Saturday, December 1, 2012

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D.T. Max

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2012/2013

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story:
A Life of David Foster Wallace
D.T. Max
Viking ($26.95)

Everything in David Foster Wallace’s life happened quickly. He wrote his first novel, The Broom of the System, in well under a year, as one of his two undergraduate summa theses (his philosophy thesis has now been published too). He wrote the bulk of his massive, generation-defining Infinite Jest in about three years. And after going through more artistic and personal regenerations than would seem possible for one single writer in one single lifetime, he died far, far too young. When I interviewed Wallace in 1997 (click here to read a full transcript of the interview), he was wholly ascendant as the representative writer of his time, and it’s dizzying to think that less than a dozen years later he’d be dead—and that just a few years afterward his first biography would appear.

In keeping with Wallace’s swift turnover, D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, arrives alongside a flurry of other rapidly produced Wallace-related books, and at only around 300 pages, it’s all over much too soon. Not employing the breakneck overwhelm of Wallace’s include-every-possible-detail-and-reflection style, Max instead reins in an amazing amount of material into a surprisingly concise narrative. In addition to consulting all of Wallace’s voluminous drafts and notebooks, Max was afforded unprecedented access to Wallace’s vast correspondence—to friends, family, girlfriends, teachers, editors, and fellow writers—and most of these people granted him extremely candid interviews as well, consigning to Max a kaleidoscopic but also sharply outlined portrait of one of our era’s most brilliant and troubled writers.

Just a few pages into this biography’s revealing portrayal, any Wallace fan will quickly realize that this is Wallace’s worst nightmare: exposure. A profoundly depressed, anxious, self-conscious, and shame-ridden man, Wallace was a mass of tics and habits and neuroses that he very successfully hid from the public by channeling it all into his compulsive writing and by representing himself as the serene author who’d conquered all his demons in the pages of his books. Suffering from depression is nothing to be ashamed of, but being ashamed is unfortunately one of the disease’s most crippling symptoms, and Wallace would have shriveled up with more horror than Hal Incandenza at a college admissions interview if he were to have seen all of his manias and foibles and repeatedly unlearned lessons spread out for all of his readers to ponder in this unflinching biography.

For the first hundred pages or so, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story does an impressive job of sifting through all the interviews and records and recounting it all in a clear and steady voice, Max’s judicious choices in focus and pacing giving the reader a streamlined and lucid understanding of Wallace’s early personality and life-experience in suburban middle America. In many respects, Wallace was a typical product of his times, but with two rigorously intellectual academics for parents, he was also encouraged to regard himself with adult-like rights and responsibilities and was expected to live up to the standards that such responsibilities placed upon him. In a different child, such as Wallace’s sister, Amy, this might have resulted in a well-informed and well-rounded sense of self, but for a child as nervous and insecure and fundamentally unwell as Wallace, it bloomed into a narcissistic neediness that caused him to depend upon wild over-achievement in order to feel any self-worth at all. When he couldn’t perform to the utmost extent, or when he merely feared inability when taking on outlandish loads, he simply crumbled.

As Wallace begins to find a satisfying outlet for self-expression in writing fiction, Max zeroes in and applies an exceptionally keen literary understanding to each of Wallace’s artistic phases and incarnations. Max knows Wallace’s work as well as any fellow writer or critic, and he also demonstrates a deep knowledge of Wallace’s contemporaries and influences, and he makes nearly pitch-perfect evaluations of each of Wallace’s works, including where each of them fit into the larger literary scene. Thus we learn that, contrary to all of Wallace’s protestations that he hadn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 before writing The Broom of the System, the young writer had in truth latched onto Thomas Pynchon in college as a kind of revelation (even pinning up a photograph of the rarely photographed Pynchon onto his wall) and wrote deeply under his influence (or in rebellion against his influence) for much of his career. Wallace was often obsessed by the dialogue that he felt he was in with the state of literary art, and Max very astutely limns all of the specific writers (Barth, Gass, Ellis, etc.) whose works Wallace’s early stories either mimicked or parodied or attempted to abnegate.

Max also examines how Wallace’s literary and philosophical ideas both fueled and hindered his growth as a writer and as a person. Wallace was consumed with ideas in a way that was frequently unhelpful and unhealthy, and his often ludicrous literary rules about how fiction had to be a certain thing—or more often not a certain thing—led him down paths that at times he couldn’t back out from, his self-worth hinging on mental concepts that sometimes did and sometimes didn’t bear fruit. Happily for Wallace and the rest of the world, his concerns merged with his natural creative gifts to find a brilliant consummation in Infinite Jest, but in channeling himself into the specific project of The Pale King—a scheme that by its design couldn’t be dramatized in any effective or compelling manner given Wallace’s specific talents and style—he allowed his rules to determine and limit what he could achieve, which for Wallace unfortunately also determined and limited what he felt he was worth as a person. As anyone who’s read Infinite Jest knows, Wallace had a rehabilitative agenda that bordered on the messianic, and like Dostoyevsky, the idol that he replaced Pynchon with, Wallace in later life became profoundly moralistic in his rules about what his writing needed to accomplish, and anything short of rapturous success would mean utter failure.

Max covers all of this extremely well, but as the biography leans more into Wallace’s writing, it begins to lose its task as a biography. The first third of the book works to portray Wallace’s life among his various milieux quite vividly—from his family to his tennis teammates to his college friends—but as soon as Wallace’s writing comes to the fore, Max begins to forget to do the job of choosing his sources and continuing the textural narrative, and he increasingly quotes Wallace at length and simply lets the quotes do the talking. There are very few quotes that are in themselves uninteresting or out of place, but Max is clearly incapable of effectively pruning Wallace, and as the text proceeds, the quotes become more and more unwieldy and off topic while the biographical fabric slowly loses its integral thread. No relationship in the dozen years after Infinite Jest gets the close biographical treatment of Wallace’s college friendships, and although many of these later relationships are just Wallace repeating his old patterns, they’re all important and worth dwelling upon closely—especially his relationship with his wife, which seemed to be a very new and very different step for Wallace—but instead it’s all rushed through in a way that seems as if Max just wanted to get the book finished in 300 pages without maintaining the level of its early focus and without the difficult decision-making that its narrative and personal texture required.

Max’s greatest mischaracterization, however, is in his last line. After a year of struggling to change medications, Wallace lived in such excruciating pain that he twice attempted suicide and finally succeeded, having not been able to find any measure of safety within himself, and also having failed to complete The Pale King. Max writes, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.” How can Max think, after detailing so many years of profound mental illness, that Wallace “chose” suicide? In Wallace’s case, it was so clearly the most desperate escape from pain, made by a mind so out of control that it could hardly make any kind of informed “choice,” and Max’s poorly considered words leave a terribly bitter taste at the end of this biography. Just as it would be wrong to think that it was Wallace’s wild intellectual notions that led him into sickness (rather than the other way around), it’s incredibly tasteless to suggest that any mental process other than the deepest mental illness could have led Wallace to commit suicide.

Max’s subtitle for this biography is “A Life of David Foster Wallace,” and, true to its word, this book is undoubtedly destined to be “a” life rather than “the” life of its subject. Max has done a great service in bringing all of his sources together and by doing so much excellent original groundwork himself, and his evaluation and interpretation of Wallace’s literary life is likely to stand for some time to come, but Wallace deserves much more than this. With all of its flaws, this book is still a positive contribution that sincerely helps readers understand a complex and sometimes mystifying human being, and like Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, it even helps us read that human being’s works. But surely someday a true biographer, with all of the biographer’s necessary skills and talents, will come along to write the definitive life of David Foster Wallace.

—David Wiley

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop

Fullness and Absence:

Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Along with Thomas Pynchon and Cynthia Ozick, the British polymath Angela Carter was one of the most brilliant and innovative writers of the generation of postmodernists to begin publishing in the 1960s. A prolific novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, translator, and children’s book author, Carter was one of those amazing writers who seemed capable of anything. As her career developed, she spent longer and longer on each novel, with each one gaining in richness and audacity, and her last two novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, are two of the very finest novels of the twentieth century’s postwar era. Dying of lung cancer in 1992 at the age of fifty-one, Carter was struck down at the height of her powers, leaving a body of work that—despite the missing decades of peak writing that she would never get to do—astounds with the fullness of what she was able to achieve in her truncated life. While her most dizzying masterpieces began with 1972’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, all of Carter’s work is wonderful, and her early novels amaze with their originality of style and vision.

Many single out Carter’s second novel, The Magic Toyshop, as the best and most representative of her early work, a novel taking up both old and new themes and written in a neo-Gothic style that recalls the creepiness of the Brontës while being decidedly modern in both outlook and method. The novel commences with an overture so strikingly original and so fundamentally primal that it seems hard to believe that it wasn’t already a deeply embedded literary trope. At fifteen, Melanie is discovering her ripening sexuality, and while her parents are away in America she sneaks into their room, unpacks her mother’s trunk to find her wedding dress, and then puts it on. The night outside the window seems enchanted and untouched to her (“the corn was orient and immortal wheat,” Carter writes, quoting Thomas Traherne; Carter references the metaphysical poets often in this section, especially John Donne), and so Melanie wanders out into it, where she’s first awed and then overwhelmed by its vastness. Wholly overcome by the loneliness and potential hostility of eternity, she runs back toward the house for sanctuary, but wearing only her mother’s wedding dress, she’s forgotten to bring her house key. Seeing that her only way back in is up the apple tree that leads to her bedroom window, she takes off the dress and begins to climb, dragging the dress behind her “like Christian’s burden” (in John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian’s burden is the knowledge of sin). She hadn’t been a tree-climber for years—since before she’d gotten her first period—and now the night’s terrors crush in around her and at one point come alive in the form of the housekeeper’s cat, which tears at the dress in the tree. As she climbs, feeling exposed at a level far beyond nakedness, apples fall all around her and she’s torn at by the tree’s branches, leaving her cut and bruised when she makes it into her bedroom. In the morning light she finds that the dress has been cut to ribbons and stained by the tree, as well as by her own blood, and so she buries it deep in her mother’s trunk. The dress’ wreath is somehow missing, though, and she finds it hanging high in the tree, far beyond her reach, so she just has to hope for her family’s distracted blindness to keep her from public exposure.

A young Angela Carter
The next afternoon a telegram arrives bringing news of Melanie’s parents’ death, in an airplane crash, and soon afterward she and her two younger siblings are packed off to South London to live with their estranged Uncle Philip, whom Melanie only knows from her parents’ wedding photo. Philip owns a toyshop, where he reigns unquestioned as its creative genius and resident tyrant, striking terror into the lives of his young wife, Margaret, and Margaret’s even younger brothers, Francie and Finn. Like a latter-day Jane Eyre, Melanie finds herself at the mercy of this dark, angry puppet-master who sees her ripening beauty as the perfect instrument to play with in his demented basement theater. Less of a Rochester than a sinister svengali from a Powell & Pressburger film, Philip is also less of a presence than he needs to be to make his character effective. As Melanie grows close to Margaret and her brothers, Philip’s power is felt through the waves of influence that he sends through the house while he toils mostly out of sight in his underground workshop. The house’s dynamics are complex and fascinating, but even though all the other characters’ intertwining dramas are compelling, with each relationship measured in part by its compliance or resistance to Philip’s control, this novel suffers from his absence.

One of the more striking—and shocking—aspects of the world that Carter creates in this novel is the fluidity of the family’s relationships. As Melanie’s sexuality grows, her cousin Finn falls in love with her, and their gradual coming-together allows them to form the basis of a new kind of family that’s wholly independent of the world that they’re trapped in with Uncle Philip. Much more strikingly, however—so striking that it precipitates the end of the toyshop—Melanie’s relationship with her brother Francie comes to light to offer an even broader and more challenging definition of love and family. Unable to bear the truth of their secret, Philip sets fire to the toyshop, sending the whole house up in a Jane Eyre-like conflagration.

Leda and the Swan
Carter has several other ongoing motifs at work in this novel, most notably the abandoned, overgrown park that Melanie and Finn visit together (and apart), with its fallen statue of Queen Victoria seeming to symbolize the death of empire, and perhaps even the death of traditional patriarchy. It’s there that Finn first kisses Melanie, and after a theatrical fiasco in which Philip has Melanie playing Leda raped by the swan, Finn takes the swan-puppet to the park and buries it next to the fallen statue. Carter follows each character and theme in this novel to fascinating and inventive ends, but in truth, all the intrigues and echoes and absences in the bulk of the novel aren’t quite strong enough to match the startling thereness of the book’s overture. The drama of the wedding dress makes Melanie into a new Eve, and her naked journey back into her house makes her into a kind of Odysseus as well—with her missing house-key recalling that other new Odysseus, Leopold Bloom—but this creative boldness on Carter’s part doesn’t keep up its momentum when it descends into the labyrinths of the family in London. That this extravagant and beautiful novel doesn’t match its mind-blowing opening isn’t that serious of a criticism, though, because even without the opening, this would still be a remarkable and highly original work. Prefiguring the outrageous and fully accomplished works that Carter would write for decades to come, The Magic Toyshop is a brilliant early step in the direction of genius.

—David Wiley

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

Tales for Future Times:

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Although much lesser known than his literary heirs the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, the seventeenth-century French writer Charles Perrault not only solidified the fairy tale as a literary genre, but wrote or adapted nearly all of the genre’s most signature stories, his tales entering the culture in ways that far transcend his own personal artistic reach. “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” Little Red Riding Hood,” Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” “Tom Thumb,” and the larger designation of “Mother Goose” stories all permeate virtually every level of modern art and entertainment, from rock songs to popular films to the most sophisticated stories and novels by such literary fabulists as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. With all these tales forming a common cultural currency, the clarity and intent of the originals has often been either obscured or contorted to serve sometimes questionable meanings, and while a film such as 1996’s Freeway creates a brilliant and necessary twist on the “Little Red Riding Hood” story, many more popular versions of Perrault’s works—from the saccharine Disney films to the grotesquely insulting Pretty Woman—manipulate their audiences by promoting reactionary gender and class stereotypes. Much of this is in the originals, though, and it’s often surprising to see just what is and what isn’t in Charles Perrault’s versions of these seminal fairy tales.

Perrault published his Stories or Tales from Times Past (subtitled Mother Goose Tales) in 1697, the work comprising three of his earlier verse stories and eight new prose tales, and arriving at the end of a long and not entirely satisfying literary life—Perrault was nearly seventy, and while he was well-connected, his contributions had been more intellectual than artistic—this slim volume achieved a success that hadn’t seemed possible to the man who’d long made his main living as a civil servant. Some of the stories were adapted from oral tradition, and some were inspired by episodes from earlier works, including Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, and some were inventions wholly new to Perrault, but what was most significantly new was the idea of turning magical folk tales into sophisticated and subtle forms of written literature. While we now think of fairy tales as primarily children’s literature, there was no such thing as children’s literature in Perrault’s time, and with this in mind we can see that the “morals” of these tales take on more worldly purposes, despite their slyly clever packaging within the fantastical universe of fairies and ogres and talking animals.

Philippe Lallemand’s portrait of
Charles Perrault (detail), 1672
In “Puss in Boots,” the youngest of three sons inherits only a cat when his father dies, but through the cat’s wily scheming the young man ends up wealthy and married to a princess. Perrault, who was in favor with Louis XIV, provides two interconnected but competing morals to the tale, and he clearly had the machinations of the court in mind with this witty satire. On the one hand, the tale promotes the idea of using hard work and ingenuity to get ahead rather than just relying on your parents’ money, but on the other hand it warns against being taken in by pretenders who may have achieved their wealth in unscrupulous ways. Thus, a tale that seems like a didactic children’s fable actually serves as a double-edged send-up of class mobility, such as it existed in the seventeenth century.

Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” reads much like the popularized versions that we all grew up with, but with one big difference: The wolf eats the girl and her grandmother, and nobody comes along to save them. Without the happy ending, which the Brothers Grimm supply in their version, the story serves as a warning to young women against talking to strangers, and in its moral it warns even more strongly against the “charming” wolves who seem civilized but who are perhaps even more dangerous than brutish attackers. There’s no heroic male to slay the wolf and save Little Red Riding Hood from her own gullible innocence; there’s only danger, and it’s up to young women to learn how to recognize it.

Like “Puss in Boots,” Perrault’s “Cinderella” also has two competing and contradictory morals, and they likewise discuss questions of marriageability and class connection. One moral claims that charm is more important than looks when it comes to winning a man’s heart, an idea that suggests that anyone can achieve happiness, regardless of their conventional assets. But the second moral declares that no matter what natural gifts you have, you need a godfather or godmother in order to put them to good use, a message that acknowledges—and perhaps supports—society’s profoundly uneven playing field.

Catherine Deneuve in the film version of Donkey Skin, 1970
The most strange and amazing of Perrault’s tales, “Donkey Skin,” is also one of his least known, probably because its shocking grotesqueries have no way of being watered down and made easily palatable. In the story a dying queen asks her husband to remarry after her death, but only to a princess even more beautiful than she. Eventually the king’s own daughter grows to surpass her dead mother’s beauty, and the king falls deeply in love with her. At the suggestion of her fairy godmother, the princess makes seemingly impossible demands of the king in exchange for her hand, and the king somehow fulfils her demands each time, to both shimmering and terrifying effect. Then she demands the skin of the king’s magic donkey, which defecates gold coins and is the source of the kingdom’s wealth. Even this the king does, and so the princess flees, wearing the donkey skin as a permanent disguise. In Cinderella-like fashion, a young prince rescues her from her squalor and marries her, and events transpire so that her father also ends up happily paired with a neighboring widow-queen. Despite the tidiness of all its ends, this is the story that contains the messiest and wildest of Perrault’s invented worlds, and perhaps this is why posterity has been unable to tame it into a version that it feels comfortable presenting to children. There is no Disney version, but for the adventurous, Jacques Demy’s 1970 film starring Catherine Deneuve manages to capture all of the story’s perversity while casting the loveliest and most magical spell on its viewers.

While Perrault’s original tales are hardly the versions that were fed to us as children, they also can’t be expected to be the feminist and socialist alternate versions that we might wish them to be—see Angela Carter’s 1979 story collection The Bloody Chamber for this kind of modern twist; Carter had translated an edition of Perrault’s fairy tales in 1977 and was inspired to create her own versions as a response. Perrault was an upper-class intellectual during the reign of the Sun King, and unlike the fable-writer Jean de La Fontaine, whose rich narratives often criticized the powerful and took the side of the underdog—and who himself was not in favor with the megalomaniacal Louis Quatorze—Perrault didn’t have much of an interest in rocking the boat. Instead, as a leading figure on the modern side of the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns,” he brought new forms and sources to literature to create something that even the ancients had never seen. La Fontaine was on the side of the ancients and wrote fables in the vein of Aesop, and while La Fontaine was much more intellectually clever and lyrically sophisticated, it was Perrault’s modernity that lay the foundation for a new kind of literature that’s created a culture all its own. Perrault may have been writing for adults, but the fairy tales that he first put on paper spawned a revolution in what kinds of stories could be made into literature, and soon writing for children spread throughout Europe and eventually across the rest of the world. The results—and even his own works—may have gone far out of Perrault’s intent or control, but that’s what often happens when you introduce something new into the world. It seems that there’s a moral somewhere in that.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Nibelungenlied

The Nameless:

The Nibelungenlied and its Poet

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

In the earlier Middle Ages, before Dante ushered in the cult of the poet as the center of the universe, sagas and epics were almost always anonymous, because they narrated ostensibly true events that the author couldn’t claim to be the “author” of. Great epics such as Beowulf and The Song of Roland and El Cid all recounted heroic deeds that were common cultural and historical currency and that had been told by countless earlier poets, sometimes over the course of centuries. Poets often contended with earlier versions in an attempt to supersede them, but custom demanded that they as authors remain nameless, even in triumph. Perhaps the greatest of these anonymous epics, The Nibelungenlied (or The Song of the Nibelungs), came at a pivotal shift in poetic modes, when the brutal histories that it recounts needed to be tempered to an age of courtly chivalry, creating a strange and complex web of narrative priorities and strategies.

The author worked in a court somewhere in Austria at around the year 1200, and while his finely attuned courtly sensibilities made for a more sophisticated and nuanced work of art (paving the way for the likes of Dante), it’s clearly the poem’s outrageous contents that have assured its lasting appeal. In addition to fusing old and new artistic modes, The Nibelungenlied sews together two major narratives, and although it largely holds as a single piece, the seams show quite clearly. The first major part of the poem covers a period thought to be the early fifth century, narrating the marriages of Siegfried to Kriemhild and Gunther to Brünhild. In brief, the Burgundian King Gunther has a beautiful sister named Kriemhild, and a traveling warrior prince named Siegfried wants to marry her. In order to receive Gunther’s permission, Siegfried agrees to accompany Gunther to Iceland to help him win the hand of Queen Brünhild. Pretending to be Gunther’s vassal, Siegfried uses his wiles to help conquer the formidable Brünhild, who states that Gunther can only marry her if he beats her in three athletic contests. Donning a cloak that grants him invisibility and great strength, Siegfried helps Gunther win each contest, and Brünhild assents to go back to Gunther’s home city, Worms, where she marries Gunther and where Siegfried is allowed to marry Kriemhild. Sensing some sort of deceit, though, Brünhild fights off Gunther in the wedding chamber and ties him up for the night. Once more recruiting Siegfried, Gunther tells his new brother-in-law to use the cloak again to subdue Brünhild in his stead, but he warns Siegfried not to sleep with her. Siegfried wrestles Brünhild into submission, and he takes her ring and girdle, which the poet tries to gloss over but which symbolize her lost virginity. Siegfried then secretly presents the ring and girdle to his new wife, Kriemhild, with the poet keeping mum about anyone’s reactions to what this could possibly mean.

An illuminated manuscript of The Nibelungenlied
As the years pass, something continues to bother Brünhild about her husband and Siegfried, and she eventually convinces Gunther to invite Siegfried and Kriemhild back to visit Worms. Not understanding why Gunther ever allowed his sister to marry Siegfried, who she thinks of as having a lower rank, Brünhild ends up in a confrontation with Kriemhild over precedence. Arguing over who should enter the cathedral first, Kriemhild is offended and angrily presents Brünhild with the stolen ring and girdle, humiliating the defeated queen. After much ado, Gunther’s vassal Hagen kills Siegfried and steals all his treasure. Kriemhild is forced to accept peace, but she holds a very, very long grudge.

In the second part of The Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild is married to King Etzel of Hungary (the historical Attila the Hun), and when they have a son, she invites Gunther and his Burgundian court to the child’s baptism. The assassin Hagen has grave reservations about the visit, but since peace has been agreed upon, they all make the trip to Etzel’s castle, where they’re all ruthlessly slaughtered, to the last man. The second part has none of the twists and turns of the first part, but its slow and ominous rise to unbelievably bloody heights takes as much poetic space as the entire first part, and with far less padding. Many critics claim The Nibelungenlied to be a kind of medieval Iliad, a quasi-historical epic poem that narrates its founding figures’ drama in one massive swoop, but its two very different parts read a little more like the different modes of The Iliad and The Odyssey, on a much smaller scale and with far less artistic integrity. While Homer’s two poems contain centuries of embedded lines that come from widely varying sources and styles, The Iliad and The Odyssey still hang together with far more seamlessness than The Nibelungenlied, which betrays not just the splicing of its major parts, but the competing sensibilities of its brutal sources and its courtly audience.

Magda Bánrévy’s Nibelungenlied, 1933
Perhaps The Nibelungenlied and its anonymous poet were by design fated to be far secondary to their great Homeric forebears. While earlier medieval epics were much more economical and uncomplicated in their ferocity, in this period of the Middle Ages courtly patronage both allowed and demanded that a poet deal with much more material and on a much more complex scale, and unfortunately the resulting poetic refinements and span of mind and scope of sources ended up being as much of a restraint upon the poem as they were a source of largeness and richness. Perhaps no poet could have juggled so many requirements. Or perhaps the Middle Ages just didn’t contain a historical panorama as vastly alive as that of the Greeks. Or maybe it’s simply that Dante hadn’t come along yet to limn heaven and hell into the most outrageous and ingeniously integrated poetic system. The Nibelungenlied is merely an earthly poem, with no gods or afterlife, and it’s possible that its terrestrial nature is what keeps it from full flower. Whatever the reason for its limitations, it’s still an awesome and terrifying work of art, and even though its nameless poet wasn’t able to raise it to a transcendent level—even though he wasn’t free to make it all his own and to innovate to the point where he might have become an actual named author—it’s still the consummate poem of its complex and entangled times, and is perhaps despite itself an obscure portrait of its lost poet.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

John Gardner’s Grendel

Reshaping the World:

John Gardner’s Grendel

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Among the many innovations of twentieth-century Modernism, the recasting of old texts in strikingly new contexts resulted in fascinating and original ways to conceive of ourselves and once again made the novel into something truly novel. James Joyce’s Ulysses was loosely patterned on Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the former book’s protagonist Leopold Bloom standing as a complex contrast to the classical Odysseus, with the reader’s knowledge of the Homeric hero playing off of the book’s information by filling in the backing framework and creating expectations that Joyce very cleverly manipulated and made  new. Just three years after Ulysses, one of Joyce’s most vocal acolytes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, published The Great Gatsby, which is similarly based on The Satyricon, a first-century Roman novel attributed to Petronius that serves as a byword for its era’s decadence. While the Modernists used these ancient works as a kind of thematic touchstone, more recent writers have created alternate or intertwining versions of classic works. In 1966, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, a kind of prequel to Jane Eyre that took up the young Bertha and attempted to give her a richer existence than the one she suffered in the Charlotte Brontë novel. Much more indelibly, however, John Gardner’s 1972 novel Grendel retells the Old-English Beowulf story in the voice of the monster himself, creating a character and a work that—amazingly—compete with the original in both narrative and imaginative power.

There are in fact three monsters in the Beowulf epic—Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and an unnamed dragon—and although Grendel is the first and easiest to be killed in the original poem, Gardner lets him tell the story from his warped, peripheral perspective as if his experience were the very center of the tale, as all of our perspectives are. A frustrated and solitary creature, Grendel howls at the stupidity of the beasts and humans who inhabit the land around him, and although he’s largely just a brutish and grotesque figure, he’s nonetheless a higher life-form whose broader perspective affords him a deep understanding of the humans’ insane folly. They can’t understand his speech, but he can understand theirs, and his long lifespan allows him to observe the humans’ patterns and progressions on both a small and a large scale, their incremental shifts and consolidations of power shocking both Grendel and the reader with their short-sighted brutality. Grendel is especially astonished by how humans use theories to guide and justify their sickening actions, his longer view unveiling their manipulative and self-destructive use of ideas and revealing the purposeful inhumanity that propels these human beings into the purposeless abyss.

An illuminated manuscript of Beowulf
Entrancing Grendel even more than they repulse him, the humans accompany and abet their ceaseless slaughter with an epic retelling of events that shapes it all into a gorgeously seductive narrative. Known as “the Shaper” (a literal translation of the Old-English word “scop”), the resident poet entertains and flatters the current king with illustrious and heroic tales of the king’s own conquests, the singer’s harp-accompanied verse versions lulling not just the humans with their artistry, but Grendel as well, who becomes obsessed with the Shaper’s marvelous reshapings. Perhaps recalling Franz Kafka’s portrayal of Gregor Samsa in his story “The Metamorphosis,” with Gregor’s dual higher and lower natures soaring alongside his sister’s violin playing, Grendel’s susceptibility to the Shaper’s magic reveals at once his finer sensitivities and his simple-minded propensity for being hypnotized by artistically hewn lies—this double-edged susceptibility mirroring our own as readers of fine literature and believers in flattering mythologies about ourselves and our civilization.

Delving into the deepest heart of darkness, Grendel leaves the human world for a while and descends far into the bowls of the earth, where he meets a dragon whose utterly terrifying conversation takes the reader on a trip through the underworld that surely stands alongside any in classical or medieval literature. A fatalist in the deepest and most nihilistic sense of the word, the dragon expounds upon a philosophy of meaninglessness that removes any agency or purpose from any possible choice or action. A kind of prophetic visionary, he can foresee all events, past and future, including his own death, and he explains to Grendel that even his knowledge can’t forestall anything that’s been laid out. If he were to attempt to thwart his fated death, he would merely be bringing it about more surely by falling into its inexorable steps. The dragon is a higher life-form than Grendel, and much of this conversation goes over Grendel's head, his mind drifting off as all this abstract thought fails to capture his imagination in the way that the Shaper’s entrancing words do, but Grendel retains an infected residue of this worldview as he re-ascends to the human world and moves toward the death awaiting him at the hands of the newly arriving hero, who is fated to become the subject of the Beowulf epic that inspired Grendel’s own tale.

It’s difficult to tell which is more sick, the publicly espoused lies that further the ends of brutality, or the resigned but sophisticated nihilism of prophecy and philosophy, but by juxtaposing and entwining them, Gardner paints a grim picture of a species so lost in words that it has very little concept of the true meaning of its actions. By putting all of this old wine into a new fictional skin, though, Gardner strikes deep into our self-recognition and tries to reawaken us to ourselves. But can we truly see it? Grendel entrances as a work of art as surely as any Shaper’s song, and even though it tells deeper truths, it’s possible that its art and its philosophy simply leave us ravished rather than reshaped. Like David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, which endlessly entertains us while warning us of the dangers of endless entertainment, Grendel straddles a tricky line. Like Wallace, Gardner was a fierce moralist but also a master artist capable of spinning mesmerizing fictional webs. Gardner even once condemned Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—a novel that contains profound moral and historical criticism within its arc of mindless pleasures—as decadent and amoral entertainment. And Wallace, a thoroughly didactic Dostoyevskian, leveled similar criticisms against Pynchon, who was very unsecretly his idol. There’s just no pleasing some moralists.

So what do we take from these novels—and from Grendel in particular? Do we change our lives, or do we change our minds, or do we just keep turning the pages, in love with the sound of the Shaper’s voice? Is there any way to truly awaken from the nightmare of history and reshape the world in the way that the great novels do? Perhaps not. Grendel certainly doesn’t wake up to pull away from the matrix that artfully slaughters him and everyone else within its sphere, and neither do we as we repeatedly follow our politicians into yet more artificially manufactured wars. But maybe the shock of this novel can open our eyes—if only to the dragon’s fatalistic vision of the future, which we may not be able to change or opt out of but at least can perceive and experience with clearer and finer senses.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Elie Wiesel’s Night Trilogy

Memoir and Memory:

Elie Wiesel’s Night Trilogy

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Some memoirs are remarkable because of their subject matter; some are remarkable because of how they’re written; and some are remarkable because the author has transformed extraordinary subject matter into an unforgettable literary creation, molding events into a written document that delivers the reader into the deepest heart of the author’s experience, the memoir encompassing the author, the reader, and their shared world into a common consciousness. In a more sane time than ours, Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life would have stood as the representative narrative of who we are now. Her autobiography of a self rising up out of the void of darkness and silence to reach the very heights of self-expression would have been considered our triumph as a civilization, were we actually to embody our epoch’s remarkable scientific strides forward with a correspondingly progressive human evolution. There has never been a sane time in human history, however, and, amazingly, according to statistics we are living in our least barbarous epoch yet, but the terrible truth, even in our incrementally less violent culture, is that the central event of the past century has been the Holocaust and that Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night is perhaps the one document that should be required reading for a world that wants to understand what it’s become and what it’s become capable of.

The story is now archetypal: A young Jewish boy grows up in a relatively stable family in a small town in Eastern Europe; then Germans enter the region and systematically force the Jews into cramped ghettos; truth-tellers who warn of the coming atrocities are ignored, because nobody believes that humans could be capable of such savagery; Jewish elders meet to decide what to do, and the Germans use their reluctant cooperation to manipulate the confused and fearful population; then they’re herded into trains, in ascending order of the families’ importance, to keep everyone divided and focused on preserving just themselves; rumors abound constantly: perhaps they’re being deported for their own safety, maybe even to Palestine; then they arrive at the camps, where families are separated and every individual must fight to stay alive, often at the cost of friends and loved ones, the Germans’ inhumanity quickly spawning similar inhumanity among the victims; in the end, after unspeakable abomination following unspeakable abomination, all of which Wiesel speaks of with shocking and relentless candor, almost everyone gets massacred or simply falls dead, leaving only the surviving tale-teller and a few other shattered souls piled among the corpses.

The story is archetypal, however, because of this specific book—because one exceptional mind has framed and presented the narrative in words so forged in fire that they sear into the reader to leave a permanent imprint. Wiesel’s narrative power is nearly Biblical, creating a work that has become perhaps a sacred text, a testament for a time in which humans have killed the God in their fellow humans. Part of Wiesel’s power derives from his immersion in Jewish mysticism, which he began studying just a few years before the Germans arrived. As in the other monotheisms, Jewish mysticism is esoteric to the point of being considered heretical, and it seeks to explain the eternal creative power’s relation to the temporal world in which we live. At every turn, Wiesel illustrates events using Kabalistic tales, but as the narrative progresses, the connection between our world and the divine disintegrates, and the tales stop seeming to ground the world he’s explaining and begin to undermine the sense of connection between us and any possible God. At a certain turning point, after which all vestige of humanity becomes lost, the prisoners at Auschwitz are forced to watch a young boy being hanged, his death a slow and agonizing one because his weight isn’t enough to break his neck. A man in the crowd asks, “Where is God now?,” and a voice inside the narrator replies, “Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.” Critic Alfred Kazin, among others, has pointed out that this death stands as a religious sacrifice, like Isaac or Jesus, and signals the literal death of God on earth.

Dovetailing with the religious influences on the narrative are the influences of existential philosophy, which Wiesel studied in Paris in the years after the war. Wiesel also studied literature, along with the Talmud, and his keen eye for the internal struggle to find and maintain meaning in a meaningless world both illuminates and darkens the text—a text that he vowed not to compose until ten years of reflection had passed. The history of the text itself—and of its tortuous path to publication—may surprise readers who take for granted its canonical existence as a seemingly uncreated and eternal testament. In 1954, Wiesel feverishly composed the first version in Yiddish, on a boat to South America, and the result was an 862-page draft that he titled And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel gave the only copy of the manuscript to a publisher named Mark Turkov, whom he met on the ship, and Turkov published a 245-page version in Buenos Aires. The book received no attention (among other reasons because Argentina was a welcoming refuge for Nazis). Then a chance meeting led French novelist François Mauriac to use his connections to push for a French translation to be published, and it took three years to find a publisher, the translation by Wiesel himself eventually whittled down to 178 pages. Another two years passed before a brave American publisher commissioned a translation, which ultimately only encompassed 116 pages. Who knows what was lost in all these translations? What’s certain is that the book as we read it is like the distilled essence of the most evil flower. It’s a razor-hewn knife that demands a blood covenant of its every reader, and it’s a knife that every generation of our civilization must continue to go under if we’re to know who we are.

But then after Night, what next? Does the narrative stop, and do we just hold this one book in place? No. The world somehow moves forward, and so does Wiesel. Since Night, Wiesel has published more than fifty books and has continued to educate and enlighten every emerging and evolving generation. Among his books, he’s written two that are thematically and perhaps spiritually entwined with Night and has bound them—both of them works of fiction that he calls “commentaries” upon the first book’s “testimony”—into the Night Trilogy.

The second book in the trilogy, the 1961 novel Dawn, features a fictional first-person narrator who finds himself and his times in a twisted dialogue with the memory of the Holocaust. The narrator, a Holocaust survivor who is now part of the Resistance fighting to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, finds the tables darkly turned, with himself now in the role of executioner. In retaliation against the British occupation, which is scheduled to execute a captured Jewish terrorist/freedom-fighter at dawn, the narrator has been ordered to execute a kidnapped English soldier named John Dawson, also at dawn. Over the ensuing night, the (significantly unnamed) narrator confronts this flesh-and-blood sacrifice, a man whose existence on earth is no mere symbol, and, even more deeply, he’s forced to confront himself, his past, and his possible future. When he pulls the trigger at dawn, following orders for his cause, he has extinguished the entire world in this one individual, just as the Nazis had done for so many millions of individual worlds in the Holocaust. He understands what has happened, but he feels that he has no power to stop it, perhaps because the Nazis have taken away his humanity and turned him into a fellow executioner. As with all the other legacies of the Holocaust that are still relevant today, the issue of victim-turned-victimizer in an endless series of retaliations continues to be a crucial one. With an apartheid Israel herding Palestinians into hot-house ghettos and refugee camps that are clearly based on the German model, and with pan-Islamic fundamentalist terror striking back at abstracted and impersonalized enemies in the West, and with those very human and very wounded enemies striking even further back into the Middle East, the drama of Dawn is unfortunately still very much in play.

The third book in the trilogy, a novel called Day (or The Accident in some editions), takes the drama to America, where another first-person narrator struggles to maintain connection and purpose in a world where he can never feel that he belongs. Perhaps mirroring the capricious hostility of history, a speeding car smashes into the blindsided narrator, who only discovers what’s happened when he wakes up in the hospital. Lost in a floating world of pain and memory, he confronts his own inability to exist in the living thread of time, as most clearly exemplified by his tenuous relationship with his troubled but remarkable girlfriend, Kathleen. The narrator has no ability to love or to be loved, and in his disconnected confinement he feels incapable of escaping the pull of the Holocaust, which has deadened the real world for him and remains his only constant reality, this third book in the trilogy illustrating the deeply ingrained personal toll of the Holocaust on an individual who has lost his capacity for true human connection.

Not at all life-affirming in any ordinary sense, Wiesel’s Night Trilogy confronts our very worst living nightmare and reminds us that it’s a part of who we are as a species, but rather than showing us how to live with it, the way that a lesser memoir might do, it instead shows us how we actually do live with it—which is poorly. The memory of the Holocaust is a constant reminder of our worst selves, a specter haunting us as surely as death. But, significantly, neither Wiesel nor his characters let it wholly consume them. The characters in his Night Trilogy do not commit suicide, and Wiesel himself is alive to this day, working and living in the face of the blackness, a perpetual survivor whose every word and every breath is a deliberate act of moving forward with the terror. This may not be an uplifting prescription for how to live your life, but as with the knowledge of our own inevitable mortality, the ability to carry these terrible memories with us may be the only way that we can consciously choose to survive as a species.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Letters of Flannery O’Connor

The Misfit:

The Letters of Flannery O’Connor

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

A white, southern, conservative Catholic who published in a largely liberal and secular literary milieu, Flannery O’Connor was one of the most misunderstood writers of the twentieth century. Her fiction is inhabited by haunted prophets, holy fools, and brutalized innocents, but because her bizarre subject matter and wickedly penetrating eye appeal greatly to northern agnostics who have very little religious context, she’s often taken to be a freethinking anarchist whose “carnivalesque” worlds are a critique of the very religion and tradition that rooted her work. Even readers who know of her religious leanings often interpret her fictions as ironic mockeries of religion in general—or, because of her Catholicism, specifically of southern Protestantism, evangelism, and homegrown prophecy, which are the kinds of religion most often found in her work. O’Connor constantly railed against these interpretations, and although she declined to give simple explanations for her rich and complex writing, she knew the kind of audience she was facing and was often exasperated at how readers could look into her crystalline works and only see an opaque mirror of their own imagining. All the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments found in her fiction may seem outlandish to a secular audience, but as we read in her letters, O’Connor saw the secular viewpoint as completely off center, and she refused to give in to the expectations of her readership—a sticking point that made her hammer away at the same tedious point about accepting Christ’s call in her two novels, making both Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear it Away (1960) suffer artistically, but that in many of her stories offered moving examples of true grace. O’Connor was as compulsive a correspondent as she was a fiction writer, and her letters reveal much that lies in plain sight in her fiction. Her friend Sally Fitzgerald collected her letters in the decades after her death and published them in 1979 as The Habit of Being—and then expanded the collection of letters for the Library of America’s 1988 Collected Works—and these letters are as sharp and funny and relentless as her fiction, offering not just a key to her stories and novels, but also one of the most profound and moving portraits of any writer of the past century.

The first collected letter is from 1948, an inquiry from the twenty-three-year-old O’Connor to New York literary agent Elizabeth McKee, who would represent O’Connor’s literary output until the author’s early death in 1964. The O’Connor of the early letters is already spirited, headstrong, and uncompromising, and when she finds her life radically curtailed by the onset of lupus just a few years later, she’s humbled in a physical sense, but her sense of purpose is undefeated, and her continued correspondence reveals a spirit filled with wit, willfulness, aspiration, and devotion, and all of it bound together with an actively engaged concern for the real lives and souls of her friends and family.

Although O’Connor can be intensely thorny, she reaches out in her letters for true connection, and some of her closest friendships arise when she responds to letters from sensitive readers of her fiction. Her most involved and personal correspondence is with a woman only identified as “A” (a friend who stipulated that she remain anonymous when she submitted her collection of O’Connor’s letters for publication), and the ups and downs of their friendship are the stuff of literary legend. “A” was attracted to O’Connor’s fiction both for its artistic quality and for its religious significance, and in the early years O’Connor fed her friend books and articles on Catholicism and even stood as a kind of sponsor for her baptism into the Church. Eventually “A” loses her faith and takes up a kind of ecstatic pantheism that grieves and annoys O’Connor and affects not just their spiritual correspondence, but their discussions of everything from literary matters to their daily lives. The strain on their friendship can be quite distressing, but O’Connor holds her friends dear, even when she doesn’t understand them, and in her waning years of sickness she and “A” draw close and focus on the love and care that transcend their differences.

One of the most fascinating and entertaining things about O’Connor’s letters is that each correspondence reveals wildly different aspects of her personality, and one correspondent who brought out the most varied and engaging responses from O’Connor was Maryat Lee, a playwright who held widely diverging ideas and beliefs from O’Connor but whose unconventional attitudes and playful wit prompted O’Connor’s most inventive and inspired expressions of self. O’Connor’s letters to Lee are simply hilarious, and their differences—especially about race issues and religion—serve as a binding agent rather than as a divider, their comical ribbing of each other opening up a field of play between the two that remained animated until the end.

Flannery O’Connor, self-portrait, 1953
O’Connor’s other correspondents ranged from a who’s who of mid-century literati—including Robert Lowell, Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bishop, John Hawkes, and Walker Percy—to religious figures to just about any reader who reached out to her with a question or a word of praise. Her letters reveal a mind engaged—and often in battle—with the real life of her times, and her varied correspondents often elicited strong opinions from the writer who proudly stood as the most deeply conservative member of her family of religious white landowners living in the apartheid American south. She had no sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan, but she unapologetically touted herself as xenophobic, anti-intellectual, religiously intolerant, and fiercely impatient with the integrationist movement. One of the most heartbreaking moments in her letters occurs when a friend offers to arrange a meeting with black American writer James Baldwin and O’Connor refuses because that’s something that’s simply not done in Jim Crow Georgia.

Reading everything in context, of course, it’s clear that O’Connor was merely a product of her time and place, like all of us, and shouldn’t be expected to transcend the mindset that she inherited and that was so deeply entrenched around her. Her contrary nature wasn’t aimed at her own upbringing—the way that, for instance, James Joyce’s was toward Catholic Ireland—but rather at the northern secular intellectuals who she felt were trying to rationalize away her beliefs and traditions. What’s fascinating is that she was something of a misfit on her own turf as well. While she was unquestioningly orthodox in all the articles of the Catholic faith, she had no patience for what she saw as the inane pieties of the average Catholic believer—and especially of the Catholic press that so thoroughly exasperated her. Just being a writer made her an object of curiosity and confusion in her hometown, and her devotion to aesthetics insured that she would never produce anything “nice” that any of the good country people could easily digest. Thus, she was a misfit to almost everyone who didn’t know her personally: an enigma to northern readers who loved her work and something of a bizarre embarrassment to her fellow southerners, who by O’Connor’s own admission were not her target audience.

Humanizing all of these intense polemics and keeping them subservient to the things that really matter, O’Connor’s correspondence revels most often—and most enjoyably—in the day-to-day activities of writing, making a living, raising birds, and living with her mother. Regaling her friends with ongoing accounts of her ducks and geese and swans and peafowl, as well as of her family’s ever-evolving farm, with its epically embattled tenants and servants, O’Connor’s letters remind us that great writers are merely human and that they spend most of their time just trying to get by. O’Connor’s relentless battle with lupus is an especially brutal and heartbreaking reminder of her daily struggle, and as we wade through letter after letter, sifting through ideas and beliefs that aren’t always easy to digest, what rises above all else is O’Connor’s simple humanness. Her voice is addictive and impossible to forget, and what haunts us in her letters is not so much the dazzling chamber of horrors that she channeled into her books, but the luminous presence of her brief life among friends and family who were more real to her than any mere book or idea. Like “A”, we may have profound differences with Flannery O’Connor, but her voice draws us in keeps us close until the end.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics

New Spaces in Space:

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

The author of such dazzling fictional inventions as Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italian writer Italo Calvino has often been cited as one of the first true postmodernists. Like nearly all the postmodernists of the 1960s—Thomas Pynchon, Cynthia Ozick, Gabriel García Márquez, etc.—Calvino was profoundly influenced by the new fictional forms created by the Argentinian short-story writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges, but of all these writers, Calvino followed this new thread of genre-bending to the farthest extremes and spun his literary pursuits into the most fantastical and fabulous fictional webs.

Calvino began his literary career in the 1940s as a realist, with World War II and its political backdrop as his main subject and influence, but he eventually grew disillusioned with the limits of conventional narrative, which didn’t allow him to express his true artistic talents and desires. In the 1950s he published The Cloven Viscount and The Baron in the Trees, both of which were marked steps into a stranger and more warped fictional territory, and by the 1960s his works were mapping their own unique terrain around themselves and exploring the limits of fiction by exploring the limits of our collective ability to explore. While all this exploration would culminate in 1979, just a few years before his death, with the brilliantly exhaustive meta-fiction If on a winter’s night a traveler, in 1965 Calvino set his sights on the universe itself with his short-story collection Cosmicomics.

Cited as a breakthrough influence by the American postmodernist John Barth—who writes that when he discovered Calvino he was “much under the spell” of Borges—Cosmicomics takes on the farthest reaches of humanity’s knowledge of the universe and spins a series of twelve stories that each riff off of a different aspect of how our cosmos seems to be composed. While all the stories shape themselves around scientific concepts that in 1965 were held to be more-or-less factual, they’re also fantastically inhabited by living beings and consciousnesses that try to understand themselves and their environment—with a sentient and ever-changing being named Qfwfq narrating most of the stories (a clear reference to Kafka, and to Borges’ reference to Kafka in his story “The Library of Babel”)—and it’s the relationship between scientific understanding and living experience that gives these stories their poignancy and purpose.

In “The Aquatic Uncle” Qfwfq recalls the generational differences that sprang up when most of his family moved from the seas to the mainland. His great-uncle N’ba N’ga chose to stay in the water rather than make the shift from amphibian to reptile, and although Calvino’s anthropomorphization of this choice is scientifically spurious, when the interests and allegiances of Qfwfq’s girlfriend Lll come into play, the story resounds with the sadness and yearning that we all recognize when faced with diverging life-paths. Similarly, in “The Form of Space” Qfwfq falls endlessly through the empty cosmos alongside both a beautiful woman named Ursula H’x and his rival for Ursula, Lieutenant Fenimore, the story playing on the inner machinations and feelings of isolation that can arise when paralysis allows a simple love triangle to become infinitely complex. Qfwfq dreams of a universe coming into existence that will somehow impose a new form on space and bring him into contact with Ursula—and into probable conflict with the Lieutenant—but in the meantime he must continue falling and waiting and thinking, possibly forever.

A few years after the publication of Cosmicomics Calvino would befriend French semiotician Roland Barthes (not to be confused with John Barth, who took great exception to Barthes’ conception of “the death of the author”), and two of the stories in Cosmicomics play on the idea of signs in a way that correlates to some of the postmodern theory that Barthes and other French theoreticians were exploring at the time. In “A Sign in Space” Qfwfq leaves a sign in a specific point in his revolving galaxy to mark where he was and to serve as a reference point for all other spaces. When the galaxy turns full circle again and again, however, he finds his sign missing, or altered, or effaced, or copied, or mimicked, so that he loses his bearings in a universe where significance is elusive and relationships are relative to the point of meaninglessness. Like much of the theory it reflects, this story is little more than a self-conscious word game, but it bends the space that a short story can inhabit and enlarges the form in exciting and novel ways.

In the collection’s more successful story about signs, “The Light Years,” an unnamed narrator looks through his telescope and sees a sign that says, “I SAW YOU.” Calculating the time that it would take for the light to get to him from the sign’s location, he then calculates back and discovers in his diary that whoever posted the sign saw him on the very day that he’d done something that he didn’t want anyone to know about. This inaugurates a campaign of signs between the narrator and a universe full of observers and interlocutors who all have something to say about the subject. The narrator’s sense of shame and fear of being observed recalls some of Kafka’s most memorable characters, and as in “A Sign in Space,” the story’s compulsive thoroughness weaves a Kafka-like web of nightmare that its isolated narrator can’t escape.

Any comparison to Kafka and Borges in no way diminishes Calvino’s accomplishments, but instead points out his power to expand upon their innovations and to create new spaces for himself, which is no mean feat among such company. Like Borges especially, Calvino has the ability to run with a theme and expand upon it to seemingly infinite degrees. In his 1972 novel of interrelated sketches, Invisible Cities, he would take the theme-and-variation technique to his highest and most personal level, with each of the book’s city-states perhaps signifying a concurrent version of his beloved Venice, the book standing alongside If on a winter’s night a traveler in both innovation and fully realized achievement. Cosmicomics may not succeed to such a marvelous extent as Calvino’s later works, which are dizzying, but as with humanity’s understanding of the universe, this book’s reach exceeds its grasp in ways that profoundly compel and that lead to self-discovery for its readers and its writer alike.

—David Wiley