Literature

Literature, Publishing

Two Reviews of Michel Leiris

Two Reviews of Nights as Day, Days as Night
By Michel Leiris

In her article titledNocturnal Disturbances in Diabolique Magazine, Samm Deighan gave Nights as Day, Days as Night a fascinating (rave!) review. 

A book that largely resists classification, this is a combination of surrealist autobiography (literally, in the sense that is was written by a leading Surrealist and figuratively in the sense that it is predictably and wonderful surreal), prose poem (which is how translator Richard Sieburth refers to it), and dream journal. Anyone who has a fascination with the Surrealists or 20th century Paris will find much to love and the work’s appealing strangeness certainly lingers in the memory — I can’t stop thinking about it.
Spurl’s new volume captures the poetry, absurdity, and beauty of Leiris’s book thanks to a translation from Richard Sieburth. A comparative literature professor at New York University, Sieburth specializes in writing about and translating German and French literature; perhaps I’m biased, because he has translated a number of some of my favorite authors, from Walter Benjamin and Georg Büchner to Henri Michaux, as well as Nerval, and I suspect his knowledge of the latter assisted him here. Regardless, he does Leiris proud.

And in The Pepys of Sleep (in Strange Flowers), Berlin-based writer/translator James Conway talks about dreams and literature; Michel Leiris, Raymond Roussel, and André Breton; and the real-life dream of an Italian game show. A highly recommended read.

As language rests from its customary labours, Leiris takes words apart, comparing them, rearranging them, rousing the associative logic slumbering in their syllables.

You can also read an excerpt from Nights as Day, Days as Night online at The Brooklyn Rail. 

Literature

Lost De Quinceyean Dreams (Prose Poems)

Lost De Quinceyean Dreams

By Matt Schumacher

Illustration by Zhenya Gay of Thomas de Quincey’s  Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Illustration by Zhenya Gay of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

LOST DE QUINCEYEAN DREAM NUMBER ONE

The 1821 revised Confessions were to contain “the crowning grace” of twenty to twenty-five dreams, but nearly all these prose poems were burned or lost. In one of these, De Quincey’s nightmare exiles him to a solemn, ruinous city.  Gargoyles guard its arched entrance, inscribed with a slogan from Ovid: Dolor Ipse Disertum Fecerat. The streets abandoned save for the sense no one lives here. Just when he’s sure no one’s about, a pallid gaunt man in a top hat and long black trenchcoat hurries out a small door and proceeds briskly toward the poet with pure purpose. The pale stranger nears, gray eyes staring maliciously into De Quincey’s. Then, like opiumsmoke, walks right through him.

A SECOND LOST DE QUINCEYEAN DREAM

Le flâneur magnifique, De Quincey dreams that, while walking down Parisian streets, he’s truly gliding backwards. The dream soon has him rushing faster in reverse, then flying head over heels, sire of some cyclonic gyre, flown down and swallowed by a south pole Symmes Hole, tumbling into hollow earth. Shivering high diver into stalictite caverns. Traveler, his sieve-like vessel leaking flames on subterranean rivers of fire. He wakes in the tower of Remedios Vara’s painting Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle. It’s frightening to be suddenly blinded by the glare of his threadbare suit, an incandescent gold. To see his shirtsleeves, now lava flows. His coattails fulgurite. And what a hat! An ash cloud plume, rising from the brim to sublime heights of cumulus. The crown stitched here and there with lightning.

LOST DE QUINCEYEAN DREAM NUMBER THREE

De Quincey dreams of sleeping cities long before electricity exists, cities whose steeples truly knew the moon. Cities seemingly deeply asleep, save for a scant lantern swaying down an alley, or a single flickering, candlelit room. He dreams of sleeping cities, silent cities which won’t let a rustle, not one whisper, slip. Not one hum from Northumbrian lowlands. With closed eyes like locked apothecary doors. A flock of insomniacs resume their posts as woe’s own nightwatchmen. He dreams of passengers restlessly sleeping on trains, perturbed, yet failing to complain, keeping to themselves. He dreams of sleep deprivation’s selling its last estate, sits betwixt narcoleptic auctioneer and hypnogogue who, drifting off, forgets to bid. Cities slide by in shimmering nightclothes, slow Barcelonas, languid Madrids, embark in darkness’s black fabric. De Quincey dreams of new dreams silently settling in, like a scarlet ibis retires to its nest. Strange visions dilate strange eyes, open the white flower of so many nightblooming minds beneath so many thousand eyelids.

THE FIFTEENTH LOST DE QUINCEYEAN DREAM

He dreams he’s a jockey galloping ahead of all of the other thoroughbreds on a steed named Celestial Hallucination, one of hundreds of horses the Zetas race in the United States to launder millions in fiendish proceeds. The horse gallops faster and faster, murdering the competition, then leaps steeplechase-style over the track and fence, metamorphosing beneath De Quincey into a manyheaded beast. Sudden heads of sabertoothed tigers and tyrannosaurus rex crane their necks to salivate on him. Their gleaming teeth can’t quite reach him. Burying his face in its mane, he grips the chimera tighter. Glancing down, he sees his legs and arms have fused into the beast. His limbs belong to the wild scaffolding and bellows of its wings, hot and loud as a jet engine, part of this monstrosity flying higher into the air, this thing shapeshifting all the while with fangs gaping, slavering jaws wide, soaring somewhere in the stratosphere, trying to eat him alive.

From Matt Schumacher’s unpublished collection A Missing Suspiria de Profundis


Matt Schumacher's collections of poetry include Spilling the Moon, The Fire Diaries, Ghost Town Odes, and favorite maritime drinking songs of the miraculous alcoholics. Managing editor of the journal Phantom Drift, he lives in Portland, Oregon.

Literature

The Fall (Short Story)

The Fall

By Virgilio Piñera

We had scaled the three-thousand-foot mountain. Not to bury a capsule there at the peak, nor to raise the flag of the bold alpine climbers. After a few minutes, we began the descent. My companion followed me, bound, as is usual in these situations, by the same rope that ringed my waist. I figure we had descended exactly ninety-eight feet when one of my companion’s cleated boots glanced off a rock, causing him to lose his balance and somersault ahead of me. Since the rope wound between my legs, it jerked me hard, and to avoid being tossed over the edge, I had to twist around backwards. He, in turn, directed his fall to the spot I had just occupied. His decision was neither ridiculous nor absurd; on the contrary, he was responding to a profound understanding of those situations still unlisted in the manuals. The force of his movement caused a slight adjustment, and I suddenly saw my companion passing like a meteorite between my legs, and then the jolt from the rope—fastened, as I mentioned, to his back—turned me around into my original position of descent. He, undoubtedly obeying the same physical laws as I, and having traveled the distance permitted by the rope, was flipped over backwards, which naturally brought us face to face. We didn’t say a word, but both of us knew that the headlong fall was inevitable. And so it happened that, after an indefinite period of time, we began to fall. Because my sole concern was to avoid losing my eyes, I put all my effort into preserving them from the terrible effects of the fall. As for my companion, his only worry was that his beautiful beard—colored an admirable gray like gothic glass—reach the plain intact, not even slightly dusty. So, with utmost determination, I covered the bearded portion of his face with my hands; he, in turn, placed his hands over my eyes. Our velocity was increasing by the second, as is required in these cases of bodies falling through space. Suddenly, I looked through the slight spaces between his fingers and saw a sharp rock raze the top of his head. Suddenly, I had to turn my own head to confirm that my legs had been separated from my torso by a rock, possibly of calcareous origin, whose serrated edge severed anything that came against it with the perfection of a saw used in the construction of ocean liners. With some effort, it is only fair to admit, we were saving my companion, his beautiful beard, and me, my eyes. It is true that now and then—every fifty feet or so, as I calculate it—a part of our bodies would be separated from us. For example, during five such intervals, we lost my companion, his left ear, his right elbow, a leg (I don’t remember which), his testicles, and his nose; I, the upper part of my thorax, my spinal cord, my left eyebrow, my left ear, and my jugular vein. But this is nothing compared to what followed. A thousand feet above the plain, all we had left respectively was the following: my companion, his two hands (only to the carpal bones) and his beautiful gray beard; I, my two hands (also only to the carpus) and my eyes. A slight fear began to possess us. What if our hands were torn away by another boulder? We kept falling. Approximately ten feet above the plain, a pole left out by a worker capriciously caught the hands of my companion. Seeing my orphaned eyes left totally unprotected, I must confess with eternal, unforgettable shame, I withdrew my hands from his beautiful gray beard to protect my eyes from any impact. I was unable to cover them, for my hands were immediately caught in the same fashion by another pole pointing in a different direction from the aforementioned pole, at which point we were separated from each other for the first time during the entire descent. But I couldn’t complain; my eyes landed safe and sound on the grassy plain and could see, a little ways off, the beautiful gray beard of my companion, shining in all its glory.

1944


This story is an excerpt from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera, translated by Mark Schafer.

Virgilio Piñera (August 4, 1912, Cárdenas, Cuba—October 18, 1979, Havana) was a playwright, short-story writer, poet, and essayist who became famous for his work as well as for his highly bohemian lifestyle. His best collections are Cuentos Fríos (1956, Cold Tales) and Pequeñas maniobras (1963, Little Maneuvers). Piñera’s stories blend the fantastic with the grotesque, with touches of paranoia, and even with madness. [via Britannica

Mark Schafer has translated poetry, novels, short stories, and essays by many Latin American authors, including Alberto Ruy Sánchez, Virgilio Piñera, Jesús Gardea, Antonio José Ponte, and Sonia Rivera-Valdés.

Featured image from the series “Sick City” by John Brian King.

Literature, Publishing

Amsterdam, 1900 (Essay)

Amsterdam, 1900: Guided by Monsieur de Bougrelon

By Sander Bink

This essay first appeared in Dutch at rond1900.nl.

In a decadent villa in Amsterdam North, on our crowded desk at the rond1900 offices, for a while a nice little book was waiting for us to review: Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain, for the first time in English translation. You, the well-read Decadent, of course already know of this gem of a novella, which was first published in 1897 and is set in fin-de-siècle Amsterdam. If you are a good Decadent you have read it in the original French in a first or early edition, or otherwise you might have read it in the 1978 Dutch translation Denkbeeldige genietingen (Imaginary Pleasures). Although this translation by Jeanne Holierhoek is, as far as we can judge, quite good, it was still made some forty years ago and a new translator might do it just a little differently today, thus keeping the text alive for a new generation of readers. Unfortunately in our small country it seems to be quite uncommon to translate classic French Decadent writers, let alone translate one of their texts anew. Dutch literary publishers seem to have very little interest in the French Decadents in general, despite their lasting modernity and literary value.

So we recommend that you buy this recent edition by the delightful new independent publisher Spurl, to keep your Lorrain collection up to date but also because it is a good-looking book and the modern translation keeps the text fresh and sparkling. Their site also links to the justly unanimous rave reviews of Bougrelon, which contains a detailed afterword by the translator Eva Richter.

And since quite useless details are our specialty here at rond1900, we wish to add something to that already-quite-interesting afterword. As you might know, Lorrain is one of our favorite writers, whom we wrote about earlier. But the reason for this review’s delay is that we wanted to tell you all about Lorrain’s stay in Amsterdam and to what extent he fictionalized this experience in his novella. That Lorrain visited Amsterdam in 1896, together with Octave Uzanne, is a fact, but we would like to know in which hotel he stayed, with whom he had contact, which places he visited exactly. Did he, for example, visit our decadent Amsterdam North? In Bougrelon the North Holland Canal is mentioned, as well as Monnikendam, and did Lorrain himself visit the nowadays-very-hip Tolhuistuin, which is mentioned in Chapter Six? That would be a nice literary coincidence, as about the same time Gerard van Hulzen immortalized this location.

That Lorrain must have at least had some Dutch connections we hope to have shown in a previous article about Wilde’s favorite painter Leonard Sarluis for The Oscholars (no direct link available). Lorrain was part of a Dutch-French social circle that must have included Alfred Jarry, Carel de Nerée, Antoon van Welie, Louis Couperus, and Sarluis. Unfortunately we have not found any documents or letters that could have shed more light on Lorrain’s stay in Amsterdam and his possible (literary) connections there. Some of his stories were translated for the avant-garde periodical De Kroniek, so he was possibly in touch with main editor P. L. Tak.

But we did find, thanks to the digitized historical newspapers, a very curious case of the reception of Jean Lorrain in the Netherlands. In or around 1900, Van Holkema and Warendorf published an Illustrated Guide to Amsterdam and Environs. Its anonymous author appears to have been a great fan of Monsieur de Bougrelon but deems it necessary to introduce the work to his readers, as apparently it was not that well-known.

This guidebook, nowadays a rare book itself, is one of the earliest Dutch mentions of Lorrain’s masterpiece. Maybe even the very first, but regardless it is the most extensive mention.

In Chapter Nine the author takes the liberty of borrowing Lorrain’s character to guide the reader to some of Amsterdam’s hot spots, like Kalverstraat and Buffa the art dealer’s gallery. It makes for some interesting and amusing reading. For your reading pleasure, we here translate and quote the first part of that chapter. The entire book can be read (in Dutch) here.


Illustrated Guide to Amsterdam and Environs

Chapter Nine

Walks through Amsterdam
Guided by Monsieur de Bougrelon.

Do you happen to know the hero of the amusing little book that Jean Lorrain wrote about Amsterdam and which bears its hero’s name as the title, Monsieur de Bougrelon?

As I look at you, rows of national tourists seeking joy as well as comfort, who each year set out to see the world’s eighth wonder, which is to be found in the world’s ninth – our great capital, right? – and if I would browse through your city bags, purses, suitcases, florid valises, travel baskets, German baskets, coffrets, sacks, pompadours, satchels, and bahuts with the curiosity of a landlady looking through the belongings of a new tenant who is already a month behind on the rent, then I would probably find a copy of Warendorf’s Travel Library, which you have been reading as compensation for the monotony of the journey, or an illustrated magazine like Die Woche, but I won’t even find mention of Monsieur de Bougrelon’s name in the newspaper that is wrapped around your “sandwich for the road,” a sandwich that is a symbol of the tenderness of a mother, sister, wife or girl, but which is nevertheless doomed to never reach its destination.

The “sandwich for the road” has become like the Chinese man’s prayer, which keeps existing but has no more meaning. Like the tragic remains of ancient times, of carriages and track boats, it has survived, a gray old man with a wrinkled face, a stranger amid modern comfort and modern luxury. The “E pluribus unum” of each station has become an epitaph for that “sandwich for the road,” as Amsterdam offers so many opportunities for one to refresh oneself well and at little expense that you are right to offer it to the boy who sells you The Nieuwe Rotterdamsche, Weekblad, Telegraaf, and Handelsblad, thus stopping his vocal trumpet. You are right to rush to a restaurant as soon as you arrive. Well, no, you are not right: why would you want to do that without our great friend, Monsieur de Bougrelon?

Look at him standing there in his long fitted frock coat, a large top hat bought at Meeuwsen’s Hat Shop rather crooked on his head, a truncheon-like walking stick in his hand, a pretty scarf tied around the most gracious of collars, a pair of Dent’s gloves from Mr. Sinemus’s store on Leidsestraat, and with a face you swear you have seen someplace before.

He already took hold of us, already joined us, already introduced himself, already pointed out the way around the tunnels of the Central Station to us, which is built too high, as compared to the museum, which is built too low.

Monsieur de Bougrelon, placing his walking stick with force into the ground that comes from the seas, leads the way to the Hotel Van Gelder on Damrak. This is quite a suitable place for you to stay, as your fellow Dutchmen possess three characteristics that make them excellent for hotels: they are solid, simple, and tidy. Look here, does not everything shine brightly? Look at this glassware, washed the way it should be, with a cold bath afterward, to get the pure lucidity that reminds one of jewelry. Ah, decency is the sister of tidiness! Really, you could swipe a finger underneath the cabinet and the bed and then swipe it on the white sheets without sullying them.

Rising already, Bougrelon glances at a large collection of bottles of “Kaiserbrunnen,” the most excellent of mineral waters, which had just arrived at the hotel again, and then you are obliged to follow him down Damrak, across Dam Square to Kalverstraat while he unfortunately only verbally burns down the new Stock Exchange and lavishes praise on the Royal Palace, whose silvery chimes ring out above the head of the lonely virgin who, he thinks, has done wisely by turning her back to all the ugliness that is behind her.

“The aorta of the city,” he says, “this Kalverstraat, which is only narrow so that no modern electrical tram shall disfigure it with its rows of gallows, whereupon beauty has been hung by executioners. We do not need a tram in this street. One walks through it like one walks through a beautiful and interesting book, and it is over before you realize it.”

Monsieur de Bougrelon suddenly stops in front of one of the big plate-glass windows of a stately house with a high façade.

“Beauty originates in the south. Here you are standing in front of the art trader Buffa’s gallery, one of the great attractions of your capital. The De Medicis brought the fine arts from Italy into my beloved France. But the Italians traveled farther north and it is the Lurascos, the Cossas, the Grisantis, the Boggias, the Valciollas, and the Buffas who brought art to your ancestors at the beginning of the nineteenth century, which was badly deteriorated by then. The Buffa brothers originally traveled to fun fairs with their etchings. The Venice of the North appealed to them and they settled here, on the Weesper Square, right near the Amstel. The sons expanded their father’s business and soon Buffa and Sons was of eminent importance in Amsterdam.

In 1836 the firm came into the hands of another son of the land of Dante and Petrarch, Mr. Caramelli, and today Mr. J. Slagmulder and Mr. P. J. Zúrcher are the owners of this booming art gallery, built across three houses on Kalverstraat.

“But you need not stand outside merely looking at the windows displays, although there is plenty of beauty to find there already. The rooms inside are free for anyone to enter and give an overview of the most beautiful and best Dutch painters, old and young, and more; beside the Israelsen, Marissen, Mesdags, Voermans, Witsens, and Mauves, you will see Daubignys, Montecellis, Daumiers, Henners, Ziems, Decamps, Millets.

“Quite often, when my old heart longs for the art-loving shores of the Seine, in whose wide stream the Louvre is reflected, I wander in front of this sanctuary of the arts and never do I leave unconsoled.”

(pp. 143-146)


Sander Bink is a Dutch scholar on fin-de-siècle art and literature, specializing in Decadence and Symbolism. He is the main contributor to rond1900.nl. He is currently working on a full biography of the Dutch Symbolist/Decadent artist Carel de Nerée (1880-1909).

To read more by Sander Bink, check out his articles on Jean Lorrain, Gerard Van Hulzen, and Jean Lorrain in the Netherlands in Dutch, as well as his piece on Carel de Nerée and Oscar Wilde in English.

Literature, Publishing

French Writers We Love (Art by Félix Vallotton)

Thank you for making 2016 a very decadent year for us!

We released Jean Lorrain’s fever dream of a novella, Monsieur de Bougrelon
“A singular and intoxicating experience” – James Conway
Barbara Payton’s absurdist, seedy memoir I Am Not Ashamed
“A dime store (in the best sense of the term) Notes from Underground – the bellowing of the underground woman” – Kim Morgan
And John Brian King’s arresting second photography collection Nude Reagan
“Both a grotesque imposition and an ugly seduction” – Moze Halperin

And in March 2017, we will publish a brilliant work by French God-of-letters Michel Leiris:
Nights as Day, Days as Night
Translated by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot

See you in 2017!


Authors pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Comte de Lautréamont, Alfred Jarry, Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Félix Féneon; Jean Lorrain (the man himself), Joris-Karl Huysmans, Rachilde, Jules and Edmond de Goncourt; Pierre Louÿs, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, artist Félix Vallotton. – Illustrations by Félix Vallotton (1865–1925). 

Literature

The Autopsy (Short Story)

The Autopsy

by Georg Heym

The dead man lay alone and naked on a white table in the big room, in the oppressive whiteness, the cruel sobriety of the operating theatre, where the cries of endless torments still seemed to tremble.

The midday sun covered him, and awakened the death-spots on his forehead; it conjured a bright green out of his naked belly and blew it up like a big water-bag.

His body was like a giant shimmering calyx, a mysterious plant from the Indian jungles, which someone had nervously laid at the altar of death.

Splendid red and blue colours grew along his loins, and in the heat the big wound under his navel slowly split like a furrow, releasing a terrible odour.

The doctors came in. Two friendly men in white coats with duelling scars and golden pince-nez.

They approached the dead man, and looked him over with interest, talking in scientific terms.

The took their dissecting equipment out of the white cupboards, white boxes full of hammers, bone-saws with strong teeth, files, gruesome batteries of forceps, small sets of giant needles like crooked vultures’ beaks forever screaming for flesh.

The began their ghastly handiwork, looking like fearsome torturers, with blood streaming over their hands. They delved ever deeper into the cold corpse, and brought forth its inside like white cooks disembowelling a goose.

The intestines wound around their arms, greenish-yellow snakes, and the excrement dripped onto their coats, a warm, foul fluid. They punctured the bladder; the cold urine shimmered inside like yellow wine. They poured it into large bowls; it had a sharp, biting stench like ammonia.

But the dead man slept. He patiently allowed himself to be torn at and pulled about by the hair, this way and that; he slept.

And while the hammer-blows rang down on his head, a dream awakened in him, a remnant of love which shone into his light like a torch.

Outside the big window, a great wide sky opened up, filled with little clouds swimming in light in the stillness of the afternoon, like small white gods. And the swallows circled high above in the blue, shimmering in the warm July sun.

The black blood of death ran over the blue decay of his forehead. It evaporated in the heat into a horrible cloud, and the dissolution of death crawled with its gaudy claws all over him. His skin began to fall apart. His belly grew as white as that of an eel under the greedy fingers of the doctors who dipped their arms elbow-deep in his wet flesh.

Decay pulled the dead man’s mouth apart, he seemed to be smiling; he was dreaming of a glorious star, a sweet-smelling summer evening. His decomposing lips trembled, as if touched by a fleeting kiss.

“How I love you! I have loved you so much. Shall I tell you how I love you? As you moved through the fields of poppies, yourself a flame-red fragrant poppy, the whole evening was swallowed up in you. And your dress, which billowed around your ankles, was like a wave of fire in the setting sun. But your head bent in the light, and your hair was still burning and flaming from all my kisses.

“So you went on your way, turning all the time to look at me. And the lantern swayed in your hand like a glowing rose far off into the twilight.

“I shall see you again tomorrow. Here under the chapel window, here where the candlelight falls from within, turning your hair into a golden wood, here where the narcissi brush your ankles like delicate kisses.

“I shall see you again every evening at twilight. We shall never leave each other. How I love you! Shall I tell you how I love you?”

And the dead man trembled softly with happiness on his white table, while the iron chisels in the doctors’ hands broke open his temples.


This story is an excerpt from The Thief and Other Stories, by Georg Heym.

Georg Heym (1887–1912) was the son of a Prussian military lawyer and rebelled against his conservative family to become one of the outstanding poets of the Expressionist generation in Germany. His first volume of poetry, Der ewige Tag, was published in 1911 to great acclaim. In January 1912 Georg Heym drowned when he fell through the ice while skating on the Havel river in Berlin.

Susan Bennett is a freelance filmmaker, writer, and translator.

Literature, Publishing

A Dandy in Aspic: Review of “Monsieur de Bougrelon”

Contemporary caricature of Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly by “L’Héritier” (Romain Thomas)

Contemporary caricature of Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly by “L’Héritier” (Romain Thomas)

Head on over to STRANGE FLOWERS for James J. Conway’s remarkable writing on the most “eccentric, extravagant and extraordinary” personalities of the last 200 years. One of these extravagant dandies is Jean Lorrain, author of Monsieur de Bougrelon. Conway has written about Lorrain before, and his review of Spurl’s forthcoming translation is both insightful and entertaining:

But as his siècle hastened to its fin, Lorrain wasn’t going to cede the floor before offering a minor (and perhaps not even that minor) masterpiece: Monsieur de Bougrelon.
Monsieur de Bougrelon is the original dandy in aspic. Lorrain’s book is an archive that arrests life at its moment of greatest beauty, preserved in vitrines, suspended in solutions, arrayed in filigree caskets like saintly femurs and the many foreskins of Christ.
It is a reliquary, in other words, and this is precisely the term that the astute Rachilde, loyal companion to Lorrain and fellow adherent of Barbey d’Aurevilly, applied to Monsieur de Bougrelon. The Decadent’s very vocabulary is a collection of lexical curios, recherché jewels here lovingly transferred to an English setting.
It’s a singular and intoxicating experience that ends all too soon. When the ‘old puppet’ departs the stage, you may well elect, as I did, to leaf straight back to the Café Manchester and wait for his silhouette to fill the doorway once more.

And of course we love this sentiment about our books: “These prose works come with the thick black frame of a cigarette health warning or Sicilian funeral notice.

“Caveat lector.”

Monsieur de Bougrelon by Jean Lorrain
14.00

Trade paperback, 128 pages, translated from French with an afterword by Eva Richter. Free domestic shipping.

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Publishing, Literature, Photography

Gifts from Spurl Editions

Get excited, because now you can show the world how refined your taste is in literature while looking stunning at the same time! Our store features a screen-printed tote bag so that you can carry your books to the French château you live in with panache, and an I AM NOT ASHAMED t-shirt that will quickly take over as your one true vestiary love.

I Am Not Ashamed T-shirt
15.00

This glamorous unisex t-shirt from Spurl Editions features the cover of Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed on the front, and the Spurl logo on the back. It was screen-printed locally by Windmill City Screen Printing on Next Level-brand shirts. Wear this shirt, and announce to the world: YOU ARE NOT ASHAMED.

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Spurl Tote Bag
10.00

This tote bag from Spurl Editions features a quote from Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Bougrelon on one side, and the Spurl logo on the other side. It was screen-printed locally by Windmill City Screen Printing. Carry this bag and announce to the world that you are a DECADENT MARVEL.

I am an idea in an era that has no more of them.

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Literature

The Seven Madmen (review)

The Seven Madmen, by Roberto Arlt

a review by Matthew Spencer

Now might be a good time to talk about Roberto Arlt. New York Review of Books recently published a translation of the Argentine’s second novel, The Seven Madmen, giving present-day students of the confidence game a rich source for comparative historical analysis.

Bamboozle an entire nation: that’s the mission Remo Erdosain (cuckold, small-time embezzler) sets for himself. The scheme proceeds by its own tortured logic. First, Erdosain must kidnap his wife’s cousin, Gregorio Barsut, and extort his life savings from him. Then, with the money as a seed investment, Erdosain will found a secret society under the direction of a man named The Astrologer, his patron and confidant.

Like many of the novel’s characters, The Astrologer simply appears in the narrative, with no other introduction than an epithet. His relationship to Erdosain is obscure. He lives at a weekend ranch on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, meeting with fellow charlatans and reactionaries. He occasionally does an astrological chart. For whom? That goes unsaid. Arlt’s characters do what they do without any apparent motivation but the will to power.

As Julio Cortázar points out in his introduction, the parallels between the author and his creation are salient. Born to an immigrant family in the slums of Buenos Aires, Arlt lived a life radically removed from mandarin contemporaries like Silvina Ocampo or Jorge Luis Borges. Without critical acclaim, inherited wealth, or a government sinecure, he struggled his whole life to achieve financial stability and the esteem of others.

Failure is palpable from the first sentence: “As soon as he opened the frosted glass door to the manager’s office, Remo Erdosain wanted to turn back; he realised he was a lost man, but it was too late.” Today, someone might use the term “radical vulnerability” to describe the near-constant soul baring that happens in The Seven Madmen. But the world Erdosain lives in has no reward for weakness. It crushes it, without pity. One can reasonably assume this was the case for Arlt as well.

In an early chapter, as Erdosain’s wife is about to leave him for her lover, Erdosain describes how his father instilled a lifelong sense of humiliation in him.

“When I was ten and I had done something wrong, he would say to me: ‘tomorrow I’m going to thrash you.’ That’s what he always said: ‘tomorrow.’ What d’you think of that? Tomorrow…so that night I would sleep awfully, like a sick dog, waking at midnight and staring fitfully at the window to see if it was already day, but when I saw the moon clipping the transom I would force my eyes shut, and tell myself ‘there’s a long time to go yet.’”

The omnipresence of failure seems to be drawn from Arlt’s own life. Finding little success in literary ventures, Arlt sought, like his creation, to make his fortune by patenting different inventions. When he died of a heart attack, at age 42, Arlt was working on a formula for run-free women’s stockings.

The novelist’s life as a part-time crank shows up again and again in The Seven Madmen. Erdosain has a scheme to make money by coating flowers with galvanized metal. He enlists a poor family to manufacture these tchotchkes, fully aware that they will probably lose everything for believing in him. As the novel closes, Erdosain visits them at their shack on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. He reacts with disgust at their state—the father Eustaquio is deaf and dying of tuberculosis, the daughter Luciana is in love with the feckless inventor. “I hope they all croak and leave me in peace,” Erdosain says to himself.

None of the conspirators really believes in what they are doing. Yet all are confident that events will play in their favor, perversely upending the famous dictum of Marxist politician and intellectual Antonio Gramsci: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” This shared delusion is the glue that holds Erdosain’s would be revolutionary cell together. Each member believes that he stands to gain more than the man sitting next to him. In the end, little is accomplished except for a kind of collective self-mugging.

Does it need to be said that this novel, written in 1929, presaged a great deal? Only a year later, a coup d’état was staged against the President of Argentina, Hipólito Yrigoyen, ushering in what came to be known as the Infamous Decade: years of violence, corruption, and economic crisis. This is to say nothing of Fascism and the horrors of the Second World War. Now, with almost ninety years of history behind the novel, a reader can see the rise of demagogic movements through its oracular lens. But this is a stupid way to think about Arlt’s work.

The Seven Madmen succeeds precisely because it cannot offer the illusions of moral clarity that hindsight gives us. The narrative is just as constrained as its characters, just as subject to the same impersonal forces. Erdosain is benighted and Arlt forces us to live in the dark with him. Now, when moral righteousness is both the substance and currency of cultural politics, Art’s novel inspires empathy and contempt in equal measure, understanding and rejection, a feat that seems beyond the ken of today’s politically engaged writers.


Matthew Spencer is a writer and visual arts curator based in Seattle, Washington.

Literature

Oh Serafina! A Fable of Ecology, Lunacy, and Love (Fiction)

Excerpt from Oh Serafina!

by Giuseppe Berto

translated by Gregory Conti

From CHAPTER THE FOURTH

In which, as Signora Palmira
remains rather frustrated,
another character leaves us.

He left, as is only natural, for his wedding journey. He had told the bride that, for their honeymoon, they would be going to the city of the Saint, and she had asked him if by chance he was referring to Padua, the city of Saint Anthony, which she had never seen but which she didn’t have much desire to see, and he had replied that it wasn’t Padua, and so she, a bit audaciously, had thought of San Remo, where at that very time they would be holding the Song Festival that ever since she was a little girl she had watched on TV, all three nights, before some obscure oversight committee had imposed on an entire country to do without two of the three. There, she thought, her strange and in many ways gloomy husband, by taking her to San Remo for the Festival, was fighting the arrogant callousness of people who, their own hearts having hardened, wanted everyone else’s to harden too. Fascists, Palmira called them, even though now, by matrimony and wealth, she was no longer a proletarian.

But, instead of San Remo, the city of the popular songs, Signora Palmira came to find herself in the city of Saint Francis of the downtrodden, Assisi, where, shit, there was a festival of sacred music going on.

However, it wasn’t for the sacred music that Augustus the Second had made the long journey to a place that was, all in all, out of the way, nor for the olive trees that “made the slopes pallid and smiling with sanctity,” nor for the clear sky and breathable air. He had pushed himself all the way there for the sole purpose of admiring, in person and up close, the famous painting by Giotto whose photographic reproduction he had hung in the Administration, on the wall opposite his desk.

Indeed, upon their arrival in the town so sweetly perched on its hills, Augustus the Second, even before going to drop their bags at the “Sister Moon” pension, where he had reserved a double room with bath, ran, holding his recent bride by the hand, to steal his way into the Upper Basilica, where he effortlessly discovered his painting. Nobody had ever told him so, but he knew that it was right there where indeed it was.

He stood before it, immediately fascinated, but then also a bit amazed and bewildered, not so much because of the extraordinary nature of the deed represented, for to him there was nothing extraordinary about it, but rather because, voila!, through the art of a consummate painter, something so fundamentally normal as chatting with a few songbirds was portrayed as sacred, or even miraculous, and in the end he felt, not without trepidation, caught up in the sacredness. And as this sort of spiritual uplift pervaded him, he kept on holding his recent bride by the hand, maybe out of distraction, or maybe because unconsciously he was hoping that even she, perhaps helped in some way by the flux of emotion that he himself was undoubtedly emanating, would rise to the sphere of superior perception and supernatural relation that we are accustomed to calling mysticism. But Signora Palmira, on account of her nature and constitution, was not cut out for such celestial journeys, and anyway the thing couldn’t even get off the ground due to the intervention of a humble Franciscan friar who came to say, so the lady was dressed in a way that was a bit too revealing, fine; so instead of praying she was constantly working her chewing gum, fine; but the transistor radio, crackling with the silly songs of that profane festival, had better be turned off.

“If that’s the way it is, we’ll go outside,” replied Palmira, full of decorum, and she put the accent on “we” so the little friar would understand that she would also be depriving the cult of Saint Francis of her husband who, if he had married her without so much as discussing it, must be the kind of jerk who did everything other people wanted him to do.

But her husband, without taking his eyes off of the sacred painting, replied, “You go outside, and don’t break my balls.”

Signora Palmira looked at him, at first incredulous but then very quickly indignant, hating him more than she had hated him up to that moment, because she could see perfectly well that the jerk would not be moved. So she stiffened her back and, still working her gum and listening to the radio, went out to the square in front of the church where, little by little, her anger waning but her self-pity waxing, she began to think that their marriage, which she had firmly desired not to say plotted for, might actually be a calamity if the man she married, instead of taking her to the San Remo Festival, had brought her to this place for losers that made her feel so sad.

Eight days they stayed in Assisi, and she never again set foot in the Basilica, where that friar had treated her so discourteously. She stayed in bed with her trusty radio and her thoughts, or, still listening to the radio but with fewer bad thoughts, she would go sit in the sun at a table in some outdoor café.

He, on the other hand, outfitted with a hunting stool he had bought for himself, spent the whole day, until the light grew too dim, sitting in front of his fresco, apparently a dullard but actually searching, although confusedly and at bottom without a lot of torment, a more uplifting justification for having found himself in the world talking to birds. Who knows, maybe he would have managed to find that more uplifting justification, or rather, in plain words, he might at least have gotten closer to his own state of holiness, but for the fact that in him, as in any other being, but in a form certainly more exalted and distinct, there was both good and evil, the wolf and the little boy, so that, after all that daytime uplift, when darkness fell, in a sort of schizophrenic dichotomy, he was overcome with lust and wantonness. So, in the double-room with bath at the pension “Sister Moon,” he threw himself like a mad man on the body of his bride.

He relished that body to the point of delirium, not only its perfectly modeled buttocks, but also everything about it that was soft and curvaceous. And there was plenty to relish. Abundant, firm breasts, round tummy, raised pubic mound, glorious hips, shoulders and arms and feet. He gazed at it, caressed it, kissed it, licked it, all the while emitting sounds of sensual gratification.

The bride, gum in her mouth and radio at her ear, let him do as he wished. Only sometimes, when it seemed to her that he was dragging things out a little too much, she would intervene to ask, “But when are we going back home? We can’t spend all this time away from the factory!”

“Signorina Rosa will look after the factory,” he answered, still grazing.

And she took offense. “She’s deaf, blind, old, and brainless. What do you mean she’ll look after the factory.”

“She’ll look after it. She knows how things were done in my grandfather’s time, bless his soul.”

Signora Palmira would have liked to tell him exactly what she thought about his blessed grandfather and his entire family of nut cases, but she held back, waiting for a more opportune time. She felt, how to put it, as though she were expanding.

Anyway, the time eventually came for them to head home.

As soon as they arrived, Augustus the Second went to the door of the bedroom where his mother had shut herself in, and said, “I’m back, Mama. Everything went fine.”

He got, obviously, no response.

Signora Belinda, as everyone knew by now, was not doing well at all. Her personal physician, Doctor Bardi, had come to examine her a few days ago and he was worried. Unable to come up with a diagnosis, he had advised hospitalization, but the patient had said no, and had refused to allow the doctor to examine her again. So her personal physician was kept outside the door too, asking her questions that never got an answer: Had she had a bowel movement? Did she have a fever? Feel pain, nausea, dizziness? Nothing.

A few days later, however, she sent for her son. She didn’t even look at him. She waited for him to come to the side of the bed, and said to him, “You’re the one who wanted me to die.”

Augustus the Second did not comment.

After a long pause, Signora Belinda added, “Your father was a halfwit, you’re a total nitwit, and your wife is a whore.”

Even then Augustus the Second made no comment.

Signora Belinda let an even longer silence go by, summoned her energies, and concluded, “The child that will be born is not yours. The father is Carlo Vigeva. And now, get out of here, let me die in peace.”

She died during the night, without any further disturbance.


Giuseppe Berto (1914-1978) started writing novels when he was a prisoner of war in Hereford, Texas, from 1943 to 1946. He went on to write some seven novels, as well plays and many screenplays, including several based on his own novels. He won all of Italy’s major literary awards, two of them in the same year for his masterpiece Il male oscuro (1964). All of his novels except La gloria (1978) and Oh, Serafina! (1973) have also been published in English.

Gregory Conti recently translated The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe, From Finland to Ukraine, published by Rizzoli Ex Libris. In addition, Conti has translated works by Rosetta Loy, Mario Rigoni Stern, Tiziano Scarpa, and Alessandro Barbero. After growing up in Pittsburgh and studying at Notre Dame (B.A. in American Studies, 1974), at Yale (M.A. Am. Studies, 1976), and at Yale Law School (J.D., 1980), he immigrated to Italy and now teaches at the University of Perugia. Follow his work on his website

Literature

The Black Sheep (Fiction)

The Black Sheep

by Gaurav Monga

I remember him sitting on a rock. We spent our shortened childhood among the poplar trees—features of an anonymous landscape so natural to a fabricated environment like the short story.

Our love for each other had not so much to do with any particular interest or affinity we shared but with the fact that we had the same nose, lips, cheeks, buttocks, although people, friends, would often say that he looked better than me.

I was the black sheep and I made sounds like one when I laughed. It has become increasingly difficult to refer to him when he is not around, which is why I have begun to draw pictures of him.

The person who has the same nose as me grew like a beanstalk in the same room I grew up in. I tucked him in the warm quilts of winter while he was asleep.

He has been away for many, many years, which is why I carry this image with me everywhere I go, because when I start speaking about him, no one, except for childhood friends and cousins who visited us in our room and played with our toys, knows whom I am talking about.

He sent me a telegram only yesterday saying that he was coming back home but that itself might take many, many years.

In the meantime there is a lot to do here, while waiting for him in the neighborhood. I must spread rumors about myself, showing photographs to even the old. I showed them his image. Then a photograph of me.

How is it that people who speak the exact same language don’t know each other already? We talk to each other as if we don’t know each other from a long, long time ago, speaking in the same language.

The man with the stick nose who grew up in the same room looks like me. Do you think we look alike because we grew up in the same room? A room is composed of matching furniture.

When he returns, he will carry on his face all the rooms he has been shacked up in. He will speak in a language I don’t understand.

 

He arrived yesterday afternoon at the doorstep of our house while I was looking for something. I was upset—I have spent much of my life looking for things and being upset—and could not give the attention I always wanted to give to this moment. What a stupid way of arriving. Should I have forgotten all about what I was looking for or should I have forgotten that he had arrived.

I continued looking but, distracted, forgot what it was.

I hopped around the porch while this tall, thin giant, whose nose had been pulled out even further, stood towering over my head in silence.

The moment was almost over, could have already been over, had we not suspended it so stupidly.

 

It was already morning and the image of our little blue house was now comprised of two noses sticking out of the windows on either side. Our mother had given birth to us on this bed. We still kept the same sheet, which both of us were born into, in one of the closets.

The umbilical cords were withering in my father’s drawers—as children we used to blow hot air into them—along with pens, visiting cards, pipes, pipe cleaners and dust. He spent the whole day inspecting the house, its articles, and didn’t pay attention to me. He stuck his nose into everything. He was probably wondering why nothing had happened here. 

Had it not changed at all?

Why did he not inspect me instead?

Did he not want to ask me how things were going with my new girlfriend?

Long noses are symbols of arrogance, everyone knows that. My grandfather had a squashed nose and was an extremely modest chap.

This man who grew up like a beanstalk in the same room as me began raising his voice and puffing hot air out of his nose and finally spoke, but his speech was soon disturbed by a burst of hiccups.

Before leaving, he loitered about on the front doorstep uselessly while I was busy looking for something.


Gaurav Monga studies East European cultures and Jewish studies at the University of Basel and teaches at the International School Basel. For the last five years he taught creative writing at schools and universities across South Asia. This current work is a part of a collection entitled Raju and Kishore. Some of his other work can be read at Birkensnake, Zero Ducats, Juked and Philistine Press. He has forthcoming work in the Fabulist and Hardly Doughnuts. He is the founder of a fledgling publishing house called Pan’s Library that specializes in books that explore the diverse relations between text and image and can be reached at panslibrary@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Two Children in Blue, attributed to Mary B. Tucker, American, 19th century, about 1840, Watercolor and graphite

Literature, Publishing

A Vertiginous Decline: Minor Literature[s] Reviews “I Am Not Ashamed”

Thom Cuell wrote a phenomenal review of Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed in Minor Literature[s] that is sure to get you excited about this unique autobiography. He emphasizes the way that Payton talks about sexuality and subversiveness in Hollywood:

The idea that female sexuality is transgressive and deserving of punishment is a long established trope of Hollywood film-making, satirised by Wes Craven in Scream (1996) which codified the unwritten law, ‘you may not survive the movie if you have sex’. For Payton, this fictional conceit became a reality: ‘I had a body when I was a young kid that raised temperatures wherever I went. Today I have three long knife wounds on my solid frame’. No stunt doubles or prosthetics here, the wounds are written on her body.

She learned early that her body was a saleable asset, and this coloured her view of relationships. It is no surprise that she uses the language of economics to describe her love life: ‘I sold, they bought, and for years the demand was way out ahead of the supply’. At first, this exchange was transacted on an unofficial basis, with her affections bought by extravagant gifts or favours. Later, as her erotic capital began to decline, the arrangement became more formalised: ‘It’s funny how supply and demand, sex appeal and talent regulate a girl’s price. I found out soon enough that my price was a hundred dollars and not a cent more’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her most treasured relationship did not involve sex: ‘I once loved a man who was impotent and I was faithful to him. He left me after a while saying it was unfair to me. But it wasn’t and I would have loved him for the rest of my life’.

Cuell also remarks upon Barbara Payton’s wretched end, and her take on her own decline:

Payton quotes ‘a kind of saying among the hip set in Hollywood that if the pressures don’t get you the habits will’. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the pressures and the habits haven’t changed too much in the fifty-odd years since she wrote I Am Not Ashamed. She wasn’t the first starlet to come to a disreputable end, and there have been more since (although few suffered quite such a vertiginous decline in fortunes). Ultimately, there’s a lot to be said for the lack of regret or hypocritical self-flagellation which normally characterises the Hollywood exile’s memoir. And at least she doesn’t try vaginal steaming.

Literature

The Diving Bell (poem)

The Diving Bell

by Maurice Maeterlinck

Lo, the diver, forever within his bell!
And a whole sea of glass, a sea eternally warm!
A whole motionless world, a world of slow green rhythms!
So many curious creatures beyond those walls of glass,
And any contact eternally prohibited!
And yet there is so much life in those bright waters yonder!

Look! The shadows of great sailing-ships
           —they glide over the flowers, the dahlias of the submarine forest!
And I stand for a moment in the shadow of whales that are voyaging to the Pole!
And at this very moment, I doubt not, my fellow-men in the harbour
Are discharging the vessels that sail hither laden with ice:
A glacier was there, in the midst of the July meadows!
And men are swimming and floating in the green waters of the creek,
And at noon they enter shadowy cav­erns . . .
And the breezes of ocean are fanning the roofs and balconies.

Lo, the flaming tongues of the Gulf­-Stream!
Take heed lest their kisses touch the walls of lassitude!
They have ceased to lay ice on the brows of the fevered
And the patients have lit a bonfire
And are casting great handfuls of green lilies into the flames!
Lean your brows upon the cooler panes,
While waiting for the moonlight to enter the bell from above.
And close your eyes tightly, to the forest of colour,
The pendulous blues and albuminous violets.
And close your ears to the suggestions of the tepid water.

Dry the brows of your desires; they are weak with sweat.
Go firstly to those on the point of swooning.
They have the air of people celebrating a wedding in a dungeon,
Or of people entering, at mid-day, a long lamp-lit avenue underground,
In festival procession they are passing
Thro' a landscape like an orphaned child­hood,
Go now to those about to die:
They move like virgins who have wandered far
In the sun, on a day of fast,
They are pale as patients who placidly listen to the rain in the gardens of the hospital;
They have the look of survivors, breaking their fast on a battle-field;
They are like prisoners who know that all their gaolers are bathing in the river,
And who hear men mowing the grass in the garden of the prison.

Translated by Bernard Miall in Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, published 1915.


Cloche à plongeur

Ô plongeur à jamais sous sa cloche !
Toute une mer de verre éternellement chaude !
Toute une vie immobile aux lents pendules verts !
Et tant d'êtres étranges à travers les parois !
Et tout attouchement à jamais interdit !
Lorsqu'il y a tant de vie en l'eau claire au dehors !
 
Attention ! l'ombre des grands voiliers passe sur les dahlias des forêts sous-marines;
Et je suis un moment à l'ombre des baleines qui s'en vont vers le pôle !
 
En ce moment, les autres déchargent, sans doute, des vaisseaux pleins de neige dans le port !
Il y avait encore un glacier au milieu des prairies de Juillet !
Ils nagent à reculons en l'eau verte de l'anse !
Ils entrent à midi dans des grottes obscures !
Et les brises du large éventrent les terrasses !
 
Attention ! voici les langues en flamme du Gulf-Stream !
Écartez leurs baisers des parois de l'ennui !
On n'a plus mis de neige sur le front des fiévreux ;
Les malades ont allumé un feu de joie,
Et jettent à pleines mains les lys verts dans les flammes !
 
Appuyez votre front aux parois les moins chaudes,
En attendant la lune au sommet de la cloche,
Et fermez bien vos yeux aux forêts de pendules bleus et d'albumines violettes, en restant sourd aux suggestions de l'eau tiède.
 
Essuyez vos désirs affaiblis de sueurs ;
Allez d'abord à ceux qui vont s'épanouir :
Ils ont l'air de célébrer une fête nuptiale dans une cave ;
Ils ont l'air d'enterrer à midi, dans une avenue éclairée de lampes au fond d'un souterrain ;
Ils traversent, en cortège de fête, un paysage semblable à une enfance d'orphelin.
 
Allez ensuite à ceux qui vont mourir.
Ils arrivent comme des vierges qui ont fait une longue promenade au soleil, un jour de jeûne ;
Ils sont pâles comme des malades qui écoutent pleuvoir placidement sur les jardins de l'hôpital;
Ils ont l'aspect de survivants qui déjeunent sur le champ de bataille.
Ils sont pareils à des prisonniers qui n'ignorent pas que tous les geôliers se baignent dans le fleuve,
Et qui entendent faucher l'herbe dans le jardin de la prison.


For more French Decadence, sign up to be notified when Monsieur de Bougrelon releases!

And read Richard Howard’s translation of Maurice Maeterlinck.

Literature

The Port (fiction)

The Port
by Llucia Ramis
translated by Megan Berkobien

Alfred Kubin:  The Moment of Birth , 1903; Shepherd W & K Galleries

Alfred Kubin: The Moment of Birth, 1903; Shepherd W & K Galleries

 One

I remember a hedgehog devoured by ants; we found it near the house and wanted to feed it milk from the tetra-brik carton. It was dead by morning. I remember my brother wanted to see what an ant tasted like because the Chinese eat them, so he popped a live one in his mouth and spit it out because it stung. I remember my cousin pulled out a dock tire at the pier and that a crab jumped out, she got scared and let go and it crushed the crab, it pushed the guts right out through its mouth, sprtz. Afterward we hurled the body into the water and watched it float. I remember the time I grabbed a log and pinched a lizard hiding underneath; I could swear it cried out. We spent some time observing that detached tail, my cousin, brother, and I.

I don’t come here often and these memories have nothing to do with nostalgia.

Two

At night I would imagine I lived in a boarding house. I’d pretend my parents had just died and I was the new girl. Covered snugly by the comforter, in a room I didn’t share, not even with my brother, I’d invent other beds nearby with girls breathing softly in them. It made me sad when they misbehaved, and the teachers were awful, too. So I plotted my escape. Night after night I fantasized about being a poor orphan who fantasized about escaping. Afterward mamà would come give me a kiss goodnight, she smelled like night cream, and I’d fall asleep. In the morning she’d whistle to us from the hallway as if we were birds. She’d come into my room and pull up the blinds then go into my brother’s to do the same.

Three

She caught me peeing standing up, with one leg on either side of the toilet. She asked: what are you doing? I answered: I’m in training. She wanted to know what for. I told her since I’d be a boy when I got older that I needed to prepare myself. My mom, mumare, didn’t understand anything. I had to explain that when you’re born a girl, you turn into a boy at fourteen; just like if you’re born a boy, your sex changes then, too. She said no, her eyes as wide as saucers. What do you mean no? It isn’t like that, she insisted. I thought she was just treating me like I was stupid and I reminded her that my older cousin had been a boy before growing up. Mumare denied it; your cousin has always been a woman. I got mad, how could she say otherwise with evidence like that, I remembered perfectly well that my older cousin had been a boy and that his name was Joan. Mumare, astonished, laughed under her breath, but I noticed and demanded to know why she was laughing, what was so funny, why did she want to trick me about something like this, what did she think, that I didn’t remember, or maybe she thought I was an idiot. She told me I couldn’t say that word. Idiot, idiot, idiot, I repeated. And afterward I ran away so she couldn’t spank me with a slipper.

Four

I stopped feeling at age eleven, one day while coming home from school with Begoñita. We called her that because she only stood five feet from the ground. Really, she wasn’t my friend at all, but we were in the same class and she lived close to my bus stop, that’s why we went to school together. Sometimes I ditched her because her stories were boring and she always insisted we eat our afternoon snack at her house. Begoñita was really poor, or at least I thought so. She lived in an awful apartment with her sisters, a dog, four cats, six fish, two canaries, and a chameleon. That house smelled, everything was covered in hair and the blinds were always closed. I only saw her mother once, and now I realize she was drunk. My head always itched when I left her house. When I got home I would take a bath right away. I’d tell my parents that there had been an extra gym class; if I tell the truth, they’ll punish me for being prissy.

Five

We’d play superheroes at recess. We’d tie our school smocks around our necks like capes and pretend we were sixteen because then we could have boyfriends. We invented our own Prince Charmings, usually movie stars like Superman. Paula was really tall and clumsy, just hideous. She had a patch glued to one of the thick lenses of her glasses. Her hair was frizzy and grey, and she had long fingernails. Her teeth small with gaps in-between. She had a lisp. We called her “the witch” behind her back, but she was our friend. If she turned into a creature, she’d easily be a snake. One day she said she’d be the boy.

Six

The man hit her accidentally; afterward, he kept running without even acknowledging us. “Shit!” Begoñita cried out, which embarrassed me a little because we couldn’t use that word at home. She suddenly realized that her hand was bleeding. I didn’t know what to do; it grossed me out. She was crying from shock. To me it was the dirty blood of dogs, of cats or fish, of fur, chameleon or canary blood. It made me sick. A woman came over to see what had happened. She asked where Begoñita’s parents were, what insurance she had, things Begoñita didn’t know. She said she’d take her to the emergency room. Begoñita kept asking me not to leave her all alone. At eleven, I answered, very seriously, “No, Begoñita, I’ve got to go, my parents will get worried if I miss the bus. This woman’ll take care of you.” And I left her like that, with a stranger.

Seven

Do you want to get married? Wrapped up in my legs, both of us lying on a bed of white sheets, sweaty and naked—it was summer—he uses those words that so overwhelm me. I respond that the time for stupid questions is from six to six fifteen in the morning and now he has to take me home. I remember his name, but I won’t write it down just in case. Just in case his written presence is still as resounding as it is in my memory of that night.

I knew one day I would tell him yes. We’ll never meet again.

Eight

Yellow crates for hauling glass bottles. Our checkered butts sitting on those crates, Would you like some more coffee? We’d play house and I was always the guest. Yes, per favor. My knees, fully bent; the hammocks, our fort. Sometimes, the dolls too, but we didn’t usually play with dolls. And grandmother’s biscuits.


Nine

Is that a hand over there? It was my cousin who found it. We ran over to the rocks in flip-flops. The man reeked of fish and flies swarmed around his neck. His head was gone. I don’t remember us screaming or running away, or how we wanted to touch him with a stick. I don’t remember who we went to tell about it or when. I only know that the police came because they told me so afterward, and that I wet the bed that night. I was a big girl by then, already nine.

Now it’s my body that floats.


Llucia Ramis (1977) was born in Majorca, and moved to Barcelona when she was eighteen to study journalism at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Since then she has worked in radio, as editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Quimera, and at the newspaper Diario de Mallorca. She also directed and presented Això no és Islàndia (This isn’t Iceland), a television program about books. She has shared an apartment with fourteen people—not all at once, but almost. Ramis is a columnist for El Mundo and El Periódico. She has published three novels, the first of which, Things that Happen to You in Barcelona When You’re Thirty (2008), is now available as an e-book in English. Her second novel, Egosurfing, won the Josep Pla Award in 2010. Her latest project, Tot allò que una tarda morí amb les bicicletes (2013), traces her own journey home and has received wide critical acclaim. Follow her on twitter @lluciaramis

Megan Berkobien is pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Words without Borders, and Palabras Errantes, to name a few. When she isn't translating or teaching, she's trying to complete her dissertation on modernist periodicals and museums in late nineteenth-century Catalonia. She recently founded the Emerging Translators Collective.

Literature

The Book of Friends (aphorisms)

From The Book of Friends

by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

translated by Douglas Robertson

Of all the passions, the one we are most ignorant of is indolence: although its violence is imperceptible, it is the most ardent and the most cunning of all of them. — La Rochefoucauld*

There are not two people on earth who could not be rendered mortal enemies through a devilishly contrived indiscretion.

The consoler brags lightly.

The problem of family life consists in this: that the legal presence of people of diverse characters and ages is bound to become essentially a collective presence thanks to their shared mode of living.

Beloved people are sketches of possible paintings.

There is nothing more uncommon in the world than will, and yet the meager quantum of will allotted to human beings suffices to overturn all their judgments.

All fashionable vices pass for virtues. — Molière

The social world can and may be understood only allegorically. In this way the entire social world of the modern age (from La Bruyère and Madame Sévigné onwards) may be comprehended as a single great mythology.

There are as many individuals as there are encounters.

The renunciation of a mistress bespeaks a flagging imagination.

Every significant new acquaintance takes us apart and puts us back together. It is of the greatest significance, so we undergo a regeneration.

Visitors to Athens, after a few days spent in familiar conversation with Plato, ask him to lead them to his namesake, the famous philosopher.

The greatest things need only be spoken simply: they are spoiled by emphasis. The most trivial must be spoken nobly: they endure only by means of expression, tone, and manner. — La Bruyère

Children are amusing because they are easy to amuse.

In superior human beings there are a productive and an unproductive form of indolence, and they flow together into a region that eludes the eye, a region seemingly without clear borders.

What love stimulates in fits and starts is plastic energy. Hence in love as in art are there so many abandoned rough drafts that lack the energy needed for their completion.

What one does simply is simple to do. — Wladimir Ghika

Vocal music is miraculous because it consists in domesticating what is by default an organ of unbridled egoism: the human voice.

[…]

Depth must be concealed. Where? On the surface.

The world tolerates scoundrels, but only extraordinary people satisfy it.
The in-between are in a difficult position and bear a bad conscience easily.

Simple characters, not complex ones, are hard to understand.

The most dangerous of our prejudices prevail within ourselves against ourselves. Their dissolution is the creative act.

Reality is unchangingly near.

The most dangerous adversary of strength is weakness.

It takes a whole life to perceive how thingishly, objectively, things behave; and how humanly, subjectively, human beings do.

It was not through the categorical imperative, which is always on everybody’s lips, that Kant exerted such a powerful influence on generation after generation, but rather through his criticism, in which the shyness, the worldlessness, of the Germans found its abstract expression.

Forms enliven and kill.

Even this is an element of inner freedom; the youth in us must be swept away by the grown man, the grown man by the old one, the maiden by the woman of middle age: there is only one priest at the shrine.

All that is living is fluid, but fluidity is not the form of life. — Rudolf Pannwitz

Even the perception of differences between ourselves and others requires a moment of elevation.

There is an enthusiasm arising from weakness and another arising from strength; the first is akin to sentimentality, the second is opposite from it.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. — William Blake

* Hugo von Hofmannsthal quoted the French aphorisms in their original language.


Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), an Austrian writer of the late empire and the first republic, began his literary career as an accomplished lyric poet much influenced by French symbolism and Jugendstil (the German name for art nouveau). In English-speaking countries he is best known for his later activity as the librettist of six of Richard Strauss’s operas and the author of The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), an anti-poetics of modernism in the form of a fictional letter to the founder of modern empirical science, Francis Bacon. Like The Lord Chandos Letter, The Book of Friends takes the early modern period as its starting point: its title is a literal translation of album amicorum, the name for a kind of scrapbook in which young gentlemen of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries would collect signatures, witticisms, and other mementos from people they met on their travels. The friends in Hofmannsthal’s album amicorum are writers that he has come to know in his years as a reader; in terms of geographical and historical distance they range from Confucius and Plato to his fellow-Austrian Franz Grillparzer and his contemporary André Gide. He intersperses quotations from their works with his own typically cagey but often insinuatingly incisive aphorisms. The juxtaposition of such a diverse collection of thinkers under the conceptual auspices of friendship can be either encouraging or disquieting, depending on whether one views Hofmannsthal’s inescapable implication that the human world has always been a highly bewildering place in a positive or a negative light.

Douglas Robertson is a writer and translator who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. 

Publishing, Literature

A Minor Masterpiece: Kim Morgan Reviews “I Am Not Ashamed”

Film writer Kim Morgan reviewed Spurl’s edition of I Am Not Ashamed, by Barbara Payton. In her aptly titled essay “Notes from the Unashamed,” Morgan delves deep into Payton’s life and the book’s utterly unique writing style, comparing it to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground:

Payton’s drunken ramblings and recollections (who knows how much are true or truer than you could ever imagine?) melding with Guild’s jazzed-up pulp speak becomes something of a minor masterpiece. A dime store (in the best sense of the term) Notes From Underground — the bellowing of the underground woman, telling us there is something wrong with her looks (and most certainly her liver), filled with regret, self doubt, black humor, pride and touching reassurance that it might work out one day knowing damn well it won’t. As she, via Guild, wrote with all the flavor of Horace McCoy: “Forever is just a weekend, more or less.”

Morgan later analyzes the role of Hollywood sexism in Payton’s demise:

But there’s a raw power to I Am Not Ashamed, that, even with and because of its questionable veracity, stuns with a harrowing account of that timeless struggle so many face in Hollywood — keeping a firm grip. And adding to the struggle — keeping a firm grip as a woman in Hollywood. The book works as real documentation of a downfall but also allegorical — mythic in its observations of just how hard some women can fall. And how much men can want women to fall. And how women can even embrace that fall. The shelf life of an actress was terrifying then, and terrifying now. Barbara’s demise reads like a horror movie for any actress losing one too many parts as time marches on. The roles are drying up. What to do? The world twists to make them seem a grotesque — Barbara actually became it.

It’s a compelling, tremendous review – enjoy!

Literature

Don’t Burn Stairs (Non-Fiction)

DON’T BURN STAIRS

by WOJCIECH TOCHMAN

translated by FRANK GARRETT

1

Mr. and Mrs. R. were farmers. They lived quietly, farming the land, raising poultry, cattle, and pigs—all little by little according to their own needs. Their small, healthy baby was already running in the yard when a second arrived in their world.

The midwife cried out in horror. The newborn in her hands didn’t look human. The villagers were to talk about it for years to come though nobody outside the family (except the midwife) ever saw the baby. Even the mother (hereafter we shall refer to her as “the biological mother”) did not examine him carefully. (We know nothing of the father’s reaction.) Right away an ambulance drove into the yard, and the doctor carried the boy away to Krakow.

But trouble has not left this mountain village; on the contrary, things have grown worse. People have whispered across their fences, “He had a huge, wrinkled head. Bulging eyes without lids. Frog fingers. And scales over his entire body like a fish.”

They knew that such ugliness could not come from God.

They grew alarmed when their cows stopped giving milk.

 

2

It’s been six years already since the boy was born. The doctors are still unable to say why he’s so ugly, but the consensus is that he is both blind and mute. That he will never be able to sit up or walk. One day he is sure to fall asleep and never wake up again.

They sent the boy to a children’s home. All the workers there came running to look: the janitor came from the furnace and supposedly fainted, the head governess felt a sharp pain in her chest, and the others had nightmares for a week. The women at the orphanage feared the boy, especially when they had to touch him. They drew lots to determine who would feed and bathe him.

The boy looked like he didn’t have ears at all: they were little and hairy. And he had a huge mouth, and what he couldn’t manage to swallow would spill out of it. Because he lacked eyelids, his eyes threatened to dry out—it was necessary to put drops in them every two hours. Though he didn’t have either frog fingers or fish scales, he still looked like a monster. That’s how they talked about him at the orphanage: monster or just freak. “I was scared that he would bite my throat in two,” relates the governess in charge of infants. Bathing another child, she says, “This child here isn’t missing out on anything; he’s pink and sweet smelling, but his mother still rejected him. Women have reasons for dropping their kids here: that girl’s mom ate a hole in the door, that boy’s mom is still in school, and the mother of that one lying under the window—she wanted to go out and see the world. The ugly boy probably thinks these kids have it just fine. Nobody’s scared of them. Someday they’ll find a new family and be loved.”

But the boy was still too small to understand what was happening to him. He didn’t ever sit up, didn’t speak, didn’t react to anything. He was closed, distrustful, quiet, as if he didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. He lay peacefully like that when his biological mother came to visit. (It appears the father never came.) The woman stood weeping over the cot for a long time. Although the orphanage workers didn’t like the parents who had cast off their own children, they were forgiving of this woman: “It’s good that she put him here,” they said. “Here you have the city and its doctors.”

The biological mother came several more times to the children’s home. During her last visit (when she went through the remaining paperwork), she already didn’t want to see her son. She stopped coming before the little guy began to comprehend what was going on.

Everyone at the orphanage was convinced that the ugly boy would never find a new family. When he gets a little bigger, he’ll go to the asylum. And that’s what began worrying the workers at the children’s home. Because they had started to love the boy. They called him Matthew.

 

3

Doctors often wanted to check out Matthew when he went to the hospital. They observed him thoughtfully: they measured him, they weighed him, and they stared into his eyes. It appeared as though he saw with difficulty because he had a nystagmus. They made lots of notes and took photographs. Although they could already diagnose his illness—Ablepharon macrostomia syndrome, or AMS, a condition characterized by a lack of eyelids and a huge mouth—they were unable to say anything more.

There is almost no professional literature on the subject.

We know that medicine has recorded only fifty such cases throughout its entire history. Surely more such children have been born, but none of them made it to a doctor. Specific descriptions of the disease exist: first from 1883, then from 1920, 1922, 1950, 1962, 1977, and 1985, among others. The disease takes its name from the surname of one of the authors from the McCarthy Group. These children lack eyelids, have large mouths and vestigial earlobes. Moreover, medical students have also documented these common characteristics among them: lack of hair, or thin and straggly hair; both eyes are congenitally crossed, no eyebrows; irregular frontal nostrils; small, underdeveloped teeth; cleft palates; expressionless face; rough, dry skin which appears bunched up, especially in the areas of the nape of the neck, buttocks, and feet; flat body or a diminished body near the navel; at times lacking a navel altogether; lacking nipples or having vestigial nipples; indefinite genitals with a small penis located in the posterior of the crotch, lacking a scrotum; indefinite and incomprehensible nasal speech; and mentally handicapped. Everything a result of genetic damage. But what kind of damage and why this boy—regrettably, medicine does not yet know.

All documented children had been rejected by their biological parents; none had found new families. But medical students registering these cases generally do not tell what became of these orphans: did they reach maturity? how long did they live?

Medicine knows nothing more.

 

4

In a small house not too far away from the orphanage live identical twins Renata and Dorota. They were settled into a life that, although it didn’t contain husbands, was full of children: Renata has Evelyn, and Dorota has Tommy and Claudia. Although the twins are just past thirty-four, the youngest of their children has just finished elementary school. In a year Evelyn will come of age. She is tall and pretty; she studies at the lyceum and is training in track and field. In two years she wants to take the entrance exam to the Physical Education Academy.

The twin Dorota is a sister of the Polish Red Cross, and every morning she takes care of the elderly who are alone. She says, “I work with those who are leaving the world, and Renata with those who are coming into the world.”

Renata is a nurse at the orphanage. More than once she brought children from there on a Sunday: there was little Chris with the giant head (who in the end, together with his twin brother, found a new family in Sweden); there was Jackie with the nystagmus, who got scared when something moved by him too fast (his grandmother took pity on him and took him in herself); there was Dominic—the next boy with a head like a balloon (he died in the hospital while Renata held his hand); and there was Matthew—the really ugly boy whom at first she feared like all the other women at the orphanage. “But Matthew grew,” they say today. “He began to move, to turn over on his stomach. Once I saw indentions on his motionless cheeks. He was smiling.”

Doctors didn’t know how to treat Matthew further. But so that he could eat normally, they stitched together a mouth for him from flaps of skin from his left and right cheeks. They sewed him upper and lower eyelids so he wouldn’t have to sleep wearing swimming goggles filled with gauze soaked in a physiological saline solution.

Then a young rehabilitation therapist came to the orphanage—Thomas Koloch. It was his first job: “In school I saw children burned from their feet to their head, and that was a terrible sight. So, when I saw Matthew, I was surprised, but not disgusted. It was a great deal more difficult to accept a different child who couldn’t hold his stool.”

The rehabilitation therapist decided to straighten Matthew’s contractural fingers: after several hours that turned into several days, Matthew was able to open and close his palms. The therapist then decided that Matthew should crawl. Then that he should sit. Then that he should stand and walk. Finally, that he should stop shuffling his feet and begin to raise his feet and walk like other people.

Achievements came with difficulty, but each was rewarded with joy from all the workers at the orphanage. And Matthew was surely glad because Renata was nearby the entire time: she stayed after hours (while she readied herself, the child listened, tapping out the rhythm of the music from the radio) or carried him off to her home. There for the first time everyone could understand his mumbled words. Yes, perhaps sometimes they were inconvenienced, but they always had time for him; they would patiently ask the boy how things were going.

When Renata wasn’t able to take him out, her daughter Evelyn would look in on him at the orphanage. She gladly played with Matthew: “It’s not important how he is on the outside because inside there’s something very good that I don’t know how to describe. There are paralyzed children or children with Down syndrome who don’t have it. I don’t know if I could get attached to them.”

Sometimes Dorota would come around to the orphanage as well. She’d take Matthew for walks. They’d go far into the grassy field, farther and farther from the home for orphans, the place the boy didn’t like. He already knew that there were other homes in the world even if it wasn’t the home where “Renacha and Dorocha” lived. That’s how he referred to the twins.

It was at their place that he saw a whole loaf of bread for the first time.

He decorated a Christmas tree for the first time (in the orphanage the staff was in charge of decorating the tree), and he was able to pick off his own candy canes; one, two, ten (in the orphanage the Christmas tree was so tall that no child could reach the candy).

Here he could go out in front of the house in the evening with Renata and between the trees see the moon for the first time. He was amazed.

And he was amazed with the cars at night. “They have eyes,” he said merrily.

At Renata’s house he stopped wearing diapers.

But these visits couldn’t last long. Renata wasn’t a relative, so he was with her illegally.

 

5

Last summer Matthew left with Renata on a completely authorized vacation. They spent nearly two months together in Żmiąca, a village in the Tatra Mountains near Limanowa. There atop a high mountain stands a large house where a swarm of small children from several Krakow orphanages spend the summer. When some kid got injured, Renata would tend to the wounds since she was still on the clock.

Evelyn also went to Żmiąca, and when her mom was busy in the office, she would entertain Matthew. But on the days she went to Krakow, she was too tired. After a week she would return again from the city.

“Mama came to her decision behind the office doors.”

Dorota also came for a visit to that high mountaintop on Matthew’s fifth birthday. She brought cake and candles. She observed her sister carefully, how she thoughtfully took care of the boy. She answered Renata’s question that had remained entirely unspoken (illustrating the fact that twins can understand one another without words): “He must be ours.”

At that moment Renata was thankful. She thought, “My sister will support me. Because when I take Matthew for good, the orphanage can no longer help out.”

Renata asked her sister, “What do you think?”

Evelyn had her doubts. “Do you know what risks you’re taking on? He won’t always be so small and so sweet. And what happens when you die?”

To this Renata replied, “I think about it as well. But would you have the conscience to leave him this way? He’ll wind up in the poorhouse.”

On such a set matter Evelyn could only say, “As you wish.”

Matthew didn’t return to the orphanage. In the offices everything was settled in a flash: Renata would be his foster family.

The twins have an older sister (by profession she cares for the elderly). She says, “I wouldn’t take him. I’d be afraid that I couldn’t manage and would have to give him back. So I discouraged them.”

Renata admits, “The thought never occurred to me.”

People who knew Renata asked, “What is she doing this for?”

She replied, “I don’t know.”

People commented on the side, “Maybe she wants to pay God back for her beautiful daughter.”

Or, “Maybe she’s crazy.”

Or more intelligently, “Emotionally immature.”

Or altogether stupidly, “She already doesn’t have money for bread, and she’s taken such a monster under her roof?”

Renata admits, “The government pays me a thousand złoty a month. Half goes toward medicine and ointments.”

Someone asked her, “You get so tired, and do you know how long he’ll live?”

To that Renata furiously demanded, “Do you know how long you’ll live?”

She doesn’t want to say another word about her own fears. She talks about what she’s afraid of to her sister. “She sees that Matthew understands more and more. Maybe someday he’ll rebel against his being different. Maybe he’ll stop talking for good and shut himself up like a clam.”

Something else people say, “He’ll blame her for his ugliness. She’ll be crying yet.”

And Dorota has her own fears. “What’s going to happen?”

Acquaintances who work in healthcare, sympathetic to Renata, wonder, “Maybe he won’t be able to live with such a face. Children are often disfigured by burns. They grow up and commit suicide.”

Dr. Tadeusz Łyczakowski (he operated on Matthew) confesses, “Everything can be disguised, every defect can be hidden, even a hump. But not faces. The face is a person’s calling card. A person talks with another person face to face.”

Renata wants Matthew to be just a bit more attractive. And Dr. Łyczakowski tries to make that happen. His American colleagues who have already seen Matthew are arriving soon at the Institute in Prokocim. Together they’ll make new ears for the boy, and from his hair they’ll create eyebrows. And they’ll tidy up the eyelids because they’re ugly. But the doctor warns Renata, “This is how God made him. You can help him a little, improve him a little. But don’t expect a miracle.”

 

6

After a year Evelyn tells it like this: “Mom was always just for me. I never shared her with another child or another man. Then I grew up, and I had less and less time for her because of my studies, girlfriends, and training. And she didn’t have any time for herself: always bustling about, restless, zero time to relax. That all changed. Matthew has given her strength, calm. Mom has time to go to Krakow and visit Wawel Castle with him. Today nobody except Matthew exists for her. I have to accept that. In the end, there’s no explanation for what goes on between people. I know that her love for him is enormous. And reciprocated. And I still love Matthew, though I don’t treat him like a brother. The word brother has significance, its own kind of weight. But I’m glad when I see how he’s growing, he laughs, he speaks better and better, he counts, he can say what he likes and doesn’t. So I can’t blame Mom when her decision bears such fruit. I’m even proud of her. Maybe I have some regret because I’m by myself. I detached myself completely. It’s hard for me to live in this fairy tale that is happening in our home nowadays. Everyone there looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, or no further than tomorrow.”

 

7

Renata wants to make up to Matthew for the years spent at the orphanage (as does her sister Dorota, and Dorota’s children, who devote countless hours to him). They draw various strange shapes with him and build tall staircases with blocks. But Matthew doesn’t see eye to eye with every felt marker or with every block: “Only yellow,” he shouts in his own way.

For days on end Evelyn isn’t at home (because of school, training, etc.), so she rarely plays with Matthew. “I don’t have to constantly prove that I love him.”

Renata sleeps with Matthew, never yells at him and lets him get away with everything. At the supermarket when he ordered her to buy him an entire basket of underwear, she did. When he wanted a cap from a good company (with a well-recognized logo), she bought it, even though they don’t live in luxury. When they were in the village of Żmiąca (they were there that summer on vacation for the second time), he wanted to go play on the swing at midnight; she went out to push. And she said to him, “My most beautiful little boy.”

She admits that to her own daughter she would’ve said, “Go to sleep.”

When Matthew saw a fire burning in the fireplace in Żmiąca, he burned everything made of paper. And when he ran out of paper, Renata filled up all the glasses with juice and gave the empty carton to the boy. After, she dumped out cookies on the table and gave him the package made of corrugated cardboard. “No!” he cried out. And he went on loudly as Renata realized in no time, “They’re stairs; you don’t burn stairs.”

And then Renata found a misplaced newspaper under the armchair. Matthew tore page after page. He tossed each into the fire and watched it burn. He laughed out loud until he saw an ad for wood paint. In the photo: a staircase. He tucked it in his pocket.

With a smile Renata quizzes, “Tell me, sonny boy, what are you going to do when you’re grown?”

“I’ll build staircases,” he said, and Renata translated.

“Yes, you’ll be an engineer.”

There was one thing she had to refuse him. When they once walked into a church together, Matthew glanced up at the large crucifix. “Pull it down!” he shouted in his own way. “We’ll take him home!”

He cried because Renata said, “I can’t.”

Renata explains all over that her boy isn’t handicapped like other such children described by medicine. He’s slow like any child after the orphanage, but already he’s catching up. “He’s handicapped,” says Dr. Łyczakowski, who’s going to make the boy’s face prettier. “Though Matthew is making progress. When I met him, nothing but futzing with two plastic bowls. Back and forth.”

Renata convinces everyone that Matthew is getting better looking. “Bullshit,” responds Ela, a colleague from the orphanage. Renata wants everyone to understand his words because after all he speaks better and better, in complete sentences, and practices with a speech therapist. “I don’t understand Matthew,” Ela says so as to bring Renata back to reality. Renata respects Ela (a woman of about fifty) because all the kids at the orphanage adore her.

But Ela thinks, “Matthew will never be normal. And she has to be prepared for it, to shake free from this euphoria. She’s normal, but quirky. The love that she’s carried in herself she could have distributed to not only Evelyn but also to some man. After all, she was a young woman. I doubt whether at some time anyone will still make an appearance in her life. So far, no. She made such a decision and you have to respect her for it. Well, but let’s not exaggerate! It must be tougher for Matthew. Without a firm hand there’s no way. I know, I raised two on my own. But she just leaps to her feet: ‘son, sonny boy.’ When he cut his lip on vacation, you had to rescue her, not him.”

Other colleagues say, “Without him Renata wouldn’t last another day. Dorota too.”

Their older sister lets slip, “They’re possessive of him. It seems to each of them that she takes better care of the child than the other. They’re jealous.”

 

8

Dorota only ever takes care of the elderly before noon. Renata goes to the orphanage either until two or for the night. After work she always rushes home in order to quickly hug her son and take him to kindergarten.

The kindergarten close to home, though integrated (for healthy and disabled children), didn’t accept Matthew. “The parents are against it,” explained the director, “although those parents never saw Matthew.”

Now Matthew goes to kindergarten at a convent on the other side of town. Every day Renata takes him there by tram. She doesn’t like trams because the passengers stare terribly. According to her, the cruelest tend to be old people. They point at him.

When Renata talks about this, she cries.

And she smiles. “They say children are cruel because they’re candid. Some are, but in his kindergarten they often quarrel about who’s going to hold his hand. And with teenagers it’s normal. Evelyn’s—and Claudia and Tommy’s—friends visit us at home and they don’t have any problem with Matthew. They’re super.”

 

9

That summer Renata went to Warsaw to appear on the program Usual/Unusual. It’s a program about courageous and selfless people. In the TV studio Renata was greeted with applause. They showed a video of their home and Matthew: he danced in Evelyn’s arms. (“I squeezed out a fairy tale for them,” says Evelyn. “What was I supposed to do?”) The camera filmed Matthew from the back or from a distance. So that his ugly face couldn’t be clearly seen.

Then there was a discussion. As usual Renata said, “My Matthew’s the most beautiful.”

The interviewer didn’t hide his tears.

The next day, or maybe three days later, the governesses went out walking with a column of children past the orphanage fence. People, both young as well as quite old, approached them. “They said on TV that this monster was with you.”

To this the governesses replied, “Well, he was. Didn’t you see him before?”

Someone who had anxiety in his voice said, “That nurse lives around here.”

The governesses confirmed, “On the next street over.”

The people (now the entire group) agreed. “Well, exactly. Close.”

Someone said, “So now he’s under control.”

“But what’s going to happen when he grows up?” they asked.

Someone summed up, “You should put up a wall around the house. And hide the grandkids.”

 

10

Matthew says (whoever is with him for a few days will already understand him) that he has two mommies: “Renacha and Dorocha.” He knows that a completely different woman gave birth to him. They say that the biological mother cried when she heard about Renata.


Wojciech Tochman was born in 1969 in Krakow, Poland. Between 1990-2004 he wrote for Gazeta Wyborcza, and he still collaborates with its weekly reportage supplement. From 1996-2002 he hosted the TV program Whoever Saw, Whoever Knows. In 2009 Tochman cofounded the Polish Institute of Reportage in Warsaw. Tochman’s books include Don’t Burn Stairs (2000), Like Eating a Stone (2002), Beloved Daughter (2005), Mad Dog (2007), Today We’ll Draw Death (2010), God Bless (2010), Eli, Eli (2013), and The Container (coauthored with Katarzyna Boni; 2014). Though he is one of the most widely translated Polish authors of nonfiction today, only his Like Eating a Stone has been translated into English. Tochman has been a finalist of the Nike Literary Award twice. “Don't Burn Stairs” was originally published in 1998 and is included in his book by the same name.

Frank Garrett is an independent philosopher, writer, and translator. His work has been published most recently by 3:AM Magazine, Black Sun Lit, and Transitions Online. He is currently translating Robert Rient’s Witness, which will be published by Outpost19 in 2016, and Wojciech Tochman’s Don’t Burn Stairs. He blogs at My Crash Course and lives in Dallas.

Literature

Excerpt from True Homosexual Experiences

In 1985, Boyd McDonald filled the distressing void in “film criticism” left by Parker Tyler, whose The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947) rendered worthless all other movie writings. Until McDonald’s Cruising the Movies, that is. Every page of this collection of essays made me laugh (which made the people I live with cringe)—from McDonald’s dissection of “Ronnie” Reagan’s grotesque legs, to his lust for Big Circus star David Nelson (seriously, look those film stills up), to McDonald’s thoughts on the word “prurient” (blch). And while he was staying up late to watch some of the worst movies ever made (which is to say, the best), McDonald created and edited Straight to Hell, a series of chapbooks that collected readers’ “true homosexual experiences” (these were apparently considered pornographic by Sonia Sotomayor). Writer and filmmaker William E. Jones wrote a wonderful introduction to Cruising the Movies, available now from Semiotext(e), and his account of Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell has just been published. Everyone should read True Homosexual Experiences; so start by enjoying this excerpt below! — Spurl Editions.


From TRUE HOMOSEXUAL EXPERIENCES

by WILLIAM E. JONES

Full of anticipation and unsure of what he is looking for, a young man enters an adult bookstore. Stepping through a creaky door bearing a warning sign (“no minors”) he heads for the magazine rack. Among the glossy full color porno magazines giving off a chemical smell, he sees a small, pamphlet sized publication called Straight to Hell. The title recalls condemnations such as “god hates fags,” but at the same time suggests defiance—anyone on the straight and narrow path can go to hell. The cover features an image of a naked man who looks nothing like a model, and may be an ex-convict. Not “fabulous” or campy, the booklet seems old-fashioned and homemade, the opposite of what the young man has been led to expect from gay culture. Inside the issue, there is a rhyming slogan in the masthead: “Love and Hate for the American Straight.”

Straight to Hell’s visual style is immediately recognizable yet anonymous, just like its contents. Lurid, tabloid-style headlines introduce texts contributed by the readers. They describe sex acts between men in many different settings, in various parts of the United States and the rest of the world. This comes as news to the young man: homosexuality is not just confined to a few neighborhoods in big cities and is more or less (for lack of a better word) ordinary. The young man shoplifts a copy of Straight to Hell, and at home he masturbates to the words and pictures. Though he doesn’t realize it at first, this small booklet has changed his life. On one page, there is an address, a post office box in New York City where he can send orders for more issues and submit his own sex stories. Accompanying the address is a name: Boyd McDonald.

McDonald, founding editor of Straight to Hell, was the main creative force behind one of the most distinctive underground publications, in fact, the first queer zine. Self-published and crude, Straight to Hell’s sense of urgency was as strong as its contempt for authority. Fanzines and underground comics of the 1960s and early 70s had combined these elements before, but none of them were devoted to homosexual material. From the 1950s onward, early gay publications (for example, One, “The Homosexual Viewpoint” and Physique Pictorial) had used the same format—the size of an 8 ½ by 11 inch sheet of paper folded in half—but none of these prepared readers for Straight to Hell. The main difference from its predecessors was its attitude: the man who assembled this material just didn’t give a damn about any recognized standard of taste.

Issues of Straight to Hell were illustrated with beefcake photographs and candid shots of men. Most were by Bob Mizer of Athletic Model Guild or David Hurles of Old Reliable, but Straight to Hell also published many amateur photos sent in by subscribers.

The unnamed men who contributed their stories came from all walks of life, barely literate to highly educated. Some were young, while others were old enough to remember the early years of the 20th Century. They all had one thing in common: a need to write accounts of their sexual exploits and share them with their fellow men. Boyd McDonald attached great importance to his undertaking; he once wrote, “I consider this history, not pornography. It’s very serious work… the true history of homosexual desire and experience. Any gay publications that do not deal with the elemental discussion of gay sexual desire are not serious—they are frivolous.” He collected sex stories from a multitude of men and kept his comments on them to a minimum.

Boyd McDonald reserved most of his editorial commentary for news items about the stupidity, hate, and war-mongering of American politicians, and he illustrated them with unflattering photographs. Boyd knew how to spot a con artist, especially one who had wrapped himself in the flag.

Boyd made his political opinions explicit, but he wrote about his personal life reluctantly. A brief account, varying only slightly over the years, became the basis of a compelling biographical myth. One “author’s bio” from the early 1980s is typical:

Boyd McDonald was born in South Dakota in 1925. “I was a pioneer high school dropout,” he writes, “leaving school to play badly in a bad traveling dance band. I was drafted into the Army, graduated from Harvard and came to New York, where my principal activity was taking advantage of the city’s public sexual recreation facilities. As a sideline I worked as a hack writer at Time magazine, Forbes, IBM and even more sordid companies…. I started the magazine STH (Straight to Hell), The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts, later re-named The New York Review of Cocksucking.”

He describes pillars of the establishment as “sordid” and sends up The New York Review of Books by replacing “books” with “cocksucking,” a clear statement of priorities. The text is found at the back of the second anthology of “true homosexual experiences” drawn from the pages of Straight to Hell.

Eventually 13 STH collections came out from various publishers. They all had concise, direct titles: Meat, Flesh, Sex, Cum, Smut, Juice, Wads, Cream, Filth, Skin, Raunch, Lewd, Scum. A number of proposed titles—Bare, Heat, Hoses, Sex Hounds, Sperm, Stuff, Tools, Used—remained unrealized at the time of Boyd’s death in 1993. These books contain descriptions of “how men look, act, walk, talk, dress, undress, taste and smell.” At first glance, Boyd’s publications might appear to be indistinguishable from the many subsequent ones that copied Straight to Hell to less effect and acclaim. A careful reading of STH reveals that its editor possessed a unique sensibility; his subversive wit graced every project on which he worked. Boyd had a reputation for being a curmudgeon, and beneath his polite demeanor was a fiercely individualistic anarchist.

In a recent biography, a bit of pleasure reading, I was struck by the phrase “improbably literate hustler,” the kind of expression that brings to mind Victorian pieties about a whore with a heart of gold. The writer’s assumption, presumably shared by many of his readers, is that for a biography to impart the greatest moral edification, the subject should be respectable (educated and not a whore) or filthy (not educated and a whore). The former kind of subject serves for inspirational stories (“someone just like me has succeeded”); the latter, for cautionary tales (“someone I wouldn’t want to be has failed”). The subject who confounds these categories poses difficulties, either when educated and a whore, i. e., unable to act in his or her best interests (a mentally ill person); or not educated and not a whore, i. e., childlike, unyielding, and inscrutable (a saint).

The homosexual, considered mentally ill until fairly recently in the United States, can disturb these comforting habits of mind. The suspicion that educated men were enjoying the company of hustlers when they weren’t toiling at their respectable jobs did not occur to the benighted American majority until the latter half of the 1960s, if then. With the arrival of AIDS in the US, an alarming number of homosexuals became physically ill, and the signs were unavoidable: uninhibited fraternizing between men of different ethnic groups and social classes had been taking place, often in public and even in broad daylight, for many years. Then AIDS killed all the really interesting people, and a group of jealous perverts who appointed themselves defenders of the American way of life unleashed a backlash. Those who came into this world after the worst years of the AIDS crisis may imagine that the moral panic is a thing of the past, like the witch trial, but anyone who lived through that time knows that moral entrepreneurs (when they aren’t occupied with stealing money and spending it on hustlers and drugs) are always looking for new excuses to spring into action.

The American puritanism nurturing moral panics also dictates that those with a sexual role in society—prostitutes, pornographers, promiscuous amateurs—cannot be taken seriously as artists. Discounting their work is an example of stereotypical thinking, the mob mentality enforcing conformity. Gay artists who really risked something—usually called erotic artists when not being prosecuted for obscenity, pandering, or endangering children—have only recently gained some credibility in American culture (e. g., books published and art exhibited). Considering the joyous recklessness of their lives, the erratic quality of medical care for any but the privileged in this country, and that their generation was already decimated by AIDS, they have come to seem like combat veterans, but without medals, because instead of foreign enemies, they have been fighting the prejudice, pettiness, and hypocrisy of American society. They have sacrificed everything so the rest of us can see photographs of naked thugs, experience vicariously the kind of sex sensible people hesitate to seek out, and read stories of their colorful lives in explicit detail. Some of them contributed to Straight to Hell; a few are still alive today. They deserve our respect and gratitude.

Almost infantile in its defiance and not acknowledging the boundaries between public and private, Straight to Hell is easy to dismiss as the work of an obsessive crank, yet within its pages enduring truths are found. Anyone can see this stuff is trash, but somehow it has never gone away; that is because the social ills Straight to Hell diagnoses have never gone away, either. As long as brain and genitals must coexist in the same body, in other words, as long as we are human, we must reckon with Boyd McDonald and his inconvenient messages.


True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell is now available from We Heard You Like Books. Author William E. Jones will be reading from and discussing his book on April 26 at City Lights Bookstore (San Francisco), and on April 27 at Skylight Books (Los Angeles).

William E. Jones was born in Canton, Ohio. He received a B.A. from Yale University and an M.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts. He has made the films Massillon (1991) and Finished (1997), which won a Los Angeles Film Critics Association award, the documentary Is It Really So Strange? (2004), and many videos including The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998). His work was included in the 1993 and 2008 Whitney Biennials, and he has had retrospectives at Tate Modern (2005), Anthology Film Archives (2010), and the Austrian Film Museum (2011). He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant, two California Community Foundation Fellowships, and most recently, a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. His books include Killed: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration (2010), Halsted Plays Himself (2011), and Imitation of Christ, which was named one of the best photo books of 2013 by Time Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles.

Literature, Publishing

Excerpt from “I Am Not Ashamed”

From I AM NOT ASHAMED

by BARBARA PAYTON

My rent was overdue a week and I only had one dollar in my pocket. I had had two warnings from my landlady. In my refrigerator there was some American cheese and soda water. Also a can of peaches someone had given me as a joke, I forgot what the joke was. But that would see me through a day or two.

I took the dollar, my last, and went to the movies to see one of my old pictures, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with James Cagney. I enjoyed it very much but it was ironic that I had been paid so many thousands of dollars to do it and I only had a dollar left to see it.

All during the picture I kept my mind off my troubles – I couldn’t solve them anyway. Then I walked home just thinking about how I loved to act and make movies.

I hadn’t eaten all day so I opened the can of peaches. They were delicious and the whole can filled me up. Then I looked around through all my things to see what I could pawn. There wasn’t anything. I was down to bedrock.

But I still had a telephone. I went through my address book. I had borrowed from everybody. Some, more than once. There were still men who would take me out to dinner. But how do you live on no money at all?

I didn’t answer the knock on my door because I knew it was the landlady and I wasn’t ready to talk to her yet.

I looked in the mirror. To me I looked the same as ever – just as I had in the movie. What had happened? I undressed and looked at myself in the nude – not much change. I could lose five pounds but not more. I put on a dressing gown and washed the peaches dish and spoon.

There was a knock on the door. I opened it this time. It was the landlord, a tall, kindly man browbeaten by his wife. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but my wife says your rent is overdue.” He said it as if his wife had made some mistake.

“Come in,” I said, with what little charm I could muster for the situation.

He came in and stood, looking uncomfortable. “Wasn’t it a lovely day?” he said finally.

I nodded. I knew landlords such as these had heard every excuse in the book but I decided to try one anyway.

“Mr. Gordon,” I explained. “My husband’s alimony check, which is usually here long before this, should definitely be here tomorrow. I can almost guarantee it. I will slip the hundred-dollar check under your door before noon.”

He looked miserable. “My wife said – I have nothing to do with it – that I should either get the rent money or ask you to move out . . . tonight.”

“Don’t look so sad,” I said. “If that’s what she wants, that’s what it will have to be. I really don’t have any money.”

We both just stood there. “Could I . . . lend you five dollars for food?” he said.

I just shook my head “no.” Then, though I had been feeling great and had been smiling just a few minutes before, I suddenly burst into tears, great gulping sobs accompanying them. It seemed as if the whole world was collapsing on me.

Mr. Gordon patted me on the shoulder at arm’s length and tried to give me a handful of crumpled bills. I wouldn’t take them but I put my head on his chest and continued to sob.

“Please,” he said, “don’t cry. I’ve collected other rents and I have some money. My wife won’t know – if you can pay in a week it will be alright.”

A week. It sounded glorious, but what then? It was no silver lining to my black clouds.

I tried to stop crying. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be alright – honest I will.”

He patted my head. Then he kissed my forehead gently. “I’d help you if I could. My wife . . . ”

I nodded understandingly and went to brush my hair back with my hand. It hit his hand by accident and some of the money fell to the floor. I bent to pick it up for him and when I handed it to him I noticed he was staring. I looked down and my dressing gown was open, showing almost everything I had.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He swallowed hard. “You . . . ” I don’t know what he wanted to say, but he moved to me as if in a trance and moved his hand from my neck down past my breasts. I didn’t try to stop him.

He kissed me gently again, this time on the lips. “The hundred dollars,” he said, “is in my wall safe. I’ll pay your rent. It’s my fishing vacation money. I need you – to prove I’m a man. To prove to me . . . I mean.”

I would have gone to bed with him for nothing. I had a great compassion for him. I locked the door and dropped my dressing gown.

My rent was paid for one more month.

Literature

Editorial of a Former Vice President (short story)

EDITORIAL OF A FORMER VICE PRESIDENT

by EVA RICHTER

It seems foolish to say something so simple now, when it should just be clear, but a government is not some stagnant thing. It is a political body, and voters and reporters would do well to consider their country’s political body as something like their own body. The political body, like the human body, changes with the times, and it changes with each new “doctor” who takes charge of it. This doctor prescribes medications to a country so it can prevail over each new threat, whether this is an economic threat or a threat to national security. These threats can come from outside a country or from within it, but either way, a political body needs to take these threats as seriously as a doctor would take a life-threatening infection—when necessary changing and going to extremes to protect the country: this is a doctor’s only responsibility.

When I consider the current administration’s actions, I can’t help but see before me a dangerous irresponsibility. This irresponsibility manifests itself in the administration’s lax response to terrorist threats originating in the Middle East and equally within our great nation. To give the violently radicalized within our borders the same rights as tax-paying farmers, teachers, and firemen puts us all at risk—the kind of risk no doctor would tolerate. When we feel within our body a threat growing, we cannot afford to do nothing. In a limousine, in a conference room, lying in bed, we feel the threats grow within us. Finally the heart beats fast, but our body strains to keep up in a way that it never did when we were young and vigorous. This is the strain of years, affecting the body politic too. The current irresponsible administration chooses to ignore it, this strain of years. But the body struggling, these threats within us, cannot be ignored.

Worn down by our years we feel these threats ever more acutely. Failing, the heart, the source of threats, was taken out and replaced with another; this one beats despite the failing whole, the failing body struggling to die against the artificial heart beating on and on. We know it’s there when hand goes to chest, a hand that shakes, to feel the scar they the doctors left.

Every scar on the chest can be felt until what is left of the chest but scars and underneath the artifice beating. This fake part thumps on while the body tries to die. Hand to chest, beneath suit jacket, beneath white shirt, you count the scars, and each one is a different threat conquered, a new threat defeated, but still you’d rather junk it all and start again. Take the artificial piece and match it with other artificial pieces like those of vigorous and healthy young men. Artificial lungs, and an artificial stomach digesting white pellets of food, and a vigorous young man’s colon spitting the pellets into the toilet. This is the ideal, but your brain controlling it, not the brain of some vigorous young man who doesn’t know about threats, and who says they don’t exist when they are inside him and he just won’t look.

To junk the body and rebuild it with parts; this artifice beating is the first step.

Artifice beating too fast you see the forests of Northern Virginia rush past the limousine. These the world’s most hideous forests, the Northern Virginia forests, their colors ever the same, and feeling the scars your blood throbbing you ask why here, Fairfax and Loudoun and Fair Oaks, dreary all, hospital swamp towns designed for misery. You ask yourself so why bother, next time make them meet you. Let them come to you in your beautiful McLean home. Have the surgeons come to McLean to replace your parts, replace the battery replace the valves plug you into the socket. Who knows what people like that will think of next. The basement empty let them transform it into an operating theater. This in the name of your safety and the threats you face, not only from the inside but from the outside too, from those enemies who fall on you any chance they have. Tell the surgeons you have no choice but to stay at home. Avoid Northern Virginia’s hospital complexes and avoid Northern Virginia’s forests, each one twists into the other. Blood rushing down your spine, you say avoid it all and junk it all, to the driver faster home, as you pick up the phone and call her, the only one you can call when you feel this way, who loves this, the way you are, dying and wretched. You can call only her, your sick little love.

She says she’ll meet you, she’ll call Michael and tell him not tonight, he’ll have to find his own dinner. It’s impossible not to love her, who will drop everything for you, who acts like you, thinks like you, looks like you once did, but seeing your scars isn’t disgusted as you are every time. To look in the mirror is now to feel a shock. Is that enough to end it? Two seconds in front of a mirror in the steamy, rank bathroom and the whole thing will collapse, only artifice beating endlessly while the brain is dead, stomach is dead, kidneys are dead on the soaked shower mat. Beautiful and wet between the legs she is every time she sees you in your dying state. In the hospital or in your bed at home but with the doctors standing over you, she gets the same nasty look. Before calling the coroner she would get down to the bathroom floor and suck you until the last drop comes, and this the only chance you’d have of waking up again, waking up and demanding your new parts. That much at least is owed to you after all you’ve given them.

So she says she’ll come, and now the artifice beats too fast in excitement, now even this brand-new part a threat.

How feasible would it be for someone to assassinate me by reprogramming the device? That was your first question when they showed you what they planned. They said not very feasible, but it’s something to consider. Anger rising at their so-called something to consider you felt her hand on your shoulder, telling you to relax. No luck for her, never any luck for her, your caring daughter your sick little love. You pushed her off and screaming at him your idiot doctor, you replaced him with another who would work with your security teams until there was no more something to consider. But still how can you be safe with this fake part controlling it all, beating too fast then straining then speeding till the soreness comes. In the hands of the wrong doctor, some infiltrated man working for your enemies, the artifice would speed until it never beat again. Feeling your scars you tell yourself just lie down, put the notebook down, this editorial isn’t going to happen today. You’ll see her with white freckled body greasy with lotion, her business clothes neatly folded on the bedside table like her childhood laundry, and after it’s over you’ll tell her the editorial didn’t happen, she’ll just have to write it herself. You’ll put your name down but she’ll have to write it. We aren’t the vigorous healthy young men we were. Decrepit we inch along despite the threats, until our new parts come in.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Finding your notes the desiccated queen your wife said it was time for a break from McLean, better to be in Jackson Hole and away from her. Even for Christmas she said I don’t want her around, her own daughter. Saying goodbye to her your sick little love you felt like you would die. You felt as miserable as it was possible to feel, seeing her turn around and disappear into her house, you wondering when the next time will be, and she wondering who knows what, maybe will he make it back alive, will he die down there in the snow, will he find someone new to suck him to the last drop, will the artificial heart fail. Or maybe none of these, maybe only settling down to business, to write that editorial you told her you couldn’t manage, although you’d promised to try again in Jackson Hole. This promised second try the only reason the queen returned your notes, snapping don’t forget them in the limousine again.

But why not forget them in the limousine again. Let the desiccated queen and her spa friends find them, pour over them, every word another heartbeat. Alone in Jackson Hole you live only to write this, now that she is away. Snow falling outside, the ski slopes become perfect white hills like the curves of an ass. Laughing you think of the queen the last time she skied, dressed in a purple and green winter coat and colored ski goggles, like some deranged peacock. At the same time you in your cowboy hat for a moment looking every bit as vigorous and healthy as you were in your first college year. Mouth open, wind rushing in, you happily sped straight into her, her legs flying apart on impact. Screaming she hurtled face forward into the snow, her right leg snapping, old hip breaking. Then lying moaning in the snow, calling you sick, disgusting, wishing you’d die. In a cast back at the house she told you she wouldn’t ski with you anymore, and you shouldn’t ski anymore either. You agreed to the first condition right away and anyway you snapped back at her I don’t like to ski in my condition. What could be done if the heart gave out up there, on a lift? Near the peak by the trees? She said you’re not as sick as you think. No more predictable answer could come from her, who refused to see you in the hospital.

Now the artifice beats slow, happy at the thought that this time there won’t be any skiing. If she doesn’t think you’re sick, then why can’t you get out of bed, why do you throw up the food they give you, why do you spend every night staring at the ceiling, old miserable eyes never closing, as dry and tearless as what’s between the queen’s legs. Your condition deteriorates and there’s no way but to replace the parts. Each time you see the doctor you tell him it’s time to have this part or that part replaced, but they don’t come through. They humor you like you’re an infant or some soft-in-the-head retard who doesn’t know how medicine works. You know more than they do and they know it too, but they want their power over the big vice president.

They tell each other did you see who was in my office today? He comes to see me all the time. They want to see you in pain until the last moment, and only then will they mention that some vigorous and healthy young man died fucking a cow in Kansas and hopefully, if there isn’t too much damage to some of his organs, hopefully, but we’ll have to see. You tell them you want his eyes, how are his kidneys, how is his liver, let’s do a blood transfusion, but they only send you out of the hospital and back to your home to lie dying in bed waiting for the answer.

Tired of waiting, at some point you got in the limousine that was to take the queen to the spa and told her you’d wait in the backseat while she had her treatments. Surprised she said fine, but it won’t be quick and I won’t rush for you. Hearing these words you thought, what would the world say if they saw the headline, former vice president strangles wife to death. Would anyone even be surprised, the way they talk about you? As though you were the devil himself! But she fled the limousine into her spa before you had a chance to reach for her wrinkled gray neck and prove them right. And you, the so-called devil, left alone inside the darkened car, hot air rushing at you from the vents, watched the rest of the old rich hens of Jackson Hole file inside, amble outside, clucking over their nails, their aching unworked backs, magazines held above their heads against the falling snow; meanwhile you here dying, far from the one you love.

           

~ ~ ~

 

They helped you into the bathroom at the spa to vomit your breakfast oatmeal. You resisting, saying it’s over now, there will be no more attacks, still clutching your notes. But no matter how pure you make it, no sugar no syrup no berries says the queen, no juice on the side no yogurt nothing she says, your stomach gives it back up. Here the bathroom is as beautiful as the White House, maybe more, pink and yellow tiles sparkling under your knees as the evil stuff comes up again and again, splashing your cheeks your nose your editorial notes. The artifice speeds away from your retching body, controlled by some infiltrated doctor. One room away the queen is being rubbed, and your first impulse is to vomit louder, do it harder until your eye vessels burst and red surrounds your pale blue eyes. To come out with your eyes full of red, to sneak into the queen’s room stinking of vomit and read your notes to her, to crawl back into the limousine and demand to see the doctor, to have your parts replaced to return to your sick little love free from all this misery; and at your age why not think forever of these ridiculous things.


Eva Richter is a writer, translator, and editor of Spurl Editions. She translated Henri Roorda’s essay My Suicideavailable from Spurl Editions now. Her writing has appeared in Columbia University’s Catch & Release, Asymptote, and other outlets.