Sunday, July 20, 2008

New Directions in the 1940s

James Laughlin started his career as publisher in 1936 with the first New Directions in Prose & Poetry, but in addition to the flagship anthology he soon branched out into other projects, some small-scale, others remarkably ambitious for a small press (the family's steel fortune was put to excellent use). By 1941 the New Directions annual was well over 700 pages and encompassed writing by Bertolt Brecht, Delmore Schwartz, Julien Gracq, Franz Kafka, John Berryman, Ezra Pound, and many others.

The following year, well ahead of the celebrated Latin American literary “boom,” the house issued a similarly hefty bilingual Antología de la poesía americana contemporánea / Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry. Edited by the classicist Dudley Fitts, the anthology included poets like Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Pablo Neruda, and Cesar Vallejo, all of whom would remain largely unknown to the American literary audience for another generation.

But New Directions didn't just think big; it also thought small, and in fact Laughlin experimented with a variety of formats, from chapbooks to subscription publishing to limited editions. Some of these experiments didn't work out and were quickly abandoned; others became long-running series with lasting influence on both publishing and literature.

The Poets of the Year series, begun in 1941, was one early New Directions series. According to Laughlin, writing many years later,
I hit on the idea of a series of 32-page pamphlets of poetry, each one printed by a different fine printer, an artist of design. It seems incredible now but I was able to sell these for fifty cents, or $5.50 for a boxed set to subscribers.
Though Laughlin was enjoined by the Book-of-the-Month Club from calling the series “the poet of the month,” the chapbooks were in fact issued on a monthly basis for the first three years (1941-1943); in 1944, the final year, wartime paper rationing caused a reduction to six issues, including the one shown here.

Once again Laughlin was ahead of the curve: Alberti, a Spanish poet then living in exile in Argentina, would remain otherwise relatively little known in the English-speaking world until the appearance of Ben Belitt's rather poor translation in the 1960s and Mark Strand's much better one in 1973. This particular volume was printed for New Directions by the Press of Henry G. Johnson; the other volumes in the final year of the series were Selected Poems of Herman Melville, “designed by” Margaret Evans; Thomas Merton's Thirty Poems, printed by the Marchbanks Press; The Soldier by Conrad Aiken (the George Grady Press); A. M. Klein's The Hitleriad (the Samuel Marcus Press); and A Little Anthology of Mexican Poets (the Printing Office of the Yale University Press). The last of those was edited by Lloyd Mallan, who also translated the Alberti. The latter is a saddle-stitched paperback, with a removable dust jacket; the books were also published hardbound, for a dollar an issue.

Below is the fourth (and final) number of a short-lived New Directions periodical called Pharos, from 1947. The version of Confucius it contains is by Ezra Pound, a New Directions mainstay from almost the beginning of the house. Not having seen the other numbers I can't be sure, but its possible that in this instance the poet's name was left off the cover (but not off the title page) because its appearance on bookstore shelves so soon after World War II might have touched a raw nerve, given Pound's flirtation with Fascism.

The text ends on page 53 (page 49 is mistakenly paginated 39), and is followed by eleven pages of ads, including a full-pager from the Gothan Book Mart. (As in the early issues of New Directions in Prose & Poetry, the ads are arguably as interesting as the editorial matter.)

According to an editor's note inside, Pharos was being phased out in favor of Direction, an example of which, from 1949, appears below:

Unlike Pharos, which was wrapped in something resembling blotter paper, the volumes in the Direction series were jacketed hardcovers, retailing for $1.50 each. This particular one is in a “pocket-size” format, roughly 4 ½ x 6 ½. Although they were available on a subscription basis, they have now crossed the line from magazine to book. Other selections listed on the jacket include Albert Guerard's Joseph Conrad, Cyril Connoly's The Rock Pool, and Nabokov's Nine Stories. Although he isn't credited, I think the jacket design may be by Alvin Lustig, who did many covers for New Directions, in particular for its successful New Classics line.

Next is a bilingual anthology that wouldn't seem like the company's typical fare; in fact you could easily miss the fact that it was a New Directions book at all, since the only place that it's identified as such is at the bottom corner of the front flap of the dust jacket.

The jacket itself is unusual, having been made of some kind of transparent plastic, possibly acetate. The lettering you see is not on the boards but on the acetate (if that's what it is); the illustration, however, is on the book. According to the colophon, “three thousand copies of this book were printed in April MCMXLIX by the University Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” There are some nice illustrations inside, and the spine is ornamented with a decorative motif. It sold for $7.50, rather pricey at the time.

Finally, a more enduring literary monument (if an ambivalent one), sized to match. Here is an early (but not first) printing of Pound's collected Cantos, published in 1948.

The book, which sold for $5.00, is confusingly paginated, as each succeeding section starts the numbering afresh, and there's no table of contents. In later editions, at least since the 1970s, the dust jacket has been changed to a reddish-orange color, the typography has been redone, and the drawing of the poet (by Gaudier-Brzeska) no longer appears.

In my experience, innovative literary presses tend to follow a certain generational pattern. Companies like New Directions, Grove Press, Black Sparrow, the Ecco Press, or the original North Point Press — each of them closely identified with one or two innovative founders — find a niche in the marketplace with some fresh ideas, publishing authors and kinds of books that aren't being represented by the mainstream houses. A decade or two later the ideas are widely imitated or just don't seem that interesting anymore and the house, if it survives, gets absorbed by a major publisher or just settles into tame old age.

By most standards, New Directions under James Laughlin had a longer run than most. By the time I started reading New Directions books, in the early 1970s, the press had settled on the handsome and serviceable look of the New Directions Paperbook line.

It was a superb series in many ways, but the kind of experimentation with format the house conducted in its midcentury heyday was mostly in the past. Today, after Laughlin's death in 1997, New Directions continues to uphold a fine publishing tradition but it's no longer groundbreaking in the way it was in its first decades.

Update (January 2009): When I wrote the above I was not aware of Geoffrey Connell's translation of Alberti's Sobre los angeles (Concerning the Angels), which was published by Rapp and Carroll in 1967 and which also appeared, apparently in full, in — where else? — New Directions 19 in 1966.

Update (December 2013): New Directions is now revisiting some of its innovative marketing ideas, in the form of poetry and prose chapbook subscriptions. Hats off to them.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Beach read

I picked up this thin volume of stories, the cover of which is now rather yellowed and soiled, in the Strand Bookstore sometime in 1976 or 1977, after hearing the author read selections on WBAI radio. All I knew about Glenda Adams (until recently, when I read that she had died about a year ago) was what it said in the author bio on the back cover, that she was born in Sydney, Australia in 1939, was the Associate Director of something called Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and that she lived in New York City with her daughter. Adams went on to publish several other works of fiction, one of which, Dancing on Coral, won the Miles Franklin Award in 1987, but I've never happened across any of them.

Australia always seems to have more than its share of venomous creatures, and these stories fit in quite nicely. In most of them someone has something decidedly nasty done to them by someone else. Adams's view of family life and relations between men and women is unsparingly bleak, and after reading stories like “Wedding” and “The Circle” it's not surprising that her bio says that she lived “with her daughter” and not “with her husband and their daughter.”

In what may be the most pointedly feminist story in the book (and also one of the best) a woman is given instructions in how to behave “like a princess,” which is apparently what she is. After having been elaborately dressed by several attendants, she is brought before a man who is to serve as her tutor. He teaches her the precise rules of etiquette of the three languages (high, low, and middle) and three conversations (host, guest, and in transit) she will need to comport herself properly, and then is put to a series of tests.

In the first test, she must shake hands with thousands of people and converse with them, “using the host conversation in the high language.” Only at the end does she notice that her hands are badly swollen from so many handshakes. She feels no pain, and she has not cried out: she has passed the test.

For her next challenge she must undertake a long journey by train, in a carriage jammed with passengers. She travels incognito, because “it would make other people uncomfortable and ashamed” were she to travel as a princess. The only concessions to her true status are the rings on her right hand, which she keeps carefully concealed, and her earrings. Only after she arrives at her destination does she discover that during the overnight passage thieves had sliced off her earlobes to steal the earrings. She had felt nothing. Once again, she has passed the test.

Finally she takes another journey, this time by sea, and arrives at a small island with a hill in the middle. At the end of the story she sits on the hill, gazing at the ground.
I now found that my body was hollow. And inside myself I discovered a small amount of room, a private space in which to move.
But in the best story in the volume, “Sea,” the young narrator is not a passive victim but a destroying angel. From the very beginning it's clear that her arrival does not bode well, at least for the male members of her family.
I was born within the sound of the waves, in a house on a sandstone cliff. It was the hottest night of the century.

The night I was born my father went swimming. It was the last time he ever went into the water.
Well, not quite the last time, as we shall learn. But on that night her father, a strong and avid swimmer, goes for a swim in the ocean and soon finds himself heading farther and farther away from shore. Miles out, he is finally pulled from the water by a fishing boat, despite his protestation that he is not tired and intends to swim on to New Zealand, “and if possible Chile.” He is turned over to the police, put under observation, then released to the family a day later.
After that, my father would go only to the water's edge. He refused to wear, or even own, a bathing suit, nor would he wear shorts or go without a shirt on summer days. Sometimes he took off his shoes and socks and rolled his trousers above his ankles and walked along the beach or around the rocks, letting the sea lap at his feet.

I never saw any part of his body except his head, his hands and his feet.
After the narrator is born a son follows. The two children have little in common. The boy is bronzed, good-natured, and a good swimmer; the girl is pale, taciturn, and has no interest in the water. She also has a way of unnerving people, particularly her father:
My father often stood by the window and watched the sea. Some mornings he went to the phone box at the terminus down at the bay and called his office to say he was sick. Then he would stay by the window all day watching the sea, frowning.

I, too, watched the sea, and I was able to stay very still beside the window for long periods of time.

My father never liked me to come near him, especially when he stood by the window. I had to choose a window in another room for myself. If I refused to leave him alone, he would slam out of the room and often right out of the house, leaving rattling floors and doors behind him.

On occasion, however, he became so consumed with watching that I was able to move quietly into the room and remain near him for hours without his hearing or feeling me.

People often remarked that it was most unusual for a child to be able to stay still and quiet for more than a minute or two. People said I was an unusual child, and they were always very glad to turn to my little brother.
One morning the two children go down to the sea, where the narrator's talent for storytelling leads to a horrific outcome. Wrapped in an old bedspread to shield herself from the sun, she asks him how long he thinks the longest story is. He says an hour or two at most, and she tells him that she knows “a story that lasts until the sun goes down.” When he doubts this, she agrees to tell it to him — but only after he promises to listen to the entire story from start to finish.
He lay down on the sand beside me on his stomach. He lay rigid and attentive.

And I closed my eyes and told a story that contained one sentence for every grain of salt in the sea.

I opened my eyes when my father grabbed my shoulders and shook me and slapped me many times over the head.

“You've gone and killed your little brother,” he said. “Is no one safe with you?”

The shadow of my sunhat stretched out in front of me and was long enough to be almost touched by the water. The sun was on its way behind the houses on the hill behind the beach.

My brother lay on the sand beside me. His body was swollen and had changed from nut brown to deep red. His mouth had fallen open and sand was clinging to his lips and tongue. But he was not dead.

For two weeks my brother lay on his stomach in bed. The doctor came every day to treat him for sunstroke and dress the burns on his back.

When the wounds began to heal, it became clear that the sun had left behind dark brown spots and scars, all over his beautiful back.
After he recovers, the boy gives his sister wide berth. As soon as he is old enough he leaves school and moves out, sending an occasional postcard home. In time the family moves inland, away from the sea. The narrator, older now, meets a boy with a car, and sometimes comes home late at night. This leads to a sudden, yet inevitable, ending.
“What do you think you're doing,” he screamed, “staying out till all hours?”

I said nothing. “You should be thinking of your studies and your exams,” he said, “not boys.”

I smiled at him.

He strode over to my bed and shook me.

I only smiled.

He kept on holding my shoulders.

“You're enough to drive a man out of his mind,” he said.

He moved his hands to my neck. He touched my ears and my head. Then he put his hands over his face.

“I don't know why I try to keep on living,” he cried.

“So why do you?” I asked.

He drowned three weeks later.
Lies and Stories was published by the Inwood Press, which I'm sure is long defunct. My copy has a little “Review Copy” slip laid in, with the publication date of October 15, 1976.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Las fases de Severo

The following discussion of a Julio Cortázar short story was written in 1980 as part of a longer project. At some point in the future I may post other sections as well, but this one seemed, with a little re-working, to be self-contained enough to post on its own. Were I writing this now I might choose to explore additional avenues, including the symbolic employment of moths in Cortázar's work, and some affinities with some scenes in Harry Mathews' novel The Conversions. The translations were almost certainly my own, as they don't exactly match the official version by Gregory Rabassa which was published that same year in the collection A Change of Light.

“Las fases de Severo” (“Severo's Phases”) is a relatively brief and simple story that nevertheless manages to be irreducibly uncanny. Said to be inspired by the paintings of Remedios Varo (to whose memory it is dedicated), it takes place in a house in Argentina, where the friends and relatives of a man named Severo have gathered for what appears to be his wake, or more accurately, his death-watch:
Como a las once de la noche habíamos llegado con Ignacio, el Bebe Pessoa y mi hermano Carlos. Eramos un poco de la familia, sobre todo Ignacio que trabajaba en la misma oficina de Severo, y entramos sin que se fijaran demasiado en nosotros. El hijo mayor de Severo nos pidió que pasaramos al dormitorio, pero Ignacio dijo que nos quedaríamos un rato en el comedor; en la casa había gente por todas partes, amigos o parientes que tampoco querían molestar y se iban sentado en los rincones o se juntaban al lado de una mesa o de un aparador para hablar o mirarse.

Around eleven at night we had arrived with Ignacio, Bebe Pessoa, and my brother Carlos. We were practically part of the family, especially Ignacio who worked in the same office as Severo, and we came in without anyone taking particular notice of us. Severo's oldest son asked us to go into the bedroom, but Ignacio said we would stay a while in the dining room. In the house there were people everywhere, friends or relatives who didn't want to get in the way either and who were sitting down in corners or gathering by a table or a sideboard to talk and regard each other.
After a while Severo's brother appears and announces the beginning of la fase del sudor, the sweating phase. In the bedroom to which everyone now repairs, Severo is seen sitting up in bed, his hands on his knees. The congregants gather around the bed to witness the unfolding events:
A diferencia de otros que según Ignacio tendían a impacientarse, Severo se quedaba inmóvil, sin siquiera mirarnos, y casi en seguida el sudor le había cubierto la cara y las menos.

Unlike others who according to Ignacio tended to become impatient, Severo remained still, even without looking at us, and almost immediately sweat had recovered his face and hands.
This sweating phase is the first in a series whose order is not completely fixed but which is apparently familiar to the onlookers and not unique to Severo's case. When it is over the narrator and some of the others step out of the room while Severo is dried off and changed. Word then comes that the next phase is beginning, “the leaping phase”:
Ignacio se bebió el café de un trago … Fue de los que se ubicuaron cerca de la cama, con la mujer de Severo y el chico menor que se reía porque la mano derecha de Severo osciliaba como un metrónomo … Severo dio el primer salto y quedó sentado al borde de la cama … Los saltos se sucedían rítmicamente: sentado al borde de la cama, sentado contra la cabecera, sentado en el borde opuesto … Cuando la mujer de Severo anunció el fin de la fase, todos empezaron a hablar al mismo tiempo y a felicitar a Severo que estaba como ajeno …

Ignacio drank the coffee in one gulp … He was one of those who took a place by the bed, with Severo's wife and his youngest son who laughed because Severo's right hand was oscillating like a metronome … Severo made the first leap and remained seated on the edge of the bed … The leaps passed rhythmically; sitting on the edge of the bed, sitting against the headboard: sitting on the opposite edge … When Severo's wife announced the end of the phase we all began to talk at once and to congratulate Severo, who seemed as if he wasn't there …
When it's clear that the phase of the moths is about to begin the ceiling lamp is turned off and an acetylene lamp is brought in. Moths flock into the room and begin circling around the lamp. One large moth breaks away, flies to Severo's bed, and alights on his cheek, followed by the rest of the moths, who cover his hair and face; only one moth still circles the lamp. For the relatives and friends watching it is a moment of great tension:
Sentí que los dedos de Ignacio se me clavaban en el antebrazo, y sólo entonces me di cuenta de que también yo temblaba y tenía una mano hundida en el hombro del Bebe. Alguién gimió, una mujer, problamente Manuelita que no sabía dominarse como los demás …

I felt Ignacio's fingers digging into my forearm, and only then did I notice that I too was trembling and that I had a hand sunk into Bebe's shoulder. Someone screamed, a woman, probably Manuelita who didn't know how to control herself like the others …
When the final moth flies up to Severo's face a general shout rings out, someone turns on the ceiling light again, and the moths fly out of the room. Again there is a general exodus while Severo is washed and prepared for the next phase; the narrator and his friends drink grapa. There is a brief exchange between the narrator and Ignacio, who seems to be particularly knowledgeable about these matters:
— Si la última polilla hubiera elegido — … empecé. Ignacio hizo una lente señal negativa con la cabeza.

“If the last moth had chosen … ” I began. Ignacio shook his head slowly.
In the next phase, “the phase of numbers,” Severo, sitting up, his hands in the pockets of his pajamas, looks at each person in the room and addresses each in turn, pronouncing a single number:
Mirando a su hijo mayor dijo: “6,” mirando a su mujer dijo: “23,” con una voz tranquila y desde abajo, sin apurarse.

Looking at his oldest son he said: “6,” looking at his wife he said: “23,” with a tranquil voice, from below, without hurrying.
The narrator is assigned the number two. Eventually the number one falls to a quiet woman, probably a distant relative. A few more numbers are given out after this, but in contrast to the hushed anticipation with which the earlier ones had been received they are no longer given much attention. Another bit of conversation outside the room afterwards assures us of the importance of the numbers without telling us in so many words exactly just what they portend:
— Por supuesto es una cuestión de tiempo — me dijo Ignacio cuando salimos del dormitorio — Los números por sí mismos no quieren decir nada, che.

— ¿A vos te parece? — le pregunté —

— Pero claro, che — dijo Ignacio — Fíjate que del 1 al 2 pueden pasar años, pónele diez o veinte, en una de esas mas.

— Seguro — apoyó el Bebe — . Yo que vos no me afligía.

“Of course it's a question of when,” Ignacio said to me as we left the bedroom. “The numbers themselves don't mean anything, friend.”

“You think so?” I asked.

“But of course, friend,” Ignacio said. “Understand that from the 1 to the 2 years could pass, ten or twenty maybe, sometimes more.”

“Sure,” Bebe concurred. “If I were you I wouldn't get upset.”
The actual significance of the numbers depends, we are told, on the final phase, “the phase of the watches.” Again Severo speaks to each person in the room, informing each in turn that their timepieces are, in their respective cases, either fast or slow by a certain number of minutes. Severo's youngest son — the same one who had laughed earlier — does not understand when Severo speaks to him, and he laughs again. His mother removes his watch to change the time for him:
Sabíamos que era un gesto simbólico, bastaba simplemente adelantar o astrasar las agujas sin fijarse en el número de horas o minutos, puesto que al salir de la habitación volveríamos a poner los relojes en hora.

We knew that it was a symbolic gesture, it was enough to simply advance or turn back the hands without noting the number of hours or minutes, because once we were out of the room we would put the watches back on the correct time.
The narrator is told that his watch is slow. This constitutes “an advantage,” a potential extenuation of the inauspiciously low number he had received in the previous phase.

The phase completed, there is another exodus, more grapa, until word arrives that “sleep is about to come.” Severo lies in bed, looking up, “motionless and indifferent.” Eventually he closes his eyes and a daughter lays over his face a handkerchief into which she had previously sewn four coins. Severo's wife closes the vigil saying, “And now he will sleep … Now he's asleep, look.” The room empties except for a few close family members, and the participants in the vigil begin to leave. Severo's youngest son, the one who had laughed during the phase of the leaps, walks outside with the narrator and his friends:
— ¿No juegan mas? — me preguntó …

— No, ahora hay que ira a dormir — le dije — Tu mamá te va a acostar, ándate adentro que hace frio.

— ¿Era un juego, verdad, Julio?

— Sí, viejo, era un juego. Anda a dormir, ahora.

“Aren't they playing anymore?” he asked …

“No, now it's time to go to sleep,” I told him. “Your mama will put you to bed, go on inside, it's cold.”

“It was a game, wasn't it, Julio?”

“Yes, old man, it was a game. Go to bed now.”
The adults walk down the street together for a while, smoking, then separate to take their ways home.

It's perfectly clear, from the preparations, from the gathering of friends and relatives, from the end of the evening in Severo's “sleep,” that “Las fases de Severo” is about death, and yet at no time does anyone use the word. The narrative is oblique; the nature of the phrases, the significance of the numbers given out, are things that are assumed to be understood, not things that are to be revealed. We aren't told what happened to Severo, or why he is going through the process on this particular night.

The evening's events have the character of ritual, in the coins sewn into the handkerchief (for Charon), in the purely symbolic advancing or turning back of the watches, in the details of the phases themselves. Yet the phases contain both natural and conventional elements. (The distinction between the two must be something only those — like the reader — who do not participate in the ritual attempt to make.) The complicity of the moths, the apparent oracular possession of Severo, the voluntary changing of the sheets and switching on and off of lights by the attendants, all are elements of a whole. It is a scene from primitive religion, yet the setting is urban Latin America, presumably Buenos Aires, and the narrator seems like an ordinary middle-class city-dweller of the 20th century.

The questions posed by Severo's little son at the end of the story show that he hasn't yet been initiated into the mysteries of the ritual of the phases, that he doesn't understand its significance and accept it in the way the adults do. To him it's all a game. But whose view of the ceremony is correct: his, or that of his elders? On the one hand the boy clearly doesn't yet understand the gravity and horror of death, doesn't understand that his father has been taken from the family forever. And he hasn't been socialized into what the adults accept as a given, that the bizarre ritual of the phases is a natural ceremony, or at least (to take a phrase from another story about ritual, “Con legitimo orgullo”) a ceremony that it “has its reason for being.” Yet there is something unsettling, and demystifying, about the boy's questions, as if the ritual were in fact merely an elaborate make-believe in which everyone, Severo included, only pretends to have faith.

Like all mourning customs, the ceremony of the phases is an attempt to domesticate death within the bounds of an social framework, in this case one that includes the participation of natural (or supernatural) actors. The boy challenges that domestication, and in so doing he shakes the underpinnings of the adults' carefully constructed defenses against death. The ending of the story is decidedly uneasy, as the adults walk away smoking cigarettes, sin hablar mucho — without talking much — and when the narrator gets home he gives an excuse for not going to sleep that is distinctly unconvincing:
Yo subiría a mi pieza y pondría a calentar la pava del mate, total no valía la pena acostarse por tan poco tiempo, mejor ponerse las zapatillas y fumar y tomar mate, esas cosas que ayudan.

I would go up to my room and put the mate kettle on, in the end it wasn't worth the effort to go to bed for such a little time, it was better to put on my slippers and smoke and drink mate, these things that help.
His lingering unease is evidence of the frailty of the elaborate charade in which the narrator and his fellows have just participated. In the end death eludes every effort to tame it.