Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

Kenneth Fearing, Clark Gifford’s Body

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I’m starting to write reviews again. I’m not entirely convinced by this one, but at some point I have to stop fiddling with it, so here it is.

Clark Gifford’s Body is an obvious reference to the old song about John Brown, who sparked the Civil War with his raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Which may have been a blessing in disguise; arguably, only the war could have put an end to slavery in anything like a reasonable amount of time.)

A hundred years later, in the far-flung year of 1959 (Clark Gifford’s Body was published in 1937; no explicit date is given for the raid, but, as Robert Polito points out in the introduction, it’s not hard to work out), Clark Gifford and his “Committee for Action” seize radio stations across the country–Gifford himself takes WLEX in Bonnfield–and spark a twenty-year civil war.

The New York Review Books Classics edition of Clark Gifford’s Body demonstrates the importance of typography–in this case, the importance of getting the page numbers right. The page numbers are in the same font as the text, printed at the same size, located just under the text, where the next line would be, if there were one. So on the left-hand page my subconscious was constantly interpreting the page number as part of the text, and I kept getting knocked out of the story by phrases like “The short-wave of a number 200 of local stations…”

Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body in fragments. Narrative islands, written in different styles from different points of view, form a bigger picture like the dots in a pointillist painting. The sketches are set up to thirty years before and thirty years after Gifford’s raid. It’s a history of the future.

As such, Clark Gifford’s Body is technically science fiction. It may not satisfy many SF readers: socially and technologically, the future looks a lot like 1937. I’m willing to forgive. Within the story, we have a limited view of this society, and that twenty year civil war would not have laid a smooth road for the march of progress. In more critical terms, this kind of near-future SF is really about the present. Kenneth Fearing wrote Clark Gifford’s Body about his own world.

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Patrick Leigh Fernor, A Time to Keep Silence

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A Time to Keep Silence is Patrick Leigh Fernor’s account of his experiences as a guest in two French monasteries during the 1950s, and his visit to a long-abandoned monastery carved out of the rocks in Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s a short book, less than a hundred pages; it describes the monasteries and tells their histories, but doesn’t get too heavily into analyzing what it sees. Fernor has theories, but he doesn’t try to definitively explain why the monks chose a silent, regimented lifestyle, or what it means to them. He doesn’t feel qualified.

Fernor begins in a Benedictine abbey, where he comes to feel relatively at home. He then moves to a Trappist monastery where the monks’ lives consist of ceaseless work, endless prayer, and a distinct lack of central heating.1 He has less direct contact with the monks and their values never cease to be alien. Finally, he describes the long-abandoned Cappadocian monastery, not a living place but a part of monastic history, its inhabitants long gone. Fernor zooms out as he goes. Each section creates more distance between the reader and the monks, each section takes away from the reader’s sense of connection. Compared to most nonfiction A Time to Keep Silence is structured backwards; it begins looking like it might have the answers but it leaves with only questions.

Fernor’s more certain about the monastery’s effect on himself. At first the lack of distraction is disorienting. He spends most of a couple of days asleep. He suspects he was recovering from “the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries,” created by the thousands of minor stresses and demands on our attention everyone faces every day, which have grown exponentially in the fifty years since this book was published. He feels peaceful, focused, and attentive.

You don’t have to be religious to see why certain people might find this attractive. We live in a world of noise, distraction, and random hostility. Sometimes even the most ordinary inanimate objects–jar lids, DVD cases, computer programs, new shirts full of pins–are out to get you. Sometimes you just want to get the hell away.

“The Abbey was at first a graveyard,” says Fernor; “the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders.” Fernor doesn’t share in the monks’ religion and doesn’t try to explain what their lives are all about, but I suspect for at least some of them the answer to that question is closer than it seems.


  1. The Trappist monastery’s program was developed by a seventeenth-century aristocrat gone radical. According to a legend recounted in the book, after his mistress died he walked into her sickroom to find the undertaker had decapitated her body to fit it into the coffin, casually leaving her head on a table. ↩

Sunflower

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“Everyone appears ridiculous when in love,” writes Gyula Krúdy in Sunflower. I’m cynical enough to believe it. Love inspires people to greatness. It also inspires people to stage elaborate, embarassingly public marriage proposals involving scoreboards, skywriters, and/or mariachi bands. I don’t understand why women say yes to these things. This is one major reason why I do not expect ever to marry.

Sunflower looks at love from all angles, and finds it ridiculous. All angles contained in Budapest’s upper class, sometime around the turn of the 20th century, anyway, and for the same reason P. G. Wodehouse wrote about the upper class. Poverty isn’t funny.

Sunflower isn’t ridiculous in the way Wodehouse is ridiculous. Wodehouse is funny ha ha. Krudy is funny peculiar. Sunflower has a dark side. Everyone’s falling in love, or out of love, or just worrying about love, but death isn’t far away; you don’t get love without danger. As soon as we meet Andor Álmos-Dreamer he dies for love. He gets better, but it sets the tone. The novel skips back and forth through family histories. Men fight duels over women, or just drop dead, sometimes because their wives asked them to. Death doesn’t stop love: one character, Miss Maszkerádi, was fathered by a ghost.

All this is described in stunning prose, with images and metaphors packed in one after the other, urgently running together. It’s like Krúdy wasn’t sure this slim novel would have room for them all. Hungarian, and Krudy in particular, is apparently next to impossible to translate. I don’t know how well this book represents Krudy, or how much came from the translator. Either way it’s a marvel. (This despite the fact that the translation sometimes turns incongruously modern. Would a young woman around 1900 or so call a guy a “creep?” Or, for that matter, a “guy?” Would she say “crap,” or “Men stink?”)

Miss Maszkerádi isn’t into looking ridiculous. She judges her present as though she’s looking back at a distance of fifty years. She doesn’t want to do anything she might feel embarassed about later. The one thing she loves, and identifies with, is a solid and immovable willow tree. Pistoli, the local squire, feels the trees inviting him to hang himself on their branches. He’s smitten with Miss Maszkerádi. This can’t end well. And it doesn’t… Krudy foreshadows heavily enough that I’m not spoiling anything by letting slip that Pistoli doesn’t survive the book. But it doesn’t end too badly, either—or at least no worse than anything else. Hardly anyone minds appearing ridiculous, or even dying. It’s the price you pay for living.

Harpies and Peanuts

Wilde attributes this joke to Carlyle: a biography of Michelangelo that would make no mention of the works of Michelangelo. So complex is reality, and so fragmentary and simplified is history, that an omniscient observer could write an indefinite, almost infinite, number of biographies of a man, each emphasizing different facts; we would have to read many of them before we realized that the protagonist was the same.

—Jorge Luis Borges, “On William Beckford’s Vathek

In the early 16th century, aspiring artist Bartolomeo Torri was thrown out of his teacher’s home after he got a little too absorbed in his anatomy lessons: “for he kept so many limbs and pieces of corpses under his bed and all over his rooms, that they poisoned the whole house,” wrote Giorgio Vasari. Cherubino Alberti fixated on medieval siege engines and filled his home with model catapults. Later, Franz Xavier Messerschmidt believed he was pinched and abused by a “Spirit of Proportion” who could be warded off by pulling grotesque contorted expressions, which Messerschmidt recorded in sculpture.

The cover of Born Under Saturn

Margot & Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn is a history of “the Character and Conduct of Artists,” as the subtitle puts it. And, yeah, a lot of these guys are characters. Others were normal, well-behaved types, but, honestly, you’re not going to read this book for Rubens or Bernini. But Born Under Saturn isn’t a freak show. The Wittkowers are analyzing popular ideas about artists, and although stories of eccentricities, feuds, and crimes make this book more readable than a straight academic treatise they also serve a purpose: the varied mass of biography breaks down cultural stereotypes about artists.

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