Monday, April 28, 2014

Judging Books By Their Covers, part deux

Sequeling a post from 2012, here are some more scans of favorite and/or interesting book covers from my collection. Some are vintage, some relatively recent, all are cool. (And yes, 'sequeling' is a word; necessity mothered the sucker two sentences ago.)

The author photo on the back of John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality has long been a classic of 1970s gay geek-chic. Has any scholar's author photo (Camille Paglia's aside) more boldly invited campy commentary?

Vintage SF covers, as everyone knows, often feature truly stunning artwork. Here's a 1970s Ace paperback of Le Guin's classic.

And here's the first paperback edition of Disch's wild ride.

For the 334 cover, Disch's publishers went for more of a Robert Crumb vibe, but it's a cleaner, technologized Crumbiness.

The front cover of Gaitskill's best-known book is fairly obvious, but the back cover (below) contains the author photo that made her every litgeek's imaginary girlfriend back in the late 80s. This is the straight male/lesbian equivalent of the John Boswell pic. 

Vintage Contemporaries hit a home run with this lovely evocation of American emptiness. And that bus with laser taillights is a truly weird and chilling machine in our wasted and paved-over American garden. A perfect match of cover and text.

The cover of my well-read and heavily taped paperback of Gass's chilly collection wears a psychedelic rainbow and conceals in its innards a handful of literary hallucinations that go deeper than anything induced by Owsley's Best.

Oxford chose a caressable Canova for this appropriately and beautifully restrained cover.

This vintage Kerouac cover goes all Orientalist on our asses while attempting to appeal to a "sex, drugs and long novels" demographic that I wish still existed. That and Jimi Hendrix's life are just two of the things about the 60s that should've lasted.

This is how Bantam tried to market Pynchon's hyperintellectual drunken sailor novel back in the 70s. I love the cover, but you'd never guess from it that two of the novel's best scenes involve a nosejob and an alligator hunt in the NYC sewers. Instead, this cover suggests a feminist Dune.

This 1958 paperback of Crane's poetry is a book that has traveled many miles in my carry-on bag, been read at 30,000 feet and halfway up a New Mexican mountain and, of course, in a plane soaring over the Brooklyn Bridge on the approach to La Guardia

I love this great American photo that someone at Scribners chose for Annie Proulx's first novel. Cover and text are studies in rural desperation.

Check out the marvelously suggestive still life photo on this Penguin edition of Salter's late, late expatriate novel.

 The very attractive minimal front cover of Sontag's first essay collection is outshone by the absolutely gorgeous, quietly charismatic author photo on the back (below). It looks like a still from an Antonioni film.

That great arm intruding across the foreground of Stephen Barker's cover photo perfectly parallels the narrative within, positioning us as the voyeurs and partial creators of the scene we think we are seeing. Fabulous.

Faulkner's dogs seem to have been bred and posed to illustrate the title of Irwin's study.

And here's my nominee for the creepiest cover ever glued to a work of literary scholarship. Be afraid, be very afraid...of the art department at Vintage Books.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Goodbye, Gabo : Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1927-2014

Genius. It is the most grotesquely overused word in the English language. Bill Gates is a genius; Taylor Swift is a genius; Steven Spielberg is a genius; Eminem is a genius; Thomas Kinkade was a genius; even, gods help us, Dan Brown has been called a genius. It should not be necessary to point out that none of these people is a genius. They are, respectively, a shrewd and ruthless businessman, a sexy pop musician, a technically accomplished filmmaker, a successful rapper, a painter of crap, and a talentless hack. The word 'genius' in American English has become synonymous with wealth and fame. (Gore Vidal observed this phenomenon long ago when he called Andy Warhol "the only genius I've ever known with an IQ of 60.") Real geniuses are rarer than sunbathers in Point Barrow. They are rarer than gold, and many times more valuable. When we recognize true genius, when we feel its power and learn to love it, we hold it to our hearts until its rhythms become the beating of our blood. And when genius dies, we feel the loss like a wavelength of color suddenly removed from the spectrum. Yesterday we saw the full Roy G. Biv, but today the tropical green has gone away.

Yesterday we lost the maker of Macondo. The final, fatal whirlwind spun invisibly through the noise and smoke of Mexico City and plucked Gabriel Garcia Marquez out of life. So it goes (as one of his gringo contemporaries might have said). The indescribable color that yesterday disappeared from our spectrum was the sign and signature of true genius. Like Kafka and Faulkner, his two most important influences, Gabo produced works that were so powerfully and stunningly original, and yet so uncannily familiar, that they held us enthralled from first line to last and blew our minds a hundred times along the winding road to that final heartbreaking period. Like Picasso and Pollock, like Sebald and Cervantes, he created works that were so shockingly new we didn't have words for them yet, and to indicate them it was necessary to point. Like all the great geniuses of art, Gabo outran our critical clichés. He sped out ahead of us and left our minds gasping in his sweetly-scented Colombian dust. 'Magic realism' is the pigeonhole critics constructed for Gabo, but I prefer to think of One Hundred Years of Solitude in the context of its time. It is a great--probably the greatest--novel of the Sixties. And as such, it is yet another answer, along with The Crying of Lot 49 and Slaughterhouse Five and The Joke and The Armies of the Night and Portnoy's Complaint, to the ignorant neoconservative charge that the Sixties produced no great novels. Yes, Cien Anos de Soledad is the greatest novel of the Sixties, and if you think you remember it, you probably need to read it again. Gabo's great novel is the history of Colombia as marijuana dream, historical materialism as acid trip; it's a hallucinatory experience, and it should ideally be read while Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced plays softly in the background. Likewise, Gabo's second masterpiece, The Autumn of the Patriarch, is one of the great novels of the Seventies and should be read to the accompaniment of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Gabo's impossibly long sentences are like flamboyant guitar solos flying all the way to Kashmir before returning, at long last, to the novelistic melody. He was a writer of and for his times, and to ignore the times is to ignore the substance of his works. As an artist and public figure, Garcia Marquez was as politically engaged as Jean-Paul Sartre, but unlike Sartre or Toni Morrison or any number of engage writers, he wrote politically engaged fiction that was so artistically brilliant it never felt programmatic--and he achieved this almost unprecedented feat with an apparent effortlessness that never fails to astonish me. This illusion of effortlessness is a good note to end upon, for it's one of the defining characteristics of Gabo's singular genius. His best works are profound, poetic, intelligent, technically masterful, and as elaborate as baroque cathedrals, but when we read them, they seem to have been composed as naturally as breathing. Gabo's sentences seem not so much written as exhaled. They seem to have been discovered rather than created. Did a human being actually write the first chapter of One Hundred Years of Solitude? Did an actual human man with a scratchy mustache and intestinal gas and bowel movements actually sit at a typewriter and pound out those sentences, one letter at a time, pausing at the end of each line to return the carriage? Yes. Yes, he did. Goodbye, Gabo, and good luck to the rest of us.

(A Crazy Afterthought: Surely I'm not the only one who sees something suspiciously Garciamarquesan in the timing of Gabo's death. He died the day before Good Friday, so the third day after his death will be Easter, the day of resurrection. I have a vision of Gabo climbing out of his coffin Sunday morning with a bottle of tequila in one hand and a big burrito Jalisco in the other and shouting to the assembled mourners, "This death shit is for assholes like Pinochet. Let's party!" It won't happen, but it's good advice nonetheless.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

DANCER FROM THE DANCE by Andrew Holleran

Here is an American novelist who, at the very least, is refreshingly unafraid to advertise his literary ambition. Holleran takes his title from Yeats, opens and closes his novel with epistolary exchanges a la Les Liaisons Dangereuses, alludes to Gatsby in the first paragraph of his narrative, and rarely misses the chance to toss in a classical allusion (Xerxes, anyone?). Perhaps the most surprising thing about Dancer From The Dance is that it almost lives up to its grand allusions. Holleran attempts to write The Gay Gatsby, a novel that will do for gay life in 1970s New York what Fitzgerald did for a somewhat 'straighter' variety of life fifty years earlier. He wants to immortalize it with a defining romantic tragedy. Amazingly, he pretty much succeeds. (The fellatio pun on that last word is entirely appropriate.) There are minor flaws--a few unnecessary repetitions, an emphasis on atmosphere at the expense of narrative, an annoying confusion of Dionysus with Dionysius (I can't tell if the mistake is Holleran's or the narrator's; either way, an editor should've caught it)--but these are indeed minor flaws, if flaws at all. Dancer From The Dance is an excellent novel. Formally original and beautifully written, it deserves to be promoted out of the gaylit ghetto and into the American canon. It deserves to dance with the works it intertextually engages: The Great Gatsby, Mrs. Dalloway, "The Beast in the Jungle," many others. It's not only good enough to play in those big leagues; it's good enough to win.


I always enjoy the surprise that comes when a novel fails to live up to its bad reputation. For years I've heard dismissive criticisms of Vidal's The City and The Pillar: it was supposedly mediocre, poorly written, self-hating, decidedly minor, badly dated, a trashy melodrama, an undeserving succes de scandale... Ignoring this chorus of criticism and finally reading the book, I find it a fascinating, highly-readable, picaresque tour of the continent-size closet that was gay America in the 1940s. While certainly far from flawless--there are a few jarring inconsistencies of tone and point of view, and Vidal had not yet found his distinctive prose voice--the novel is not bad at all and remains well worth reading. Indeed, it's essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the state of American sexuality (and not just homosexuality) at midcentury, during the Kinsey years. (Vidal knew Kinsey, and somewhere in a locked room in Bloomington, Indiana, there is a coded form detailing Gore's earliest erotic escapades... There's also a home movie of the almost forgotten novelist Glenway Wescott masturbating with a dildo in his anus, but that, decidedly, is another story.) From literary New York to cinematic Hollywood, from frozen Alaska to the sultry Yucatan, Vidal's protagonist moves with Candide-like speed along a taut narrative arc that begins in Virginian (and Virgilian, perhaps?) gay pastoral and ends in violence and guilty oblivion. To criticize the ending today is like criticizing the book for being conceived and written during the forties. It's better to appreciate Vidal's novel, like Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, as a valuable window upon a darker time.

Some of my surprise is surely due to the fact that I read not the original 1948 edition of The City and The Pillar (the notorious edition to which most criticisms refer) but Vidal's 1965 revision, now the standard text. He changed the climax from a murder to a rape and might have made a few other alterations (which may have caused the tonal inconsistencies already noted). It would be interesting to compare the two editions page by page to see exactly what Gore changed and try to guess why.

NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood is not so much a novel as an arrangement of exquisitely written notes for a novel.

Better, Nightwood is the libretto for an opera that can never be performed.

Even better, Nightwood is a novel in which the story is rendered as prose-poem rather than plot.

Nightwood is so self-consciously avant-garde, so hardcore an experimental performance, that writing my usual blocky paragraph-or-so of critical thoughts would be almost a betrayal of the text under discussion.

Nightwood is a book I've read 3 or 4 times, but shortly after each reading the book mysteriously erases itself from my memory.

This makes Nightwood rather difficult to criticize.

Nightwood is an experiment, but for me the experiment fails. Even the grand, bawdy monologues of Dr. Matthew O'Connor, which most critics consider the novel's crown jewels, become tiresomely monotonous after ten or fifteen pages.

The chapters dominated by the doctor, however, are the only ones with the stink of the real upon them. The rest of Nightwood smells too much of the literary laboratory and too little of life.

Nightwood is beautifully written, though.

Nightwood is a phenomenon I can only fail to explain.

GIOVANNI'S ROOM by James Baldwin

Yes, it's a hopeless, despairing novel from and for the homophobic 1950s, but Giovanni's Room still seems to me a fairly bold book for its time. Although Gore Vidal's The City and The Pillar beat Baldwin to the subject matter by a handful of years, and Jean Genet had already laid definitive claim to the French gay underground in his seminal spurt of novels from the late 1940s, Baldwin's book still carries an impressive charge of literary daring. Giovanni's Room is the gay novel Dostoyevsky might have written had he been seduced by Henry James: it marries lurid melodrama to moral soul-searching, the whole written in a beautifully polished prose. Of course it has its flaws--inconsistent characterization, clichéd dialogue, a melodramatic denouement that exists more to close the narrative than to deepen the characters and themes--but for me all of this is outshone by Baldwin's triumphant invention of David, the narrator. Here is the tragic portrait of a self-loathing gay man whose puritanical horror of his desires leads him to self-dissolution, a sort of soul-suicide, at novel's end. David's alcohol-fueled 'dark night of the soul' (the intense 'present tense' of this flashbacked novel) concludes when he dissolves his love for Giovanni in the grim, flesh-eating acid of Christian spirituality. This is David's final 'conversion experience' and, as the explicit parallel with Giovanni's execution makes clear, it is a strategy as tragically life-denying and life-ending as Giovanni's murder of Guillaume. I suppose the ending could be interpreted more positively, perhaps neo-platonically, as the promise of spiritual union to two souls sundered in the sullied flesh. But the text seems to privilege neither of these interpretations. Rather, however we might read the rhetoric, it leaves us with a vague sensation of death-in-life. To criticize this ending as too despairing, as some have, is simply ahistorical. We must remember that unless you were rich and/or Gore Vidal, the Fifties were not a particularly positive decade in which to be gay.

This seems the place to add that Baldwin's better first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, also concerns itself, albeit less centrally, with the nexus of Christian moralism and homosexual desire. For anyone wishing to deeply understand the attraction of fundamentalist religion to millions of Americans, even today, Go Tell It On The Mountain is the book to read.

"Paul's Case" by Willa Cather

A note in the back of Reed Woodhouse's surprisingly good, informative, readable and, yes, entertaining critical study Unlimited Embrace led me to Willa Cather's 1905 short story "Paul's Case." This century-old tale of an alienated young man's brief criminal career and its tragic end (a precursor to Salinger's less tragic Catcher in the Rye) remains of interest today largely because Cather's text is a veritable compendium of fin de siècle homosexual signs. The old gay gang's all here: a red carnation in the buttonhole, dandyish dress, opera, theatre, urban sophistication, outsider status, alienation, criminality, juvenile delinquency, violation of the 'work ethic,' social bounding, a Huysmanian preference for the artificial over the natural, personality as performance, etc., etc., etc. Given the strict censorship that reigned over American magazine fiction 110 years ago, there is of course no explicit mention of sex in the story and hardly a hint of homosexuality, but the semiotic texture of the tale fairly screams Paul's gayness from the top of a Met-worthy soprano's lungs. At one frenetic point in the tale Cather even, rather unfortunately, says of her protagonist, "He burnt like a faggot in a tempest." To our post-Larry Kramer eyes, that looks like a comically obvious wink, but Cather's 1905 usage might have been at least partly innocent. Maybe. Still, we must ask: in a story so drenched in homosexual innuendo, can the word 'faggot' truly be used to mean a stick of wood and only a (phallic) stick of wood? Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, as Sigi said, but not in this story.


If you're looking for a work of literary criticism that is provocative, original, and eschews the jargon of academic 'theory,' Unlimited Embrace is a book you will want to read. It's the book Edmund Wilson might have written had he been born later and gayer, a kind of Axel's Castle of postwar gay male literature in which the author performs close readings of 18 works, from Giovanni's Room and Myra Breckenridge through A Single Man and Faggots to The Mad Man and Martin and John, readings that together delineate a canon and illuminate its essential characteristics. And unlike most of what passes under the label of 'gay studies,' Woodhouse's work spends no time genuflecting before the Great God Foucault. In fact, the Gallic cueball's name doesn't even appear in the index--not because the author is innocent of theory but because, it seems, he has moved beyond poststructuralism into a place both more aesthetic and more humanistic. His chapter on Samuel Delany's The Mad Man is especially pleasing, as this little known and very strange and dangerously beautiful novel richly deserves the kind of critical attention that will gain it readers and save it from oblivion. (A mildly narcissistic aside: It was a blurb extracted from this chapter and printed on the back cover of my copy of Delany's book that led me to seek out Woodhouse; otherwise I would likely never have read one of the most readable and enjoyable critical works of recent years.) There are illuminating chapters on Edmund White's fiction and James Purdy's Narrow Rooms (which I must, must, must read; if Cormac McCarthy is William Faulkner on acid, Purdy sounds like Faulkner on poppers, Benzedrine, Jack Daniels and PCP, with an Ecstasy chaser). Woodhouse even gives us fair-minded considerations of writers he doesn't particularly like, such as Larry Kramer and David Leavitt. Unlimited Embrace will send you back to books you've already read and encourage you to read a few you've probably never heard of. All in all, this is a very impressive critical performance that deserves to be widely read.

FYI, here are the 18 books/authors Woodhouse considers in-depth:
  • Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
  • short stories by Tennessee Williams
  • Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal
  • Straight to Hell by Boyd McDonald
  • Frisk by Dennis Cooper
  • Narrow Rooms by James Purdy
  • Faggots by Larry Kramer
  • Dancer From The Dance by Andrew Holleran
  • The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt
  • A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
  • A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
  • short stories by Ethan Mordden
  • The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket by John Weir
  • The Mad Man by Samuel Delany
  • Valley of the Shadow by Christopher Davis
  • Martin and John by Dale Peck
  • Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett
  • the fiction of Edmund White

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dennis Cooper on the Fine Art of Rimming

In his very interesting Paris Review interview, writer Dennis Cooper tells us that "one of the highlights of my life is that the great Avital Ronell wrote an essay on the theme of rimming in my work." Cooper continues:

To me, rimming is the most charismatic sex act. Something about combining the face, which is the body’s most telling and detailed part, with the ass, which is a similarly compelling body part but for opposite reasons—given its plainness and inexpressiveness, its lowly status as a seat cushion and waste-disposal machine, contrasted with its high status as a sex object and aesthetic high point on the body—fascinates me. The way the face and ass affect each other physically and technically during the act of rimming has an emotional charge and is choreographically interesting. In the moment of exploring someone’s ass, you know things that the recipient can’t know because, due to the way the body is constructed, the ass and asshole are hardly available to their owner. You can handle and finger them, but even to see them properly requires the use of mirrors and awkward poses. When you rim someone, you’re getting to know him intimately in a way he can’t know himself. You can be entirely alone with him, unwatched, his judgment unknown and abstract. You have power over him and, at the same time, the act has subservient associations—“you can kiss my ass,” et cetera—so you’re worshipping him as well.
Also, for all the charisma that rimming has, as an idea and from a third-party perspective, it’s quite a simple act in practice. There’s only so much a face can do to an ass and asshole, so it’s an act that happens largely in both parties’ imaginations, and that makes it very interesting and challenging to write about.

Not long ago, I wrote in my notebook that a truly useful vade mecum for success in American corporate life might be titled A Field Guide to North American Analingus.

If Cooper's work is unfamiliar to you, have a taste of his novel Closer, the first volume in a now-completed five-book cycle. He's an unapologetically avant-garde writer and perhaps the most profoundly Francophile American literary figure of our time (not a bad thing at all in our post-post-post-Emersonian age). He also has a remarkable blog on which he seems to spend altogether too much time. (His blog is good enough to trigger a BlogSpot "Content Warning." Just click through it.) It includes a list of his 50 favorite novels, upon which I was pleased to find Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene and Calvino's Invisible Cities.

(UPDATE, 7/13/16: Anyone who clicks the above links will discover that Dennis Cooper's blog has been inexplicably 'removed' by the authorities at Google. This is a despicable act of corporate censorship. In other words, it's pretty much business as usual on the corporate internet.)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Laugh Your Ass Off (Intelligently)

A while back, I resolved to post no more lists on this blog. Because resolutions are made to be broken, here's a list of seriously funny books from the Greek beginnings of Western literature to its present globalization. It is also an attempt at a genealogy of Western literary comedy from the ancient Greeks to today, implicitly arguing that the main line of development of the European novel is comedic and that the 'high seriousness' of the Victorian novelists was a 19th-century aberration resulting from the cultural insecurity of a rising bourgeoisie...yeah, yeah, yeah, but really it's just a list of intelligent, original, laugh-out-loud funny books. Read them all (in no particular order), enjoy them, and do what the title of this list suggests.

  • The Complete Plays by Aristophanes. 
  • The Satyricon by Petronius.
  • Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches by Lucian
  • The Golden Ass by Apuleius. 
  • The Decameron by Boccaccio.
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. 
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais.
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. 
  • Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.
  • Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot.
  • Candide by Voltaire.
  • Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding.
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
  • Don Juan by Lord Byron (or as I like to call him, Gorgeous George)
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain.
  • Pudd'nhead Wilson by Mark Twain.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Complete Works by Oscar Wilde.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce.
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.
  • The Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien.
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
  • All About H. Haterr by G. V. Desani.
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.
  • The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
  • Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.
  • Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
  • The Complete Enderby by Anthony Burgess.
  • Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth.
  • Our Gang by Philip Roth.
  • Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth.
  • Fear of Flying by Erica Jong.
  • How To Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong.
  • Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
  • Money by Martin Amis.
  • Time's Arrow by Martin Amis.
  • Live From Golgotha by Gore Vidal.
  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
  • Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
  • The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self.
  • Grey Area by Will Self.
  • pretty much anything by Tom Robbins

To end with a comic non sequitur, here are two of my favorite literary typos:

In an essay by Edmund White about novelist James Jones, one of Jones' novels is listed as Go To The Windowmaker. (As that great Homer of our time would say, "D'oh!")

In an article on William Carlos Williams, one of his best-known lines is quoted as "No ideas but in thongs," a perfect sentiment for spring break.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Walking London in My Mind (for Roger Ebert)

Damn, I miss Roger Ebert. I never met the man, my sole contact with him was a few exchanges of comments on his blog, but he broadened my appreciation of the art of film more than any person I ever have met. And now, on the first anniversary of his death, I'm thinking of him again, wondering what he would have made of Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Counselor, wishing I could read his Great Movies essay on Blue is the Warmest Color, trying to decide if he would have loved or loathed Nymphomaniac. Back in 2010 Ebert wrote a blog post about walking in London (a favorite pastime I shared with him, although our paths never crossed). I was inspired to reply with a long comment based on a walk I took in central London about ten years ago. Ebert gave my comment the equivalent of a 'thumbs up,' instructing his readers to "clip and save" it. Here's what I wrote:

In my mind I've just stepped out of the front door of the Regent Palace Hotel on the north side of Piccadilly Circus. I walk across the circus, glancing up at Eros hovering above me and turning my head to the right to see the great curve of Regent Street turning north toward its eponymous park. I walk due south down Regent Street, past the clubs of Pall Mall, until Regent ends in a waterfall of steps beyond the bankrupt Duke of York's really rather ugly column. I cross the Mall, cut through St. James Park (Horse Guards is on my left and beyond it the horizontal spire of a construction crane makes a perfect tangent with the upper half of the London Eye). Just past the park, on Storey's Gate, I pause at Old Queen Street for the best view of the towers of the Abbey glowing in the June sunlight. I continue walking, cross the busy street curving into Parliament Square, and enter the Abbey, proceeding immediately to the Henry VII chapel to look up at one of the most beautifully labyrinthine ceilings in all of England. (For me, the three best ceilings in London are the Henry VII chapel, the library at Kenwood House [which is like standing inside a piece of Wedgwood pottery], and Rubens's ceiling fresco in Banqueting Hall). When my spirits have been sufficiently lifted, I pass back through the nave to the cloister and then, rather than following the tourist trail around the large cloister and back to the nave, I walk through a turning series of corridors to the Abbey Garden. (I'm always surprised at how few visitors make it back to this lovely spot, a pretty piece of pastoral within shouting distance of the Houses of Parliament). When I reach the middle of the main path across the Garden, I turn around and see my second-favorite view of the Abbey exterior: the great transept window and the bright cathedral roof seeming to float above the mellower brown brick buildings on the north side of the Garden. After ten minutes or so sitting and wandering around the Garden, I walk back through the Abbey, pay my respects to Chaucer and Rare Ben Jonson in Poet's Corner, and then walk back out into bright sunlight (it's like leaving a movie theater; I shade my eyes for a few seconds). I walk up Whitehall as Big Ben tolls ten behind me, Virginia Woolf's leaden circles still dissolving in the same air Clarissa Dalloway breathed. I pass the Cenotaph, pop into Banqueting Hall to see that Rubens ceiling and reflect that it was one of the last things Charles I saw before he stepped out of the window onto a scaffold and lost his bloody head. Then I continue up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, scaring pigeons into flight as I walk across to the National Gallery. I go through the revolving door at the Sainsbury Wing, up the massive, glassed-in stairs, and turn right toward the older part of the Gallery. The large Venetian Renaissance room opens around me, and I see on the end wall Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne with its blues that redefine the color and greens that are like seeing green for the first time. I linger here for a long time, studying the painting, thinking about it, enjoying it. When I leave the gallery I walk around behind it and try to get lost in the narrow streets back there, eventually finding myself in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where Sir John Soane's museum beckons. I enter and walk slowly, lingeringly, around Soane's crazy house, ending up in the basement room directly below the picture gallery (the room with the skull in the middle of the table). I meet a woman there, and we agree that Soane was a very weird guy, then we walk together up to the top floor, go into the back room and look out the windows overlooking the roof of the 'museum,' a gorgeous crazy quilt of domes and skylights. She thanks me for showing her the view and I say, "Have you seen the view from the top of St. Paul's?" This walk has only begun...

Thanks for the Proustian rush, Roger.

Manhattan's Loveliest 'Ghost': the abandoned 1904 City Hall subway station

Even in a city as densely populated and widely photographed and palimpsestically overwritten as Manhattan, there remain places of breathtaking beauty that are almost unknown. Take, for example, the 1904 City Hall subway station, a closed 'ghost station' since 1945. It is the work of master builder Rafael Guastavino, now the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Martin Filler has written a beautifully illustrated article about the exhibition on the New York Review blog.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Curley's Glove: Interpreting a Sexual Symbol in Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN

In addition to being a near-perfect novella with only two noticeable flaws (Steinbeck's sexist failure to characterize Curley's wife as anything other than a stereotypical Thirties 'bitch in heat' who spends much of the novel delivering Mae West and Jean Harlow lines (when not threatening to have people lynched) and his decision in the last chapter to ridiculously externalize Lennie's superego as the voices of Aunt Clara and a rabbit), Of Mice and Men is also a profoundly, even dogmatically, Freudian work. Sexuality plays just below the surface of virtually every page and frequently pops its phallic head above the waterline. Lennie's erotic fetishism, his ultimately fatal desire to touch fur and velvet, is a textbook example of a sexuality fixated in one of Freud's early, 'immature' stages, a retardation of erotic development that parallels Lennie's intellectual deficit. So Lennie's mouse, his puppy, the dress of the woman in Weed, and finally Curley's wife's hair, can all be understood as substitute objects for a libido that is socially forbidden discharge in the psychoanalytically approved orifice. This is a fairly easy interpretation, although it probably still flies over the heads of most high school students. (I was too immature to understand most of the novella's sexuality when forced to read it in high school.) A more difficult and original sexual symbol is introduced about 20 pages into the tale, when Candy tells George about Curley's "glove fulla Vaseline." How are we to understand this image? The standard, high school-approved interpretation is that Curley is keeping his hand soft so that he might more tenderly caress his lovely wife. This interpretation is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. Curley is a vile little son of a bitch who touches no one with tenderness, and his wife may be an even worse human being. No, the image is much more explicitly sexual, even pornographic, and it is immediately understood as such by George, who calls it "a dirty thing to tell around." To understand exactly what's so dirty about it, consider first the sexual symbolism of a hand in a glove. One need not be Viennese to see this as representing a penis in a vaginal caress. Next, add the ingredient of Vaseline, widely used in the Thirties and later as a lubricant in both heterosexual and homosexual intercourse. The two elements sum to an image of Curley's vaselined hand penetrating his wife's vagina. That's the "dirty thing" George sees in the image. Curley is 'fisting' her. Curley's glove is Steinbeck's version of Faulkner's corncob in Sanctuary. It's a symbol that eludes the literary censorship of its day by suggesting what could not be explicitly stated: just as Popeye raped Temple Drake with the notorious corncob because he could not sustain an erection, so Curley penetrates his wife's glovelike vagina with his lubricated hand because he, too, is impotent. Curley's impotence (at least with his wife) is the unspoken detail that lies at the root of his rage, which, we are told, has worsened since his recent marriage. It is also the cause of his wife's sexual frustration. As a one-dimensional 'bitch in heat,' she requires a real man with a working penis. Her search for the proper tool leads both to her demise and the death (much more tragic, from the author's point-of-view) of her final unfortunate object of desire. Curley's glove, redolent of fisting and impotence, may be the book's single most important symbol, the secret sexual key that unlocks the motivations of its most destructive characters.

A brief addendum to the previous post: Petyr Baelish as Stanley Fish

Having, in an aside in my last post, compared postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish to the Game of Thrones whoremaster Lord Petyr Baelish (played by Aiden Gillen), I was surprised and delighted by the penultimate scene of episode 3.6, which I just watched on DVD from Netflix. Baelish's Machiavellian "Chaos is a ladder" exchange with Lord Varys is a concise, eloquent and unapologetic statement of the postmodern theorist's will to power:

Varys: I did what I did for the good of the realm.
Baelish: The realm. Do you know what the realm is? It's the thousand blades of Aegon's enemies- a story we agree to tell each other over and over, until we forget that it's a lie.
Varys: But what do we have left, once we abandon the lie? Chaos? A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
Baelish: Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

The imagery and sentiment is very Nietzschean (and the ending is spoken over a visual of Jon Snow summiting the icy Wall, a prototypically German Romantic image), but the speech might also have been written by Derrida and vulgarized by Baelish/Fish into a manifesto of academic/courtly careerism.