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The seldom-seen squiggles of Kurt Vonnegut
07:22 am


Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut
“Untitled,” 1985
Anyone with any familiarity with Kurt Vonnegut’s literary output probably knows that the man liked to doodle. His whimsical self-portrait, the one that emphasized his mustache, is very familiar, making an appearance in his 1973 masterpiece Breakfast of Champions and many other places. Breakfast of Champions, of course, featured all manner of little drawings as a non-textual means of furthering the story.

Next month a handsome coffee table book, Kurt Vonnegut Drawings, from the Monacelli Press, featuring hitherto unavailable artworks, will go on sale (the list price is $40, but you can pre-order it for $25.40). The book will feature 145 selections of his work.
Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut was a fervent believer in the importance of art as a means of enhancing everyday life, and these interesting drawings are the proof. He used pen and (quite clearly) magic marker for these artworks. They remind me most of all of Joan Miró (esp. the Janus-like piece from 1987) and Saul Steinberg (esp. the one with the wavy hair from the same year).
Kurt Vonnegut
“Untitled,” no date
Kurt Vonnegut
“Untitled,” no date
Kurt Vonnegut
“Untitled,” 1980
Kurt Vonnegut
“Self-Portrait,” 1985
More of Vonnegut’s amusing art after the jump…..

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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Life is a Cabaret: Christopher Isherwood on the real Sally Bowles, Berlin, writing and W. H. Auden
08:58 am


Christopher Isherwood

Christopher Isherwood’s best known fictional character is Sally Bowles, who appeared in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, published in 1939. Sally was a singer in a Berlin nightclub, The Lady Windermere, off Tauentzeinstraße, and was supposedly an heiress (her father owned a mill in Lancashire), and had grand ambitions to become a star.

She had a surprisingly deep, husky voice. She sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides – yet her performance was, in its own way, effective because of her startling appearance and her air of not caring a curse of what people thought of her…

Sally with her emerald green nail varnish (“Divine decadence, darling”) was memorably played by Liza Minelli in the film musical Cabaret, opposite Michael York as Brian Roberts (originally Christopher or “Herr Issyvoo” in the book) and Joel Gray as the Emcee, in 1972.

Sally was more than just one of Christopher’s greatest creations, she was in fact based on the journalist and actress, Jean Ross, who had once shared rooms with Isherwood at Nollendorfstrasse 17, Berlin in the early 1930s.

As Isherwood describes Ross, in this interview on Day at Night from 1974, she was a slightly larger-than-life character, who had the looks of the Hollywood film-star Merle Oberon. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Ross was raised in England, before being sent to finishing school in Switzerland. She attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she had a bit part in a “Quiky Quota” movie. Ross then moved to Berlin on the promise of some more film work, but this proved to be false, so she began a new career in modeling. It was around this time in 1931 that Ross met Isherwood, as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography explains:

The two became close friends and Isherwood immortalized her as the eponymous heroine of Sally Bowles (1937), subsequently incorporated in his Goodbye to Berlin (1939). Although Ross later claimed that she was not really like Sally Bowles, most of the more outlandish anecdotes Isherwood used in his portrait were based on fact. She insisted that she was a much better singer than Sally Bowles, but her family disagreed.

An affair with a Jewish musician called Götz von Eick, who subsequently became an actor in Hollywood under the name Peter van Eyck, led to her becoming pregnant, and she nearly died after an abortion. She was visiting England when Hitler came to power and so decided not to return to Germany, settling instead in Cheyne Walk, London, where she joined the Communist Party; she remained a member for the rest of her life.

Inspired by Ross and her various wild adventures, Isherwood wrote a long short story, “Sally Bowles,” which he originally intended to include in his novel Mr. Norris Changes Trains, which was published in 1935. Isherwood sent the story to the editor John Lehmann, to be included in his literary magazine New Writing, but he thought it too long. Lehmann also had problems with certain aspects of the story—Sally’s abortion, and the possible issue of a libel suit from Jean Ross. Isherwood claimed the removal of the abortion scene would turn Sally into a “silly little capricious bitch” and would ruin the story’s finish. He also managed to convince Ross to give her permission for the story to be published, little knowing how successful and financially rewarding the fictional Sally Bowles would be.

I am a big fan of Christopher Isherwood’s writing and found him utterly charming and fascinating in this interview on Day at Night, where he talks about his time in Berlin during the thirties, his friendship with the poet W. H. Auden, his life at university and in America, his family, and how his writing is a voyage of self-discovery.

Previously on Dangerous Minds
Christopher Isherwood: Revealing documentary ‘A Single Man 1906-86’

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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A short tour of Charles Bukowski’s Los Angeles
08:28 am


Charles Bukowski

It’s just over twenty years since Charles Bukowski died on March 9th, 1994. I was in Paris when I heard the news, drinking beer and whisky chasers at a zinc bar, on rue de Lappe, the street where Edith Piaf once sang. It somehow seemed apt to be standing drinking, getting drunk in a bar when hearing the news of that great “drunk” poet’s death. Apt and sad.

I always picture Charles Bukowski at night, in bars, or passing through the neon-lit 7/11 with a six-pack of beers and a carton of cigarettes, back to his house to write endless pages of poetry or prose. I never think of him as out in the sun, tanned under blue LA sky and working for a living. But he did. He had to. He had a variety of jobs and held down twelve years at the Terminal Annex Post Office, 900 N. Almeda St. At nights, held court at 5124 De Longpre Ave.

It’s the association of Bukowski and parties and drinking and fighting and falling-in-and-out of love with women,and getting fired from jobs and waking-up hung-over to start a day drinking all over again. He lived it, but he also worked hard at being a writer. No one could write the quality or amount of poetry and prose if all they did was sit around in bars, fall down drunk and puke their guts out for days. There’s a difference between the telling of a lifestyle, and the living of a life.

This is a beautifully made wee film by multi-media producer Aric Allen that tours what’s left of Charles Bukowski’s LA. From his boyhood home, at 2122 Longwood Ave, to his refuge at the Central Library, to the Grand Central Market where he ate most days, to Musso and Franks on Hollywood Blvd, then on to 1148 W. Santa Cruz St., San Pedro, CA 90731.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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Intellectual Equals: Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir, vintage 1967 interview

It is difficult to think of Jean-Paul Sartre without thinking of Simone de Beauvoir. They were lovers, comrades, friends whose lives were intrinsically entwined. Each morning they would work separately, then at four o’clock in the afternoon, they would meet and dine at La Palette, continuing their conversation, where it had left off. Then they would return to Sartre’s apartment, where they would work together until evening.

Sartre had moved to a tenth-floor, studio apartment on 222 Boulevardd Raspail in 1962, after the right-wing paramilitary group OAS had twice bombed his previous home on Rue Bonaparte.

It was a modern studio in one of the top floors of a modern building: one big wall full of books, a great leather armchair and a long worktable, thick and old—the kind of table used for meals in a convent—laden with manuscripts. From the table, one could see far into the distance, toward the Eiffel Tower. This new abode was Sartre’s farewell to Saint-Germain-des-Pres, to the postwar period, to the existential explosion—his return to Montparnasse, where, from then on, all those close to him would meet…

In the early 1960s, Sartre’s fame was at its height. He had been famously awarded and then rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. He was seen internationally as man of intellect, politics and scandal, yet at the same time, Sartre’s strict adherence to his singular brand of politics and philosophy often made him seem outdated to younger radicals and thinkers.

Even though at the time France was excited over Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Lacan, Althusser, and Foucault, Sartre refused to confront their fertile methods of investigation in any way whatsoever, let alone with the open mind that would have been useful in such a confrontation.

In an interview with L’Arc, Sartre restated his central beliefs:

“Philosophy represents totalized man’s struggle to recapture the meaning of totalization. No science can replace it, for each science applies itself to a well-delineated aspect of man… Philosophy is the investigation of praxis, and as such an investigation of man… the important thing is not what one does with man, but what he does with what one has done with him. What one has done with man, these are the structures, the signifiers, that the social sciences study. That which he does is history itself… Philosophy is the hinge.”

To the likes of Foucault, Sartre’s emphasis on:

...consciousness, subjectivity, freedom, responsibility and the self, his commitment to Marxist categories and dialectical thinking… his quasi Enlightenment humanism, Sartre seemed to personify everything that structuralists and poststructuralists like Foucault opposed. In effect, the enfant terrible of mid century France had become the “traditionalist” of the following generation.

Sartre was probably aware of this, and his rejection of the Nobel Prize was in part over a fear of being seen as part of the French establishment. This at a time when Sartre was dedicating himself to a biography of Gustave Flaubert, which Sartre (erroneously) believed would eclipse all of his previous work. This only convinced Michel Foucault that Sartre was a man of the 19th century.

Whilst always seeming to be hidden by the shadow of Sartre, it was in fact Simone de Beauvoir who was becoming far more relevant and radical in the 1960s, as her 1949 epoch-changing book The Second Sex was inspiring a generation of feminist writers and thinkers. There is a slight irony that this interview with Sartre and de Beauvoir, recorded for the French television series Dossiers in 1967, should focus so much attention to Sartre, when it was de Beauvoir’s ideas and writings that were more influential at the time. The film does capture the couple’s unique dynamic and discusses Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize, his biography on Flaubert; while de Beauvoir discusses The Second Sex.  In French with subtitles.

Previously on Dangerous Minds
Simone de Beauvoir: Why I am a Feminist
Albert Camus vs. Jean-Paul Sartre

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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Bad news: Kurt Vonnegut’s bleak advice to humankind in 2088
02:57 pm


Kurt Vonnegut

When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007, I recall reading about his passing and being quite depressed at the thought of a world without him in it. I read all of his books when I was a kid—some of them several times over—and like many of my generation (and the one above it) I very much internalized Kurt Vonnegut’s notoriously pessimistic, but ultimately kind-hearted view of mankind. I can also say, without hesitation, that his way of looking at the absurdities of life made a lot more sense to me than the religion that my parents tried to stuff down my throat at that age.

His was one of the most important moral—and comic—voices of 20th century American literature. Who else besides Kurt Vonnegut could be considered in the same league as say, Mark Twain?

When he died a great voice was silenced, but from time to time, something unanthologized or a previously unseen letter will surface (Love as Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw, a woman he’d once had an affair with and stayed friends with, is a terrific, if little-known, intimate portrait of the man, including many of his letters). Recently Letters of Note uncovered Vonnegut’s contribution to a Volkswagen ad campaign that ran in TIME magazine in 1988. The campaign asked notable people to write letters to those living 100 years in the future:

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088:

It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our century hasn’t been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?

For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn’t do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:

Reduce and stabilize your population.

Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.

Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.

Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.

Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.

Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.

And so on. Or else.

Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.


Kurt Vonnegut

A perfect prose diamond, right?

I can think of no better coda to this bleak epistle than this clip of Alan Weissman, author of Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, a new book about the disturbing mathematical trajectory of the overpopulation problem on Real Time with Bill Maher earlier this month… Have a nice day!

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
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Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes: Rare interview together from 1961
07:21 am


Sylvia Plath
Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes discuss their work and life together in this interview for the BBC radio program Two of a Kind: Poets in Partnership, from January 18th, 1961. The interviewer is Owen Leeming, who asked about their first meeting at a party in February 1956:

Plath: I happened to be at Cambridge. I was sent there by the [US] government on a government grant. And I’d read some of Ted’s poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him. I went to this little celebration and that’s actually where we met… Then we saw a great deal of each other. Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later… We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on.

Hughes: The poems haven’t really survived, the marriage, it took a hold. [Laughs]

Plath spotted her “big, dark, hunky boy” across a crowded room, and later danced, drank, and discussed poetry before Hughes kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” Plath then bit him “long and hard” on the cheek, which he wore as a badge over the following weeks. Four months later, Plath and Hughes married on June 16th, 1956.

Plath published her first volume of poetry Colossus and Other Poems in October 1960, while Hughes had already published two volumes of poetry, including his award-winning debut The Hawk in the Rain in 1957. When asked if their relationship as partners and poets was in “parallel” or “conflict”, Hughes replied:

Hughes: We’re very alike — we like the same things, live at the same tempo, have the same sort of rhythm in almost every way. But obviously this is a very fortunate covering for temperaments that are extremely different. But they lead secret lives, you see — they content themselves in an imaginative world, so they never really come into open conflict.

He later discussed the processes by which they wrote:

Hughes: What she writes out needn’t be at all the contents of her own mind — it needn’t be anything she knows — but it’s something that somebody in the room knows, or somebody that she’s very close to knows. And, in this way, two people who are sympathetic to each other and who are right, who are compatible in this sort of spiritual way, in fact make up one person — they make up one source of power, which you both use and you can draw out material in incredible detail from the single shared mind. … It’s not that you choose the same things to write about, necessarily, and you certainly don’t write about them in the same way — it’s that you draw on an experience, it’s as though you knew more about something than you, from your own life, have ever really learned. . .

It’s a complicated idea to get across, because you’ve first of all to believe in this sort of telepathic union exists between two sympathetic people.

Plath also talked about her childhood, and how her writing developed:

Plath: I think I was happy up to the age of about nine — very carefree — and I believed in magic, which influenced me a great bit. And then, at nine, I was rather disillusioned — I stopped believing in elves and Santa Claus and all these little beneficent powers — and became more realistic and depressed, I think, and then, gradually, became a bit more adjusted about the age of sixteen or seventeen. But I certainly didn’t have a happy adolescence — and, perhaps, that’s partly why I turned specially to writing — I wrote diaries, stories, and so forth. I was quite introverted during those early years.

Between this interview and her tragic, early death in February 1963, Plath was to write her novel The Bell Jar, and the poems that were collected and published posthumously as Ariel in 1965.

Previously on Dangerous Minds
Sylvia Plath’s pen and ink drawings exhibited for the first time
With thanks to Alan Shields, via Brainpickings

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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‘The JG Ballard Book’ celebrates the ‘Seer of Shepperton’
12:01 pm


J.G. Ballard

Luca Del Baldo‘s terrific cover portrait of Ballard

This review of The JG Ballard Book is a guest post from Graham Rae

Even though writer James Graham Ballard, the so-called “Seer of Shepperton,” died in 2009, interest in his far-seeing-and-reaching futurologist oeuvre has not waned any. More specifically, his memory and legacy have been kept alive by a dedicated band of Ballardians, as his devotees are known, who converse on a Yahoo group about every JGB-related topic under the (empire of the) sun.

One such dedicated Ballardian is Canadian Rick McGrath. He runs the excellent site, where he has all manner of material on display about the writer – interviews, non-fiction, videos, etc. Shoot on over there and have a look for yourself. Fellow Ballardian James Goddard suggested to McGrath that he might try self-publishing a book, so he put out a call for material to various JGB-interested parties round the world, being pleasantly surprised at the response he got. The JG Ballard Book, of course, is the end result, and is also a self-confessed nod to RE/Search 8/9, V. Vale’s seminal 1984 book which helped introduce Ballard to the American audience.

As I said, it’s self-published (easily available through the usual channels), being ex-adman McGrath’s first ever attempt at publishing, and I’d have to say it’s a damned fine-looking book. Starting with the great painting of Ballard on the cover by extremely talented, amiable Italian painter Luca Del Baldo, the book is jam-packed with 191 pages of well-reproduced full-color Ballard letters, interviews with hand-written corrections by the writer, bibliographies, etc; a real smorgasbord of juicy Ballardania for any fan of the writer. Color photos and cover reproductions and such jump from nearly every page of The JG Ballard Book, and it’s a real pleasure to look at from start to finish. This is a labor of love, and it really shows.

There are a huge amount of first-hand JGB reproductions here, and they’re great to see. I have a few letters from the man myself, having very occasionally corresponded with him in the 90s and noughties, and it’s always great to see his sometimes-cryptic handwriting detailing his deep-dish creative thoughts on some headscratcher existential mystery or other. Besides all the reproducing of JGB handwritten materials, there are also a lot of excellent interpretive articles by Ballard admirers in the book, focusing on some aspect of his work and discussing it at length.

Thus we have Peter Brigg examining the writer’s attempts at transcending/rearranging the human concept of time (“JG Ballard: Time Out of Mind,” a really thought-provoking piece); a discussion of why JGB has been so poorly served with his book covers and what might be done to rectify this, “Visualizing the Ballardian Image” (writer Rick Poynor reckons that ‘narrative figuration’ artist Peter Klasen’s splintered-view images, synchronous with Ballard’s writing during the 60s and 70s, would provide a great marriage of aesthetic minds); inspired-lateral-thinking piece “JG Ballard in the Dissecting Room,” where Mike Bonsall purchased a copy of the same edition of Cunningham’s anatomy book the young JGB used when studying medicine at Cambridge and points out passages in the writer’s work that could have been inspired by the dissection diagrams and explanatory texts; a travelogue of McGrath’s own visit to Ballard’s childhood Shanghai home in “JG Ballard’s Shanghai”; and many more.

Aside from analytical writings, McGrath and his fellow Ballardians (including David Pringle, JGB’s Scottish archivist, who tentatively announced last year his starting work on a definitive Ballard biography) have dug up things like rare interviews never collected anywhere before, or even expanded reprints of already-familiar Q&As. These reminded me of why I started reading Ballard in the first place. I always personally liked his interviews more than a lot of his writing, to be perfectly honest, all those amazing thought processes in full flow and flower, which is why I was so glad to see this sort of stuff included.  The old-worldview-destroying firecrackers and depth charges of deep thought peppered liberally throughout the interviews and fiction were what kept me coming back to Ballard. Stuff like this, from the 1981 short story “News From the Sun,” as singled out by Peter Brigg:

“The whole process of life is the discovery of the imminent past contained in the present. At the same time, I feel a growing nostalgia for the future, a memory of the future I have already experienced but somehow forgotten. In our lives we try to repeat those significant events that have already taken place in the future. As we grow older we feel an increasing nostalgia for our own deaths, through which we have already passed. Equally, we have a growing premonition of our births, which are about to take place. At any moment we may be born for the first time.”

You just think about that for a while. Isn’t that just great? You just feel your brain being buffeted back and forth and up and down and round and about by the strength of Ballard’s intellect and ability at getting philosophical brainteasers down on the page, and it’s just a joy to sit and think about what he has said and run it through our minds, savoring the fine seditious vintage of his brilliant intellect. Nobody else has ever, to my knowledge, written like that, and nobody ever will again. Which is why Ballard’s death left such a huge, unfillable hole in world thought and literature.

And why books like McGrath’s are such a necessity and pleasure. Unlike his American counterpart-cum-literary-outlaw hero William S Burroughs, JG Ballard seems to have already started to slide from view into obscurity. At least on the American side of the Atlantic, that is; in the UK he is still venerated by the London media and chattering classes, and quoted fairly constantly by the likes of Will Self and John Gray, a rent-a-gob duo who seem boringly terminally fixated on JGB at the expense of their own thoughts on things. Still, all in the cause of keeping Ballard’s memory alive, so it’s all well and good. (Hopefully the announced production of High Rise will remedy this also.)

Ballard’s daughter Fay likes The JG Ballard Book a great deal, which should tell you something. It’s perfect for the hardcore Ballard enthusiast, though as an introduction to the writer I think it may be a bit esoteric, as it assumes a familiarity with the subject matter under discussion. But the interviews and interpretive pieces might provide an inroad into Ballard’s work and thought for those uninitiated would-be readers who wonder what all the fuss was and is about. McGrath, bolstered by the way the volume turned out, and the good reception it has had, is already planning a second volume to be published through The Terminal Press, his own wee publishing house. If the quality of this volume is anything to go by, with the amount of uncollected Ballardania floating round the world, the Canadian may be keeping JG Ballard’s memory alive for many years to come, and that would be nothing but a good thing.

A 2003 BBC profile of Ballard

Previously from Graham Rae on Dangerous Minds:
Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel: Nailing a whole lot of ‘Hole’ and ‘Nail,’ an exegesis

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
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‘Life, friends, is boring’: A drink with legendary poet John Berryman
06:34 am


John Berryman

He signed his earliest poems as John Allyn McAlpin Berryman. The name was a marriage of his father’s and his stepfather’s names. It was then shortened to just “John Berryman,” but this, he began to believe, was a terrible betrayal.

“What I should have done,” he told his first wife Eileen Simpson, “What I cannot forgive myself for not having done, was to take the name John Smith. This act of disloyalty I will never, never be able to repair. To ‘make a name’ for myself…Can you see how ambivalent my feelings are about this ambition?”

His father was John Allyn Smith, a banker whose suicide, when Berryman was eleven, was to have a major influence over the poet’s life. His father shot himself outside of his son’s window.

His mother claimed his father was too cowardly to kill himself, and that it had been an accident. She remarried quickly to a man she may have been having an affair, John Angus McAlpin Berryman. The surname was adopted and John Smith became John Berryman.

His father’s death robbed the young poet of a strong mentor, leaving Berryman too much in awe of others. He was influenced by T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Saul Bellow, and it took him time to filter these writers out of his work. He also had an uneasy relationship with his mother, who dominated much of his life. He was haunted by his father’s early death, and feared he would fail in life as his father had. There was a premonition of what the future would bring at the party for his engagement to Eileen Simpson in 1942. Berryman was getting drunk, and an argument was simmering between him and his mother, as Eileen later recalled in her memoir Poets in their Youth:

Soon after the party broke up. John and I were staying with his mother [...] He was, as he said, high as a kite. Never having seen him either high or boisterous before, I was amused. [...] The vodka had done its work; he was not merely high, he was drunk. I was just taking this in when there was an exchange between mother and son to which John reacted with a flare-up of anger such as I’d come to expect whenever they were together for too long. I entered the kitchen at the moment when he turned from her, threw open the door to the terrace and with the skill of a gymnast leaped over the ledge of the shoulder-high wall that enclosed it. The ledge was wider than a foot, but not much. Below was the cement sidewalk. As Mrs Berryman shrieked, John started walking, slowly putting one foot in front of the other: the drunk giving himself the test he always fails. It was this scene, and the moment of paralysis I felt before going to him, that remained framed in my memory.

Thirty years later, in January 1972, there was no one to save Berryman jumping from the ledge of the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He landed on the edge of the west bank that flanked the ice-covered Mississippi River.

In his song “We Call Upon the Author,” Nick Cave declared:

Bukowski was a jerk! Berryman was best!
He wrote like wet paper-maché
But he went the Hemingway

Berryman and Bukowski both wrote from the turmoil of their lives. Both were drunks, had fractured relationships with others, and mythologized their lives in writing. But Cave is right, Berryman was a better poet than Bukowski, and his poetry demands more from his readers. Perhaps because of this, Berryman was never as fashionable as Bukowski, and only truly received the acclaim he rightly deserved after his death. His greatest works are Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), 77 Dream Songs (1964),  His Toy, His Dream His Rest (1968), The Dream Songs (1969), Love & Fame (1970), Henry’s Fate & Other Poems, 1967-1972 (1977).

This is John Berryman filmed in a bar in Dublin, 1967, discussing his Dream Songs, his alter ego “Henry,” his biography on novelist Stephen Crane, and reciting his poem “Dream Song 14”:

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored….

This year marks the centenary of Berryman’s birth, which is to be hoped will bring a new generation of readers to his life and work.

More poetry and words from John Berryman, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
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Your favorite new publisher for hip, cult, and brilliant works of literature

If, like me, you have sold or lost a favorite book and, no matter how hard you try, cannot find a replacement volume in some second-hand bookshop, dime rack, or yard sale, then you will probably be delighted to hear about Valancourt Books, which publishes a fabulous selection of lost classics, well-loved out-of-print novels, and neglected works of literature.

Valancourt Books are not only saving these authors for another generation, it is publishing books that seriously demand to be read. Let’s take a cue from cult novelist Michael Moorcock, who wrote this about the publishers:

Valancourt Books are fast becoming my favourite publisher.  They have made it their business, with considerable taste and integrity, to put back into print a considerable amount of work which has been in serious need of republication.  Their list has been compiled by editors who know their stuff, bringing back into the light a raft of books I, for one, have been waiting years to read!  If you ever felt there were gaps in your reading experience or are simply frustrated that you can’t find enough good, substantial fiction in the shops or even online, then this is the publisher for you!

Even the Times Literary Supplement got in on the act, stating:

Valancourt Books specializes in new editions of rare and sometimes almost entirely forgotten fiction from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. These are not cheap reprints: the “Classics” range comes annotated with scholarly introductions and, in some cases, contextualizing appendices. […] Valancourt Books is to be lauded for the scope of its ambition. It will spare scholars and the atmosphere many long-distance journeys to university and copyright libraries, and makes available to the lay enthusiast some curious marginalia from the history of the novel.

No mean praise there. And I have certainly found many of my favorite authors here, including John Blackburn, whose novel Broken Boy is a chilling, dark classic. It was truly a shame that Blackburn was all but forgotten until his rediscovery by Valancourt Books. Blackburn wrote such damnably good novels as A Scent of New Mown Hay, and Nothing But the Night, which was made into a rather disappointing film—just read the book and you’ll see what I mean.

But it’s not just thrills; there’s the sadly neglected author David Storey, whose early novel This Sporting Life was filmed by Lindsay Anderson. Storey also wrote plays (In Celebration and Home being the most notable) and several award-winning novels, in particular Pasmore, and the Booker Prize-winning Saville.

We’re just getting started; other writers whose works have been saved from literary limbo include J. B. Priestley, John Braine, Hilda Lewis, Gillian Freeman, Gerald Kersh, Jennifer Dawson, Keith Waterhouse, and Colin Wilson. There’s a wide selection of lost Gothic literature, gay fiction and nonfiction, and a diverse selection of modern novels. Don’t take my word for it—go have a browse, and I’m sure you’ll find something you’ll like.
More covers from Valancourt Books, after the jump…..

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‘The most important Irish poet since Yeats’: Vintage doc on Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney
10:06 am


Seamus Heaney

I was once lucky enough to see Seamus Heaney, who Robert Lowell once called “the most important Irish poet since Yeats,” give a poetry reading at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It was not long after his volume Field Work had been published.

The reading was held in an upper floor of the Assembly Rooms, looking on to a busy George Street. Heaney sat at a long table, which was slightly raised off the floor, its white linen cover planted with microphones. Through failing memory, I recall the actor J. G. Devlin, and either Niamh or Sorcha Cusack, flank the poet either side, their backs to the windows, silvered and yellowed with light. Heaney said he thought he was a poor reader of his own work, and that he preferred others to read his poetry, yet, when he did read, Heaney made the words tingle.

I thought Heaney looked like one of my father’s relatives. The eyebrows, the ruddy hue, the soft down of hair, the shared Irishness of my ancestors, farmers, and coopers, and supposedly tailors out of Dublin—the stories of my forebears change depending on the tale and the telling.

I listened as the three took turns to read “Death of a Naturalist,” “Blackberry Picking,” “Digging.”

Between my finger and my thumb  
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound  
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: 
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds  
Bends low, comes up twenty years away  
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills  
Where he was digging.

There was no waste, every word used precisely, wisely, unfolding purpose, and meaning, and a shared sense of joy at what means to be alive. Outside, the Festival traffic moved on, oblivious. The memory fades, but Heaney’s poetry like all good literature maintains. Heaney died last August at the age of 74. His final message to the world, written in Latin moments before his death was: “Noli timere” (“Don’t be afraid.”) Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach, remarked on the poet’s passing “He is mourned — and deeply — wherever poetry and the world of the spirit are cherished and celebrated,” Mr Kenny said. “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people.”

This is Seamus Heaney interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for the South Bank Show in 1992. Forget the sub-titles, and listen to the beauty and wisdom of the words.

After the jump Seamus Heaney reads his “Digging”...

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