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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in will hubbard (9)

Wednesday
Jun152011

In Which James Schuyler Demands So Little Of Us

James Schuyler, Calais, Vermont, late 1960s; photograph by Joe Brainard

A Beautiful Intensity of Focus

James Schuyler overcame a horrifying childhood (he described it as out of "a novel by Dostoyevsky") to largely self educate himself, which was in stark contrast to the Harvard backgrounds of the other New York School poets. He was an accomplished writer of verse, a sometime novelist, and a constant art critic. His work populated Art News, his friends Fairfield Porter, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery influenced each other's tastes.

Schuyler's letters are a treasure trove of insights from an incredibly sensitive man, and all his private writing (including his magical diary) stands alongside his superb poetry and prose despite his commentary to Anne Porter that "I do not regard personal letters as literature."

fairfield porter painting jane freilicher

November 3, 1954

to JANE FREILICHER

Dear Jane,

It's raining. I hate what I've been writing. I've spent more money than I should, and wonder how I'll get through the weekend. I have a peculiar feeling in the ball of my right foot (sort of between a fish hook and a feather). An oh yes, Bill Weaver is coming by in a hour to take me to a cocktail party I don't want to go to, because I know the people are already offended with me for not having looked them up. And the electricity keeps going off. Otherwise I'm fine. How are you?

The boys are in England, after a big success in Belgium, and will be there next week. Arthur was very sick in Venice, with bronchitis — he's OK now, though really too broke down to be touring.

I meant my gloom to strike a lighter note than this — maybe it's because I went to see On the Waterfront last night, then read in bed Keats' last letters and all about his death. I bought myself some reading books, but it turns out the cheeriest one is a selected Matthew Arnold, who assures us in one verse that old age brings neither peace nor ease, just diminished powers, less sleep, and regret for the time when one at least imagined old age might be nice. Oi. What a camp that one is. A real lead shoe-nik.

But I like Rome, and so would you. Though that academy — what a bunch. They make an off-night forum at the artist's club sound like "Socrate."

I seem to be in more of a state of mind to receive a letter than to write one. What are you doing? Are you going to show this year? Does Grace continue on her fantastic course? Have any of our lads found (or for that matter, sought) gainful employment? Frank wrote me a very funny letter about an outing he took with you, Joe, John Ashbery and Hal Fondren. You emerged very well, and John was caught in characteristic poses.

Now I'll climb into my fancy Dan and go laught it up with what Bill calls some "really very chic people, and quite amusing." Help. Write.

Love,

Jimmy

Rome

July 7, 1956

to FAIRFIELD PORTER

Dear Fairfield,

After two beautiful days we had three wet cold ones. The temperature went below 60 and we were all delighted and worked hard. But today it's summer again, not warm or dry enough for the beach, but nice with a lot of Boudin clouds bumping around in the blue.

All our social life has consisted of having Larry for dinner last night, as thrillingly full of his favorite subjects, him, as ever. He and Howie have a show at the bookshop (a sign says Larry Rivers in huge letters and then in tiny letters, "and his guest Howard Kanovitz") and Larry's picture of Joseph with his socks on and his pants off had to be taken down by popular request.

In its place there is a notice that says, in effect, due to the smallness of some, others may see the shocker by asking (as Larry said, the only thing that shocks people in paintings nowadays is a "male penis"). He had also a letter from your dealer who hated Paris and loved London and says he is going to be very big for Jane next year because he has been to some museums and now gets what's she's after.

Larry had to leave early, unfortunately, because Stevie and a playmate had disappeared into Riverhead where there is a carnie show with a strip tease dancer and they still weren't home by 9:30. Guess they did make it safely back to their respective hysterical mother and grandmother or we would have heard.

Everything about the house is fine (not to say beautiful and a joy). Arthur Weinstein prowled through like a cat-detective and is already to line up a membership for you in the IDA (Interior Decorators Assoc.) My only complaint is that the stove demands so little of me.

The lilies by the barn opened yesterday in the rain, and first big daisy opened this morning. The new bed is full of beautiful delicate flowers. Although I only take my face out of the Flower encyclopedia long enough to put it in my dinner, I seem to know practically none of their names - there's sweet alyssum, and poppies, deep yellow ones and a scarlet one, but are they California, Iceland or Siberian poppies? And zinnias and bachelor buttons are in bud.

We had a charming card from Laurence, who says he likes the chaperoning job and will be here about July 27th for three or four nights. We'll be glad to see him (though it occurs to me now that I will probably be in town then reviewing). He has such elegant handwriting.

I writing in the studio (I sound like a Chinaman) - and of the pictures you left out I particularly love the one of Jerry that's given you so much trouble. It doesn't look unfinished or incomplete to me, it has a beautiful intensity of focus, first on the face, secondly on the dishes, with everything else "There" to just the degree that what's arund what one looks at is seen. And I love the living room, transparent as a water color and the snowy spring light.

I had a postcard from John Ashbery in which he says he guesses it's definite he'll be in France another year, though he will be here in September. I enclose the two poems he sent me I mentioned at Kenneth's. I'd like them back, and I'd like to see the ones he sent you, if you have them, and I'll return them.

Soon as I can pull myself together and wrap it, I'll send you a book I have for you. It's four poets, and I want to give it to you because I like Wyatt so much, and I think you might, too, and because the editor's introduction is interesting. He says some simple things about scanning five beat lines that seem to make a subject I've never much grasped a lot clearer. When I send it I'll mark the passage I mean.

When circulars come, and they do, shall we just put them in the basket by the front door?

Alvin N has decided that he and John shouldn't live together anymore, which is sad and stupid. It wouldn't surprise me though if he changed his mind later; I think in the end he is the one who would be worst off. Or benefit least, or something. Jane's comment was, "It proves again that man's inhumanity to man is equaled only by his inhumanity to himself."

The boys are going in next Tuesday to play on a TV show and will bring the lady la Rochefoucalud (sp?) back with them if she can prevail on Joe to drive out Friday for the weekend. I hope so. I'm dying to see her.

Kenneth said they were going to visit you in August. I think Great Spruce Head is the prefect place to contain him and set him off. And he can write his Katherine Kanoe Kantos.

Every second, today becomes more overpoweringly beautiful. I'd like to make an anthology of all the lines of poetry with the word blue in them, beginning with Frank's "It's the blue!" "...si blew, si calme..." "...in unending blueness...." (On the other hand I can't think of a drearier poem than the one of Herbert's that begins so marvelously about "Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so far..." (I think it is) and then points out that it won't last forever. I hate all those dusty-answer poems about how someone or something is as pretty as a peach but after a while it's going to be all awful looking. And I don't think it's Christianity that's to blame — though it might be Protestantism — Dante doesn't talk that way.)

I've been alternately reading Proust and the Divine Comedy. No comment.

And I read Measure for Measure again. When you read him, there is really no one but Shakespeare; the exhilaration, the invention, the clarity, the truth. I think I really like the late comedies the most, Measure for Measure, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. Though my special love is As You Like It, it's so artificial, it doesn't make the faintest pretense that its existence was obliged, was called for.

Bigger works of art always seem to threaten to help one in some way or another, and therefore the fact they exist is part of the Social Good. As You Like It is just there, like the one red popppy across the lawn, pure excess of delight.

Speaking of pure excess, I've been on a diet. A few weeks ago I weighed 171, now I weight 163, and I'm not going to think about stopping until I find out how I look and feel at 155. In fact we are all on diets, and since we've been here have broken down only once, when we stormed up Main Street at 10:30 one night and had hot fudge and butterscotch sundaes. Of course we talk about nothing but food — even to the exclusion of Europe, our one other subject - and Bobby and I read antiphonally from Sheila Hibben and Tante Marie's Pastry book to an accompaniement of moans. It does seem absurd that when we open that marvelous oven great cinnamon smelling gusts don't come pouring out.

My love to Anne and Katy and Elizabeth. Were you able to get someone to help with the house work?

I hope I'll hear from you soon.

Love,

Jimmy

Southampton

schuyler's photograph of fairfield porter

Thursday Fall 1955

to FAIRFIELD PORTER

Dear Fairfield,

How delightful to find your handwriting in an anonymously addressed envelope, when I dismally thought all the mail was another throw-away. I shall go right away to see Calcagno, and Feeley too.

But how inaccurate of you to have told Frank and Kenneth that the reason you didn't call me is that it is you who always call! Wasn't it I who called you in Southampton when I heard you were back and coming into town? And I who called you the day we were moving, when you and I went downtown and you bought the beautiful white lamp that has given us so much pleasure and illumination? And often when it has been you who called, wasn't it because we had arranged it so beforehand — as often at my suggestion as yours — on the ground that you would be out during the day, and I would be in?

I did try to call you the week of John's party, and then gave it up because I was aware of the deliberateness in your silence. One's often tempted to test one's friends in these little ways — at least I am — but it's my experience that to do so is a challenge to the friend to show that he has the nerve and heartlessness to fail one; and most of us have.

Besides, I think you exaggerate the degree of initiative you take in your friendships: I know, because I'm shy, that it often takes more initiative for me to bring myself to say yes to an invitation than it took for the inviter to issue it.

While I'm at it, I'm also rather put out by this youth and age stuff. In so far as I think of you as "older," I feel honored and benefited by your friendship; but if it turns out that you feel odd in bestowing it, I feel snubbed. I don't, though, think of you as "older" so much as I do a friend who has had a life very different from mine (but if I must think about it, then I say that I think I'm a man over thirty, past which age one might hope to have gained the right to mingle with one's elders &/or betters).

watching tv with the gang in 1955

I wish I thought you dwelt a little on the virtues of your behavior: and saw that if (as I hope you do) you take pleasure in the company of Frank and Jane and Kenneth and Barbara and the rest of us, it's because your mind hasn't sealed over, that you've kept a fresh enthusiasm and curiosity, a desire to catch the contagion from your creative people and at the same time to help and instruct: equally admirable. How grateful John Button is to you for the things you said to him about his painting, and who else is there who could say them?

Someone else might OK his pictures - but that's just approval; someone his own age might criticize them in a helpful way, but that would lack the validity of experience. I cannot, literally bring to mind anyone else who would and could do it. Tom Hess wouldn't; Alfred Barr is too diplomatic; Larry would be jealous; John Myers is a dope...and so on. (I thought his paintings beautiful, and praised them as best I could; but I certainly have no painting pointers to give him!)

All I mean is that it seems to me merely another instance of American self-consciousness when confronted by one's oddness, when the oddness is what makes value. Do you think your paintings would keep gaining in quality — as I think they do — if you had been one of those dreary artists who hunt for it in their twenties, find it in their thirties and then do it for the rest of their lives? Oh the acres of Kuniyoshi and Reginald Marsh: I don't say their work was without merit, but I think it's mostly an achieved manner, and manner, en masse, makes for ennui. I wish instead of odd, you thought yourself as unique; you seem so to me, in relation to your brothers and sister, to other artists, to other men your age, to other members of the class of '28 (if that is the right year) — but then, they haven't had a long draught from the only spring that matters. You have.

I hope this doesn't seem impudent and fresh; which was no part of my plan.

Frank is not going to review anymore, and Betty Chamberlin called and asked if I'd write three sample reviews; so I shall, over the weekend. I wish you were going to be here to criticize them for me, but I shall do it the best I can and keep copies to show you.

I hope soon I can come out and visit you; since you said at Morris I knew "damn well I could." Pretty strong talk, pardner.

I'm enjoying enormously working over my book with Catherine Carver. I think it will turn out one that I will like much more than the one I submitted. It seems as thought every place where she puts her finger is one I had at some time thought myself might be a little pulpy or squashy.

I'll write more chattily another time, when you tell me that you've forgiven me for anything in this letter than needs forgiving. None of it means anything serious, in light of the joy it gave me to see your face light up when you finally saw me signaling wildly from that moving cab.

My love to Anne and Kitty and yourself. I long to hear news of Jerry.

As always,

Jimmy

P.S. Would you call me next Tuesday? I expect to be in all day.

ashbery, koch, jane freilicher, nell blaine among others

Spring 1956

to JOHN BUTTON

Dear John,

I don't know why I have to tell you this today (but I do) — perhaps it's because when I look out into the fog all I can see is the hairs of your adorable chest. I'm terribly in love with you, and have been for such a long time, ever since the first time Frank took me to your apartment. I looked around at your beautiful paintings and suddenly everything I'd ever felt about you turned into a diamond or a rose or something — anyway I went striding up and down while Frank played Poulenc and felt exactly like the Ugly Duckling the day he found he was a swan.

Then you came home and I didn't think I could ever look at you or to you again, all I could do was giggle and snort and twitch. But I've looked at you a lot since then, and there isn't anybody else in the world I want to look at; or want, for that matter.

It seems to me that I've been so GOOD that I couldn't hate myself more. I don't see why I couldn't have been born a robber baron type instead of a fool.

Now I'm going down and set 57th Street on fire to keep you warm.

This is all nonsense. I love being in love with you, it makes even unhappiness seem no bigger than a pin, even at the times when I wish so violently that I could give my heart to science and be rid of it.

with all my love,

Jimmy

Please don't tell Alvin, I don't think I could bear to meet him if I thought he knew.

The publisher and editor Donald Allen asked Schuyler for advice about an anthology he was putting together.

September 20, 1959

to DONALD ALLEN

Dear Don:

Here, from the welter of papers I've been carrying about, are a few poems; and a copy of the play that amused Frank, and (of "historical" interest), an imaginary conversation, written after seeing Frank's first book and walking up Park Avenue with him one May evening. I may send you a few more, but there aren't any I like better than "February," "The Elizabethans Called It Dying," and "Freely Expousing."

I was so interested in what Frank told me about his talk with you last Sunday. Olson may well be right, and there is a real point to putting in "background" or older poets. But if you want to represent the influence of readers as systematically omnivorous as Frank, John A, Prof. Koch and, me too, well: wow. Frank sometimes tends to cast the splendid shadow of his own sensibility over the past, as well as his friends, and while a brush of his wings is delightful, it is also somewhat heady. I thought you might be interested in what I remember people as actually reading.

John Wheelwright: particularly the poems in Rock and Shell.

Auden: like the common cold. Frank and Kenneth still profess; I grudgingly assent (though if Auden doesn't drop that word numinous pretty soon, I shall squawk).

For the greats: Williams, Moore, Stevens, Pound, Eliot. I doubt if any very direct connection can be found between Moore and anymore. I wanted to write like her, but her form is too evolved, personal and limiting. After a bout of syllable counting, to pick up D.H. Lawrence is delightful.

Eliot made the rules everybody wants to break.

Stevens and Williams both inspire greater freedom than the others, Stevens of the imagination, Williams of subject and style.

Pound I wonder about. Like Gertrude Stein, he is an inspiring idea. But a somewhat remote one. A poem like Frank's Second Avenue might seem influenced by the Cantos, but Breton is much closer to the mark.

Continental European literature is, really, the big influence: the Greats, plus Auden, seemed to fill the scene too completely - so one had to react with or against them, casting off obvious influences as best one can. In the context of American writing, poets like Jacob and Breton spelled freedom rather than surreal introversion. What people translate for their own pleasure is a clue: Frank, Holderlin and Reverdy, John Ashbery (before he'd been to France, Jacob's prose poems; Kenneth and I have both had a go at Dante's untranslatable sonnet to Cavalcanti; I've translated Dante, Leopardi and fruitlessly, Apollinaire and Supervielle (I like the latter's stories better than his poems.) But Pasternak has meant more to us than any American poet. Even in monstrous translations his lyrics make the hair on the back of one's neck curl.

Patsy Southgate, Bill Berkson, John Ashbery; seated, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch. Frank O’Hara’s loft, 1964

But back to Americans. The horrid appearance of the sestina in our midst (K. and Fairfield Porter used to correspond in sestinas) can be traced directly, by way of John Ashbery's passion for it, to one by Elizabeth Bishop. Its title eludes me: one of the end words is coffee, and it is in her first book.

Hart Crane: very much, and perhaps for extra-poetical reasons that aren't so extra. But he has exactly what's missing in "the poetry should be written as carefully as prose" poets: sensibility and heart. Not "The Bridge," of course (not yet anyway) - I think it's impossible for anyone not to premise so overtly an "American" idea. I don't mean that I don't enjoy the poem; but there is, at bottom, a rather hick idea of America challenging Europe, when Whitman had already conquered with a kiss. But do look at "Havana Rose" in the uncollected poems, or "Moment Fugue" (I'd give the tooth of an owl to have written that) or a song like "Pastoral":

No more violets
And the year
Broken into smoky panels

What a beginning.

John and Frank not now, and Kenneth perhaps, admire or admired Laura Riding, but she won't let her poems be reprinted. I have always found them rather arid going, myself.

On reflection: I don't think I'm right about Gertrude Stein. Certainly the Becks production of Ladies Voices (on the same bill as Picasso's Desire Caught by the Tail, in which Frank and John A. appeared as a couple of dogs, night after night) in 1952 influenced me immediately and directly. To represent her by a work like Ladies Voices would be truer than to include almost anything of Eliot's.

I like Eliot but what Parson Weems was to other generations The Waste Land was to us; Pablum.

Also, in tracing influences — the important ones — there is this: that while John Wieners by chance first got word from Olson at a Boston reading (then later went to Black Mountain College) and put it to good use, it is experience unlike that of any other talented poet I know. Frank studied with Ciardi, but if another writer had been giving the course, Frank would have taken it. (Olson's own allegiance to Pound-Fenellosa can't be generalized for others - unless you have room for all of Proust, The Golden Bowl, Don Juan (very operative on Frank and Kenneth) and Lady Murasaki. All through high school one of my sacred books was Mark Van Doren's Anthology of World Poetry. (In which I first read poems by Thoreau; I'm not all that international.)

I was so delighted to hear that you asked Frank about Edwin Denby's poems; I hope you have seen Mediterranean Cities as well as the earlier book. His harsh prosody I find a relief.

There is a poet who died whose name escapes me: Frank and John admire his work very much, and I think Frank has copies of the QRL with poems of his. Perhaps Frank has already mentioned him to you.

I trust we'll talk soon. I didn't mean to go on at this length, but if you can find anything for your anthology in these maunderings, so much the better.

Yours,

Jimmy

New York

July 28, 1966

to JOHN ASHBERY

Dear John,

I still feel stunned by Frank's death. If you feel equal to it, I would like to know a little more than is in today's Times, who was he staying with? Or anything you think I might want to know. But if you would rather not write about it, don't.

I finished copying the enclosed. Please go over it carefully for spelling, pointing, accents, and anything else. If you want to change or add anything, do so. Camellia does have two ll's and Sally Lunn is singular - anything else that looks like a mistake is a mistake.

It was like a dream come true to have you here, and unfortunately as quickly passed. Joe writes that "you got some dishes' - what are they like? Also, how long does the bus trip from Vermont (Burlington?) take?

I'll send the parts of what we wrote here that you don't have soon.

I'm sorry my typewriter and I are such bum copyists.

Let me hear from you soon. My love to M.

love,

Jimmy

Great Spruce Head

with frank o'hara in 1956

The balustrade along my balcony
is wrought iron in shapes of
flowers: chrysanthemums, perhaps,
whorly blooms and leaves and
along the top a row of what look
like croquet hoops topped by a
rod, and from the hoops depend
water drops, crystal, quivering.
Why, it must be raining, in Chelsea,
NYC!

James Schuyler died of a stroke in 1991. You can find his reminiscence of Frank O'Hara here. You can find more reminiscences of Frank O'Hara here. This is the second in a series. You can find the first part here.

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For me Jimmy is the Vuillard of us, he withholds his secret, the secret thing until the moment appears to reveal it. We wait and wait for the name of a flower while we praise the careful cultivation. We wait for someone to speak. And it is Jimmy in an aside.

— Barbara Guest

The Best of Donald Allen's Poets

Kyle Schlesinger on Charles Olson

The autobiography of Robert Creeley

John Ashbery on the paintings of Fairfield Porter

Bridget Moloney's introduction to Frank O'Hara

Ed Dorn remembers Richard Brautigan

Alex Carnevale profiles Fairfield Porter

John Ashbery's conversation with Kenneth Koch

James Schuyler's essay about Frank

Jane Freilicher, as seen by John Ashbery

The letters of Bob Creeley and Charles Olson

Will Hubbard on the poetry of John Ashbery

After Frank's death, these poets eulogize him

Wednesday
Mar092011

In Which Here Are Novels Finer Than Any Imagined

Our Novels, Ourselves

Almost everything is a matter of taste, even criminal acts. Taste rules dreams, sexual profligacy and buying power. Haven't you seen High Fidelity? Novels are the ultimate arbiter of taste, for there is truly nothing that they cannot contain under the right circumstances. Tomorrow we issue our 100 Greatest Novels list, where we will examine those novels which most fully represent the feeling of life. As preparation, we asked a few young writers and artists to list their favorite novels. This is the last in a three part series.

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Elisabeth Donnelly, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Alexis Okeowo

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

This book is technically a children’s novel, but I usually believe that children’s books are the most appealing and universal. It’s a story about time travel – one of my all-time favorite subjects! – and finding your moral strength and trusting your abilities. What struck me about A Wrinkle in Time, even as a kid reading it for the first time in my backyard in Alabama, was how intelligent and layered the writing and plot were, and how enthralling this galaxy was that L'Engle created. I couldn’t stop dreaming about falling into her worlds.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie

This book was the only time I’ve read a novel that reminded me of my life experiences so much it was kind of excruciating at some points. The pain aside, Half of a Yellow Sun is the best example of grand, lyrical storytelling I've ever seen. The novel is set during the Nigerian civil war, and is a story both about struggling to live with compassion and dignity during chaos, and about a love affair that consumes a British journalist and two Nigerian sisters.

What is the What by Dave Eggers

I think I swooned at the first point in the novel when Eggers started writing from the perspective of the South Sudanese protagonist: the diction and the tone were perfect and reminiscent of the regal, funny Sudanese people I knew in Africa. The story about the Lost Boys (and girls) of Sudan is incredibly sad, yes, but the writing is so beautiful and the voice of Valentino Achak Deng so important, that I didn’t mind. What is the What ravaged my emotions, but in a good way.

Alexis Okeowo is a writer living in New York. She is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker. You can find her website here.

Benjamin Hale

These aren’t necessarily the books I would take with me if I were banished to a desert island; there’s no point, I know them too well.  These are three of the books that have most profoundly changed me, changed my understanding of literature, and changed the way I want to write.  

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Kurt Cobain, with characteristic self-loathing, once described "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as “basically a Pixies rip-off.” If there’s a book to which I would happily acknowledge a personal debt with such groveling humility, it would be this one. My own novel is basically a rip-off of The Tin Drum. The Tin Drum is among the bravest books ever written.  

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow  

Henderson the Rain King is a better book, and I thought of listing it instead, but I chose Augie March because it was the first Bellow book I read, and the one I set out to study, in the way an apprentice chef might try to reverse-engineer a mystery sauce by taking sips and altering ingredients accordingly, trying to discover how the master made it. I lent my copy to a friend recently, who told me I’d apparently circled a certain paragraph and wrote in the margin, "LEARN HOW TO WRITE LIKE THIS." 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes  

Arguably the first novel and, I would argue, the best.  To me, the Man of la Mancha represents the spirit of the novel: comedy in the front, tragedy in the back.  It is a story that begins, but never ends.

Benjamin Hale is a writer living in New York. He is the author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.

cover by joshua k. marshallRobert Rutherford

Let me first assume a male audience. The books that you read in your angry youth tend to remain after the emotion they engender fades. Though the blueprint lightens, you realize the man you thought you'd become are also the men the authors wanted to be, but weren't. The three imaginary men I thought I'd become but lacked the conviction are:

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway wrote his first novel "not to be limited by the literary theories of others, but to write in his own way, and possibly, to fail." At least when he was young, he lived a life more full. It's easy to romanticize Ernest driving an ambulance in World War I and defining the lost generation in Paris, but it's easy because he actually did those things. No one should be allowed to write anything until they are seriously wounded in a war at least once. Hemingway shot himself in the head with a double barreled 12-gauge shotgun at his home in Ketchum, ID.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Fifty years before you were born, Miller put to words everything you have ever wanted to do in your life but you can't because you are too weak, afraid and lazy. He fucked his pen across Paris, and then raped New York in Tropic of Capricorn. Jack Kerouac was an aimless hobo in comparison. Miller died in the Pacific Palisades and his ashes were scattered off Big Sur.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

A novel by an alcoholic before he became a drug addict is the best reason for sticking to alcohol. There's very little in this book of the Hunter caricature that came later, so it feels like a the work of a different author, the caterpillar before the cocoon. It's laconic instead of hyper and helps you realize that before he was a gonzo journalist he was just a kid who idolized Jack Kerouac. Thompson shot himself in the head with semi-automatic Smith & Wesson 645 at his home in Aspen, CO.

You wake up one day and you're happy, and you don't want to kill yourself. And that's depressing because it means you can't be a writer. To the men we became, and the authors who showed us how not to become them.

Robert Rutherford is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Kara VanderBijl

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

This book, which I believe I have read at the turn of each season since I first discovered it, inspires in me a strange mixture of nausea and awe. Flaubert's mastery of the French language remains the standard by which I measure my own understanding of it; his sad lady protagonist remains my greatest fear and a faultless mirror. Emma, c'est moi.

The Go-Between by L.P Hartley

One must disregard the fact that Hartley's opening line is now as over-quoted as a Frost poem in order to appreciate its truth. I treasure this story as a sort of secret garden, uncomfortably recalling the innocently ignorant period of my childhood. Plus, since this novel is ridiculously under-read, I have the pleasure of relating its poetry to anybody within earshot.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Eco wooed me by quoting Latin and refusing to translate it on virtually every page. In other words, this medieval murder mystery occupies the Read This And Understand Your Humanity shelf, a black hole of disproportionate presumption. A category of people, to which I belong, will read it and take pride in the fact that they grasp very little of the universe. It was not written for them.

Kara VanderBijl is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here.

Damian Weber

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

After reading too much, and writing three of your own unfinished novels, you can't read fiction anymore. Sure you can mine for ideas, but mainly your bullshit meter won't let you finish 20 pages. That's why we only read non-fiction now. Or Louise Erdrich. She never sets off my bullshit detector. On a different topic, we need to write more short stories.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

After you're done reading all the best literature in the world, you get over it, and move on to genre fiction. Especially if you want to write yourself, and you're sick of being limited by your own boring imagination. Did you know you were as imaginative as Dan Simmons? Did you know you could break free and write the craziest awesome shit?

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan

If all my favorite music lyrics could be assembled in a narrative of my life with the girl I like and our daughter, I would read it over and over like I do Trout Fishing In America.

Damian Weber is a writer and musician living in New York.

Jessica Ferri

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

Do you hate everything but have a great sense of humor about it? Read Thomas Bernhard for all your obsessive, misanthropic, neurotic, suicide-inducing rants. Because really, when all you want to do is play piano but Glenn Gould studies at your music conservatory, what the fuck is the point of living except to complain about it?

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Over a lunch of Frog Legs and an uneaten chicken sandwich, Franny realizes that she's surrounded by "section men," and needs to ceaselessly pray. Zooey, her actor brother, after a long marinade in the tub, calls her from the living room to tell her about Jesus and the Fat Lady. You will read this dialogue and you will laugh. This will be followed by a tightening in the chest.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre is the book in your middle school "media center," that calls to you with the intense-looking girl on its cover and the author's familiar sounding last name. You might want to make it a re-read past the age of nine, however, because Jane Eyre is one of the greatest novels ever written, and you'll need to have loved and lost and been "poor, obscure, plain and little," to fully understand how awesome it is for Jane to bust up out of a terrible situation in 1847 and go traipsing through the English rain, risking pneumonia and God knows what else to become the best narrator any reader could ask for.

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here.

Britt Julious

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My body shakes thinking of the characters in The Secret History. I don't think I've despised characters so succinctly and passionately. The longer I think about the plot and the characters' decisions, the more incensed I become. But never have I had such immense, perhaps even overwhelming pleasure reading a book. Characters that challenge me this much only remind me why I love reading.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

The Dud Avocado is a whip-smart little gem of a book, one that I've read three times in the few months since I've finished it. Sally Jay is young and silly and tricky. I relate to her almost selfishly: I hate knowing that other people will read thus book and see themselves (flighty, sarcastic, anxious) reflected from line to line. I'd like to believe that Sally Jay and I are kindred spirits, and that everyone else is just pretending to know what it's like to be us.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes' writing is lush. Its lushness makes me wince, for I can only dream to write as uniquely and profoundly as she did. There are certain passages I've underlined and like to revisit from time to time. My masochistic nature breaks free; reading her work is torture for the young writer who only wishes to capture a portion of that indescribable quality each page possesses.

Britt Julious is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here and her twitter here.

Letizia Rossi

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sometimes you just want to get the fuck out of New York. Get away from the bullshit, the social climbers, the sycophants and just head back to your home town. You're tired of getting wasted, open bars, not even knowing whose party it is; the antics of bankers, bohemians, socialites; conversations about ‘content’, banal proclamations, networking, feigning interest, working hard to get ahead. These assholes are all just spending their Daddy's money anyhow. I mean does anyone even really love anyone or is it just what they represent?

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry
 by Leanne Shapton 

My ex-boyfriend had the best stuff, amazing stuff, the stuff of dreams: LPs, 70s era McIntosh receivers, silk velvet chaise lounge, arts and crafts desks, criterion dvds, vintage file cabinets, Godard posters, fiestaware, le crueset, butter bell, sheets that – somehow tastefully – match the towels, William Eggleston books, walnut bookshelves filled with every book you’ve meant to read (arranged by color), a ship in a bottle, vintage Fernet Branca ad /(souvenir from trip to Buenos Aires). Does anyone really love anyone or is it just what they represent?

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend

Accept no imitators! This is the genre-defining self-deprecating epistolary diary novel. (Not mad at you Bridget Jones and Nick Twisp.)  SPOILER ALERT: "Love is the only thing that keeps me sane..."

Letizia Rossi is a writer living in Williamsburg. You can find her website here.

Will Hubbard

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

I am drawn to books that present an unthinkable world. A world that it would be impossible for me to inhabit because of my limitations. A world in which my head would explode. Such is the mercy of a great novel – that it only partially explodes our heads, privately and pleasurably. The Alexandria of Justine is a place where the colors of the sky and water are not colors you've ever seen before. And the politics of the place – both municipal and sexual – are impossible to understand and thus easy to enjoy. Every character constitutes a nation unto him or herself – there are cryptic alliances and yes, a great deal of sex, but eventually everyone stands (or dies) alone. Nobody prevails. Alexandria prevails. Durrell felt that he needed to write three sequels to explain away all the misery and intrigue of Justine – I would have preferred that he didn't. In fact, I've never read Justine all the way through – and still, somehow, it's my favorite book. Explain that.

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller

Everything I said above, subtracting the abundance of sex and adding long, rich passages about the qualities of the light at various Greek archaeological sites. I know that strictly speaking this is not a novel, but when a human being has the experiences Henry Miller did and can process them with the grace that he does in this book – there's nothing to really delineate it from fiction. If a novel is a long story that didn't happen, then Colossus for all intents and purposes is a novel – it simply could not have happened. Again, our limitations. The most sensitive of us is far too dull.

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley

The narrator of this novel loves football, specifically Hall-of-Fame Giants running back Frank Gifford. It's an easy enough world for some of us to imagine – long Sundays in dark, cool, damp places checking alternately the score on the television and the amount of beer in our glass. But sport only frames Exley's story of human weariness and wariness which, again, gives me supreme pleasure because I cannot imagine surviving the mental circumstances of its narrator. That the protagonist shares his name with the author we forgive because the book draws heavily – some say absolutely – from the real Frederick Exley's life, which at times was more horrific than anything in his 'fictional memoir.' Punctuated liberally by the arrival of white-clad men from mental institutions, A Fan's Notes manages a steady undercurrent of hope; I doubt its author ever could.

Will Hubbard is a writer living in Williamsburg. His first book of poetry, Cursivism, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in April.

Durga Chew-Bose

Adolphe by Benjamin Constant

“Nearly always, as to live at peace with ourselves, we disguise our own impotence and weakness as calculation and policy; it is our way of placating that half of our being which is in a sense a spectator of the other.” Forgoing traditional imagery, Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe is furnished instead with emotions, “sleepless nights,” and mood. Sober stuff, yes, but a fortune of maxims, I promise! Rumored to be based on Constant’s liaison with Madame de Staël, the plot is classic: a doleful and somewhat reclusive young man, seduces a Count’s lover. Their affections grow alongside the young man’s doubts and eventually, desire’s cruel law of diminishing returns overcomes. While short — less than a hundred and fifty pages — I suspect Adolphe has become my skeleton key; that which can unlock, or at the very least let breathe (read: indulge in!) some of my most pressing reservations. For anyone who is preoccupied with feelings, especially love, this novel is a trove of its articulations, both physical and mental. 

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras’s The Lover is best read over the course of one day. It possesses you. And like on especially hot summer afternoons where the sun's heat appears to be coming from inside you, Duras’s prose spawn that similarly sublime and somewhat punch drunk sensation from having sat outside for too long. My copy of it is worn, underlined, scribbled on, and yet, it still smells new. I refer to it not only for the story of the unnamed pubescent protagonist and her lover, but for the descriptions of women, like Hélène Lagonelle, who are "lit up and illuminated," (unlike the men who are "miserly and internalized.") That addled mix of envy and adulation—of knowing the nude shape of your friend’s body even when she is clothed, the convex, the concave, of using words like 'roundness,' 'splendor,' and 'illusionary' and then following them with words like, 'never last,' and 'kill her' — confirm the novel’s overture, a sentence that I copied over and over in my notebook what feels like years ago, unaware of its enduring potency: “Sometimes I realize that if writing isn't, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it's nothing." 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I care deeply about this book because it pools together so many thoughts that for so long I assumed were separate. It reads like trinkets in constant orbit, like "that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion." It's also terribly funny, diagnostic, and warm; the finest combination! One of my favorite chapters, 'The Tail,' begins with this: "Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate the tail." I simply cannot get enough.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She tumbls here and twitters here.

Rachel Syme

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I am not ashamed to say that I loved the film adaptation of The Hours — if only for that twitchy Philip Glass score and to see Meryl Streep wring her hands and cry on a kitchen floor covered in egg yolks (I prefer this flustered Streep to the daffy Nancy Meyers version who makes croissants stoned) — but I do understand the bit of damage that the film and the book that spawned it did to the venerable cultural status of Mrs. Dalloway. Not that the The Hours didn't do Woolf justice; it's just that one could get the impression that it's not entirely necessary to go back and read the source material. The essence is there in the film, it's infusing the whole thing. Which is all fine! But if you have a deeper interest in writing, or women, or parties, or human frailty, or moral quandaries, or in passions v. the banal scutwork of daily life, then I would prescribe the original to you like a tonic. Reading Clarissa's inner monologue, her incantations about all of the things she can never have, that life will never be for her; this is how I learned that writing born from empathy just feels different, and those that master it are sorcerers.

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore

A small but important truth to get out of the way first: As a novel, Anagrams is kind of a disaster. Other novels likely talked some shit about it in the hallways, wondering why it had to come to class so grubby and loose and patched together. The book is — if we want to get technical about it — closer to a novella that has been smashed together with a few short stories and sealed with word pectin. Each little fragment features characters with the same names (Gerard and Benna) and a few overlapping characteristics that carry over between story breaks, but the flow is not immediately scrutable or consistent; it lumps along. And I couldn't love it more. As is the case with most things that get slammed into lockers at first, Anagram is a slow burner, this late bloomer of a book that takes some time and investment to blossom on you. It is a White Swan willing to twirl overtime with an Odile inside. I get more out of re-reading this book than I do most any other, if only because I think it's the funniest and harshest and loneliest Moore has ever been on the page, and her talent for owning that particular literary trifecta is well-documented. In an interview with The Believer, Moore said that she wrote Anagrams "longhand on a typewriter, and it probably contained more crazy solitude than any other book I've written." And she's right! It's a crazy lonesome read. But also, there are these glittering moments of warmth that peek through, sharp enough to break the skin: Life is sad; here is someone.  

The Debut by Anita Brookner

"Books about books" is a genre that is usually best avoided (unless you find great pleasure in watching someone try to high-five himself), but Brookner's story about Ruth Weiss, a 40-year-old Balzac scholar who, in the first line, discovers that "her life had been ruined by literature" is rich and savory, and magically absent of cliche. The book moves ever so slowly, as Ruth reflects on lessons from her youth ("moral fortitude…was quite irrelevant in the conduct of one’s life: it was better, or in any event, easier, to be engaging. And attractive.”), on her selfish childhood and one terribly broken love affair, and on how she came to be an academic loner writing a neverending study of Women in Balzac's Novels. Ruth's story has an Olive Kittredge sheen to it, in that not much happens outside of a lonely woman's meanderings through her own life, and yet it has a British crackle to it, and a tender pacing that could only belong to a mature writer. Brookner published The Debut — her debut — when she was 53 years old, and you can immediately tell that the prose comes from the mind of someone who has done some living and losing and mellowing and accepting, and is on that phase of the roller coaster where your jaw is settling back in. I read this when I want to feel like I am consulting an swami of calm; oracular spectacular, a soothing voice that also tells you how to live.

Rachel Syme is the books editor of NPR.org. She tumbls here and twitters here.

Amanda McCleod

The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky

Poor Fydor! Poor Dmitri! Poor Ivan! Though their fates may have been brutal it is Alexey Karamazov I feel the sorriest for! Fated to be Dostoyevsky's great protagonist in a second novel which he failed to complete within his lifetime. Alexey Karamazov is my favorite character of all time, easily. He appears to be modeled after saints and folk heroes alike, and is possessed with a bottomless kindness that is shocking in contrast to his own father's maniacal meddling. What I would give for that second book to have been completed! I had the great pleasure of reading The Brothers Karamazov along with a few friends in recent years and together we fostered the notion that everyone is at heart one of the three brothers: The realist Ivan, the impassioned Dmitri, or the gentle Alyosha. We hope no one we encounter is a Smerdyakov or Fydor, and we've all met our fair share of Grushenkas. I've loved an Ivan and befriended many Dmitris, but I'll always be an Alyosha.

Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein captivated the world so thoroughly with Michael Valentine-Smith, the man from Mars, and his concept of Grokking that "Grok" has been incorporated into the English language. From the novel itself: "Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed." Since first reading Stranger I've held this notion in the back of my mind whether encountering art or others. I can honestly say that I never expected I would encounter such a earnest concept in a work of science fiction, yet Heinlein achieves many such beautiful instances as this one continually throughout the novel. At times this read can be campy, but that really only adds to the pleasure of examining humanity through the eyes of a man reared in martian culture.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

For one thing I can't think of a week since I've read this book that the Eternal Return hasn't crossed my mind. It is a horrifying thought, that is unless you live with such conviction that you reach Amor Fati. If you were doomed to repeat all of your days eternally, could you stomach living them? This is the sort of thing I'd like to wake up and worry about every morning, though often I am most worried about where caffeine will come from and how soon it will come. Thus Spoke Zarathustra was extremely enjoyable for me to read, but this is surely because it mimics the New Testament in style. As a product of catholic school it was actually very comforting to be reintroduced to this sort of language when I first read this novel. This quickly became extremely amusing, as Nietzsche's eccentric Zarathustra verges on zealotism often and backhanded critiques against religion are delivered feverishly. If you haven't delved into Nietzsche before I'd say this is a fun place to start.

Amanda McCleod is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her website here.

Yvonne Georgina Puig

All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry 

Larry McMurtry is pretty much my hero. He's one of the most productive and least pretentious writers around. This is a beautiful, hilarious story written in clear, simple McMurtry style, and much of it is set in Houston, Texas, my hometown. Not many novels are set in Houston because generally speaking it's an uninspiring place. But this book, along with Terms of Endearment, make me nostalgic for oppressive humidity and flat urban sprawl and larger-than-life hairdos. I don't enjoy writing book reviews (unless I love the book I'm writing about), or analyzing books to pieces. I just enjoying reading, and then enjoy loving the books that I love, if that makes any sense. McMurtry is easy to love in this way because he tells such great tales. Three summers ago, I started it on a hot day in Austin, Texas, a few miles from where the book opens. 

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley 

I love books populated by characters from Sarah Palin's "real America." Their problems are less self-indulgent and more insidious. "Real" Americans, in my opinion, are much more interesting than people from, say, Santa Monica. A Thousand Acres, an incredibly poignant and masterful first-person re-imagining of King Lear, set on a farm in the Heartland, is really a story about a family confronting evil. Yet everywhere you turn someone is baking blueberry muffins, or fixing coffee for the pastor, or making a casserole for the church social. Smiley gives you a slow drip of Godly politesse, and then suddenly you're drowning in utter devastation. I think this is how darkness really functions. 

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence 

A friend who recently graduated from Columbia told me she took a class there on D.H. Lawrence which was full of Lawrence detractors, and apparently there's this whole faction of them out there in the world, who go around disputing Lawrence's reputation as one of the greats. Maybe this is a known thing, but not to me, and I'd like to tell those people to shove it. It's enough that Lawrence wasn't treated very kindly while he was alive. These haters would be lucky to describe a flower just once as beautifully as Lawrence described flowers all his life. We need more writers in love with flowers, who find faith in nature, and who remonstrate the vulgarities of the world. Thank goodness for Lawrence's sensitive, deep-seeing soul. I love all his books, but I think Chatterley is his strongest narrative, and a good place to start in reading his work.

Yvonne Georgina Puig is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her website here.

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Our Novels, Ourselves

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Elisabeth Donnelly, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Part Three (Alexis Okeowo, Benjamin Hale, Robert Rutherford, Kara VanderBijl, Damian Weber, Jessica Ferri, Britt Julious, Letizia Rossi, Will Hubbard, Durga Chew-Bose, Rachel Syme, Amanda McCleod, Yvonne Georgina Puig)

The 100 Greatest Novels

If You're Not Reading You Should Be Writing And Vice Versa, Here Is How

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

 

Friday
Nov202009

In Which We Describe How To Walk Through The World

amonthormore

Being R.V. Neuman

by WILL HUBBARD

I am sitting in Gucci, a Midtown barbershop named not for the Florentine fashion icon but for Maritzio Gucci, the shop's septuagenarian proprietor and sole stylist. Gucci is roughly 12'x12' and boasts the striated green marble and mirroring of a men's restroom in an opulent hotel. But Mr. Gucci, for all the glitz of our surroundings, is warm and gregarious, speaking to me of his notable clientele with the visibly conflicted pride of a child showing a perfect test score to his less fortunate classmates.

I am not here for a haircut. Instead, Mr. Gucci's shop is simply the most recent attraction on my week-long whirlwind tour of the haunts and habits of novelist Robert Vernon Niman, or "R. V. Neuman" as it appears on the spines and dust jackets of his books. His latest, A Month Or More, is slated to appear in early 2009 and will, if we can believe the author's cryptic musing from Mr. Gucci's chair, "draw out something from the blood of this country that none knew existed before, either in violence or in love."

rvneuman1

the author in Peru, circa 2003 (photo: Langdon Mackerley)

Niman is not an easy man to track down, and at 6 feet 7 inches tall, with deep emerald eyes and jacknifing black eyebrows crowned with grey, he is an even harder man with which to talk. Most days I have found him outfitted in a simple white polo, tartan wool slacks, and either a camel-hair or navy blazer depending on the ferocity of the early autumn chill. His cordovan loafers shine in even the lowest lights - "a man should wear cordovan, period" - and I cannot help but feel like his bumbling apprentice as I'm tugged into one Old Manhattan bistro after another.

But for all Niman's warnings, A Month is not much of a departure in content or style from his previous efforts. The setting - as in 1994's witty if oblique Honey, and 2003's Stones In The Cellar - is blue-collar, south-east Bakersfield, California, the gritty neighborhood of the author's birth and upbringing. The sentences are long but crystalline, beguiling as they are unaffected. One slips into the gnostic dream of Niman's world as though the way has been lubricated: initial violence gives way to a resigned and fluid motion forward and down. "Your first fifty pages are like birthing a child, but after that, absolute bliss!," Niman squawks in the high, mildly Southern and distinctly mocking tone of voice he often uses to parody his readers.

honeycomb1

Mr. Gucci trims Niman's paltry tuft of bang with a surgical exactitude, the last step of what has revealed itself to be a rather laborious and intricate haircut. To me, the author looks more or less exactly as he looked before - vaguely aristocratic, detached but in control, intimidating as a lion. He has never married ("or divorced!"), and has lived the last two decades since returning from a twelve-year, meandering tour of the continent of Asia in a small but comfortable studio apartment two and a half blocks off Central Park West. He enjoys neither walking in the park nor going to the cinema, preferring to spend time between writing bouts aboard his tiny motorboat - named for his first novel, Nowhy To Run - on the Hudson. "The fishing was better when the river was a dump; now I mostly make large, irregular figure eights and wait for the sun to go down behind New Jersey."

For the most part, Niman refuses to talk about his childhood in Bakersfield. His mother Cindy ran a business that supplied temporary catering staff to events in wealthy people's backyards; the author's one (and by his own reckoning poorly-researched) biography casts his mother as strong-willed but lacking imagination, pushing her son toward a career in the forest service rather than encouraging his obvious literary talents.

Nothing is known about Niman's father, and when in 1995 an interviewer pestered him about the subject, Niman famously smashed his tumble of white-wine and Fresca (still his preferred drink) and began whispering a string of skittering negations - "Never... Not... Nil... Nohow... Non..." - that would obsess and frustrate critics for years to come.

Bakersfield Model-A Club, 1951

Bakersfield Model-A Club

Not wanting to add to the myth, I have skated the subject all week hoping for a voluntary offering. I am particularly interested in the possible relation of Niman's father and A Month's fiery, winsome, and somehow blandly Protean protagonist, Marcellus, a paterfamilias a la Faulkner's Sutpen faced with the task of retrieving his family's good name after a spate of suicides, a child conceived by first cousins, and a massive wildfire that has completely destroyed the natural habitat of the winger-wasling, a virtually extinct and fantastically beautiful species of bird that drew, owing greatly to the oral lore of the wizened inhabitants of a nearby Native American reservation, the meager but steady tourism that kept his beloved city afloat.

Ironically, it is Mr. Gucci that provides my entrée into the subject of Niman's father. He asks him while lathering his lightly-stubbled face for a shave, "This is one of the thickest beards I've ever seen. Signor, your father had a great beard too, yes?"

Niman, eyes closed and head tilted back, does not stir; has he heard the barber at all? For a long moment I am tense, wondering whether to build on Mr. Gucci's ignorance in hopes unravelling the enigma of the novelist's early days in Bakersfield. Just maybe, more than ten years after the tumbler and whispering incident, Niman is ready to talk.

barbershop

And he does: "Turn to the middle section...Must be around page two-thirty or two-thirty-five....The paragraph begins 'All of us waited in the kitchen' or something like that." I understand that he wants me to open my advance copy of A Month or More and read the passage aloud. I am wary of what is in store for Gucci and I, but excited to be reading to a great writer from what may well be his masterwork. I begin:

All of us waited in the kitchen, some under the table and some over near the pantry, while Marcellus bundled the remaining sacks and dragged them to the curb. The light fell out of the one grimy window above the sink, and by the time his first tired footstep fell on the stairs leading up to the porch, the house was a dark, deep blue. Though I cannot speak for the others, the sound of Marcellus' boots on the dry wood and the creak of the screen door as he pulled it slowly open were not regular sounds, like a cat or a pot of tea might make. It was as if Marcellus were walking in my mind and not through the world, as though the sound of him were nothing but the sound of my own thoughts runnin' into one another. And when he joined the others under the table I knew it had always been, and would always be that way.

serpentine

"Serpentine Drive", the old way from Los Angeles to Bakersfield

I look to Mr. Gucci, who has stopped shaving the author somewhere during my monologue. The old man is looking down at the half-lathered face, rapt in a limp but enveloping admiration he doesn't quite seem to understand. Niman himself says nothing.

Recalling our first moments in the shop, I ask whether the passage, or the book as a whole, deals primarily with violence or primarily with love. Mr. Gucci is just finishing with the blade, and begins to towel off the writer's face, which to me looks exactly as it did before. Looking up at Gucci, then at me, his mouth forms a smile at first sarcastic but melting as a moment passes into one of genuine pleasure. He chuckles as he rises to his feet, and looking into the mirror to inspect the job, says, "Violence or love? That I can't answer. Because thankfully, finally, I cannot tell them apart."

Will Hubbard is the executive editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in New York City. He can be reached at whubbard at gmail dot com.

will

portrait of the author as a young man

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