them, not ever. You will never understand us.

You can cover every inch of the surface of the earth with your presence. We will find a space inside you and you will never feel us there.

In time we will fill every vein in your body. We will quicken and break apart your bones and you will crumble to dust.

Even then we will not try to dominate you. We will simply flow away, like water.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Confucius at the ford

Three versions of an incident from the Confucian Analects, Book 18, chapter 6.

First, the translation by James Legge (1815-1897); the italics are in the original and evidently represent passages added for clarity:
1. Ch'ang-tsü and Chieh-nî were at work in the field together, when Confucius passed by them, and sent Tsze-lû to inquire for the ford.

2. Ch'ang-tsü said, “Who is he that holds the reins in the carriage there?” Tsze-lû told him, “It is K'ung Ch'iû.” “Is it not K'ung Ch'iû of Lû?” asked he. “Yes,” was the reply, to which the other rejoined, “He knows the ford.”

3. Tsze-lû then inquired of Chieh-nî, who said to him, “Who are you, sir?” He answered, “I am Chung Yû.” “Are you not the disciple of K'ung Ch'iû of Lû?” asked the other. “I am,” replied he, and then Chieh-nî said to him, “Disorder, like a swelling flood, spreads over the whole empire, and who is he that will change its state for you? Rather than follow one who merely withdraws from this one and that one, had you not better follow those who have withdrawn from the world altogether?” With this he fell to covering up the seed, and proceeded with his work, without stopping.

4. Tsze-lû went and reported their remarks, when the Master observed with a sigh, “It is impossible to associate with birds and beasts, as if they were the same with us. If I associate not with these people, — with mankind, — with whom shall I associate? If right principles prevailed through the empire, there would be no use for me to change its state.”
Here is Arthur Waley's version:
Ch'ang-chü and Chieh-ni were working as ploughmates together. Master K'ung, happening to pass that way, told Tzu-lu to go and ask them where the river could be forded. Ch'ang-chü said, Who is it for whom you are driving? Tzu-lu said, for K'ung Ch'iu. He said, What, K'ung Ch'iu of Lu? Tzu-lu said, Yes, he. Ch'ang-chü said, In that case he already knows where the ford is. Tzu-lu then asked Chieh-ni. Chieh-ni said, Who are you? He said, I am Tzu-lu. Chieh-ni said, You are a follower of K'ung Ch'iu of Lu, are you not? He said, That is so. Chieh-ni said, Under Heaven there is none that is not swept along by the same flood. Such is the world and who can change it? As for you, instead of following one who flees from this man and that, you would do better to follow one who shuns this whole generation of men. And with that he went on covering the seed.

Tzu-lu went and told his master, who said ruefully, One cannot herd with birds and beasts. If I am not to be a man among other men, then what am I to be? If the Way prevailed under Heaven, I should not be trying to alter things.
And finally, a very free adaptation — probably based on Legge — by Paul Goodman (1911-1972):
"The Ford"

Analects, Bk. xviii, ch. 6

Of the boiling river ripped by fangs of rocks,
on the tranquil shore, in the pink sun, are plowing

bitter Chang, with pity swollen-hearted
and rational Chieh-ni, deep hermits.
And here comes in his dusty carriage
Confucius, humanely wandering
from prince to prince: “These are the rules of Order.”
Soon departing! when will his heart break?
“Tze-lu, go ask them where to ford this flood.”
The favorite bows low to the lonely sages.

Says Chang, “Is not yon noble with the reins
Confucius?” “Yes, Confucius my teacher.”
“He knows the ford! he knows the ford!
he wanders with advice from state to state!”
Says Chieh: “You see the flood! you see the fangs!”
—alas, Chieh-ni! the very shore is rotting—
“disorder like a flood has won its way

the Empire is raging. Who will change?
who will change? from state to state withdrawing
your teacher is traveling in disorder.
Once and for all withdraw. Is it not better?”
Without another word he falls to plowing.
“I asked them for the ford across the river:
they mention a philosophy of life.”
The Master said: “It's impossible to live

with birds and beasts as if they were like us.
If I do not associate with people,
with whom shall I associate?”
The two hermits make a joke: your master is the famous K'ung, who travels from state to state, thinking he can direct the course of the waters — he of all people knows the way across! But really, who can change the ways of the world? Instead of withdrawing from one tide here, another there, why not just withdraw from all men, like we have done? And Confucius answers, I can't live with birds and beasts as if they were people. Furthermore (Goodman omits this part), it's precisely because the true Way does not prevail in the world that I must continue to try to set things right.

I don't know whether Goodman wrote his poem during the years in which he was an outspoken opponent of American involvement in Vietnam; I suspect he may have. But in any case, even allowing for the enormous difficulties in interpreting the ancient Confucian texts, the essential issues posed in this brief encounter between two hermits and one sage seem to have changed very little between the first millennium BC and our day. Does it make sense to step into the flood of disorder (by which I think Confucius meant, wrong actions, bad rulers) knowing that one may be tainted or drowned, or is it better to stay pure, leave the waters to rage around those who stir them up, and simply withdraw into the hinterland? (There are many hinterlands, literal and otherwise.) Try to save others and — likely — fail, or save yourself?

We all of us, all who see the disorder, search for our own balance. Some dive in, others plough the fields; most of us teeter somewhere between. Nothing gets resolved.

Editions consulted: Legge: The Four Books. Shanghai: The Chinese Book Company, 1930. Waley: The Analects. New York: Everyman's Library, 2000. Goodman: Collected Poems. New York: Random House, 1974.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Great Languages

This series was published by Faber & Faber beginning in the 1930s, under the general editorship of L. R. Palmer. At least some of the volumes were still being reprinted in the late 1960s, but the series as an ongoing project seems to have been abandoned, with a number of the projected titles unissued, probably around 1960. Some volumes may still be in print from other publishers. The following titles definitely appeared:
• B. F. C. Atkinson, The Greek Language 1931
• T. Burrow, The Sanskrit Language 1955
• W. D. Elcock, The Romance Languages 1950
• W. J. Entwistle, The Spanish Language, together with Portuguese, Catalan and Basque 1936; second edition 1962
• W. J. Entwistle and W. A. Morison, Russian and the Slavonic Languages 1949
• A. Ewert, The French Language 1933
• R. A. D. Forrest, The Chinese Language 1948
• Einar Haugen, The Scandinavian Languages
• Bruno Migliorini, The Italian Language (“abridged and re-cast by T. G. Griffith”) 1966, 1984
• L. R. Palmer, The Latin Language 1946
• R. Priebsch and W. E. Collinson, The German Language 1934
The following were listed at various times as being in preparation, but as far as I can tell were never completed:
• R. A. Crossland, The Anatolian Languages
• G. Bonfante, Indo-European Languages
• G. R. Driver, The Hebrew Language
• Kenneth Jackson, The Celtic Languages
• Kenneth Jackson, The Gaelic Languages
• N. Davis, The English Language
• Helge Kökeritz, The English Language
• Alf Sommerfelt, The Scandinavian Languages
In two cases (English and Scandinavian), different prospective authors are given in successive versions of the list of forthcoming volumes. Neither N. Davis nor Helge Kökeritz apparently ever completed The English Language, but Einer Haugen's Scandinavian Languages did appear, replacing Sommerfelt's. The focus of Kenneth Jackson's volume was apparently shifted, since he is assigned distinct but related topics in different versions of the list, but in any case I can find no record that his contribution was issued. Unpublished titles were still being listed as forthcoming on reprints as late as 1968, presumably because Faber did not go to the trouble of changing the plates.

Of the volumes I've seen, Elcock's Romance volume is perhaps the most easy to recommend to a non-specialist like myself; the Spanish volume is also of interest to any devoted student of the language. All of the volumes have a certain amount of abstruse philological jargon in spots, but the historical sections and examples are accessible for anyone who's interests run to this kind of thing. Forrest's Chinese Language, however, is pretty forbidding for anyone without a linguistics background.