Latest reading: Bernhard, Vidal, Baker

19 Jul

1.

After Dale Peck’s absurdly glowing review of novelist Thomas Bernhard’s oeuvre (offering up a very fine summation of 20th century fiction along the way; you can read it here), I rushed out to buy some of the new editions of Bernhard’s work. I demurred, however, when I leafed through them and saw novels with no paragraph breaks at all. I don’t know why, but I hate when authors/translators do this. There is never any good reason, save perhaps for Saramago with Blindness who explains why the form of the novel is the way it is near the end. The no paragraph break thing has ruined more than one reading experience for me, and made my edition of The Trial a real slog when it didn’t need to be.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the infamous grumpypants—one of his books, for instance, is a sustained attack on why Austria is such a shitty place and why the awards he won are useless—and he’s really, really good. Better than a lot of the touted German/Austrian authors, such as Peter Handke, and better even, on a first read, than Gunter Grass. He’s a remarkable talent, and I’ve rearranged my queue to add more of his novels.

A pungent writer of deranged fictions.

Gargoyles follows a university student going on the rounds with his doctor father in a rural area still operating in the feudal model. The doctor’s rounds draw them both into a world of violence, racism, primitive people and weirdness. There’s murder, decrepitude, and an atmosphere of gloom. As the father and son move towards the castle and the Prince, who owns the land all around, it feels as if you are wandering through some final novel, the end of all things. The last 90 pages are an extended monologue from the Prince, who is half-mad with isolation. That’s the summary and, in some sense the book, entire. Much of what happens is innuendo, implied menace, a sort of shadowy wraith hanging over the entire proceedings. There’s no real plot or denouement, but it’s thrilling to read.

He’s a very strong writer, a magician with his prose that washes over you in a disturbing, hypnotic fashion. He’s prone to philosophy but unlike many philosophical writers what he’s arguing isn’t always clear, which makes him confounding and enigmatic. He drapes his philosophical ponderings over well-drawn characters and events. His narrator writes early on, “Self control, I said, is the satisfaction of using your brain to make the self into a mechanism that obeys your command.” The meanderings of his potent mind seem to grow out of the novels. He’s polemical but he isn’t didactic. He’s quite a marvel.

Gargoyles is a powerful novel, full of high strangeness and melancholy. There’s a great passage, halfway through, where the son/narrator visits an outlying shed near a mill where a disturbed family lives. “At first I saw nothing in the outbuilding. But then, when I had become adjusted to the darkness and the curious smell, a smell of flesh, I saw lying on a long board across a pair of sawhorses a heap of dead birds. They were from the aviary, I saw at once, the finest exotic birds. The beautiful colors nauseated me. These slaughtered birds were in fact the most beautiful specimens from the cage, and I turned around to the miller’s son with a questioning look.”

The narrator learns why the millers are killing the birds, and their answer is so foolish and pointless yet logical, and the banal horror of it doesn’t register until a few pages later, and it’s clear what Bernhard, who lived through World War II, thinks of the human race: we are deranged and murderous fools.

2.

Gore Vidal is an underrated novelist. His historical novels are dense, intricate, sophisticated, polemical and often too damn long. But he’s a very fine researcher, and a wicked, funny novelist. He wrote plays, essays, stringent criticism; he wore the mantle of a public intellectual for some thirty years; he was threatened by William Buckley; he was reportedly punched in the face by Norman Mailer (I could only find the Dick Cavett dustup here); but he will be remembered, if at all, for his novels. He won a genuine convert in me with Julian; I’ve read half a dozen histories about Constantine and Julian since.

America is Vidal’s target and muse. He loves stalking her hallowed historical halls, pushing ideological buttons. Like Bernhard, he’s acidic, incendiary, and often angry. Unlike Bernhard, he has a broad sense of humor. He isn’t above a pie to the face.

Sly, snide, sarcastic, witty, wicked.

With Burr, Vidal uses the disgraced former vice president as a mechanism to puncture the myths of America’s founding fathers. (George McDonald Fraser, in his hilarious Flashman novels, does the same thing with British military failures of the Victorian era.) So Vidal, through the voice of Aaron Burr, presents Washington as a power-mad fat ass who lost every military engagement he participated in, but somehow won the war; John Adams as intelligent but belligerent and strangely incompetent, who was outsmarted by his far more cynical contemporaries (“He never did understand men, but he was quite at home with their ideas.”); and Thomas Jefferson, the serpentine, manipulative hypocrite who always said one thing but did another.

Here’s a sampling:

“Jefferson was a ruthless man who wanted to create a new kind of world, dominated by independent farmers each living on his own rich land, supported by slaves. It is amazing how beguilingly he could present this contradictory vision. But then in all his words if not deeds Jeffers was so beautifully human, so eminently vague, so entirely dishonest but not in any meretricious way. Rather it was a passionate form of self-delusion that rendered Jefferson as president and as man (not to mention as writer of tangled sentences and lunatic metaphors) confusing even to his admirers. Proclaiming the unalienable rights of man for everyone (excepting slaves, Indians, women and those entirely without property), Jefferson tried to seize the Floridas by force, dreamed of a conquest of Cuba, and after his illegal purchase of Louisiana sent a military governor to New Orleans against the will of its inhabitants. . . . had Jefferson not been a hypocrite I might have admired him. After all, he was the most successful empire-builder of our century, succeeding where Bonaparte failed.”

And, later, “Jefferson was the whole continent as a kind of Virginia . . . he wanted no cities, no banks, no manufacturies, no taxes. Jefferson was wrong and Hamilton was right. Worse, Jefferson was impractical.”

Vidal paces his novels well, but they always feel about 50 pages too long. Still, Burr is a rich and illuminating experience, and a great counterargument to the lambasting Aaron Burr has taken over the last 200 years.

3.

And now to weirdo Nicholson Baker, one of the strangest bestselling authors we’ve got. He’s a difficult writer to pigeonhole. Unlike Bernhard and Vidal, he doesn’t write one type of book. He’s a minimalist. He’s a fabulist. He’s an eroticist. He’s an astute critic, a part-time historian, a weirdo Luddite, and a lover of esoterica, minutiae, good writing.

Baker’s review of video games for the New Yorker—he’s not a gamer so he approached them aesthetically—was superb, and he later fired the first major salvo at the e-reader phenomenon reviewing the first batch of e-readers.

House of Holes is his latest novel, and it’s a raunchy, silly, sexy little tale about a fantasy retreat where physics, time, history and rationality can be bent towards pleasure. The people who run the House of Holes can read your thoughts, uncover your genetic background through a sniff to the crotch, and fulfill the nastiest fantasy. It feels like a cross between Anais Nin and Douglass Adams, sort of inspired pornographic lunacy, madcap, at times deadpan, linguistically stretching and distorting like a contortionist in the middle of one of the orgies he describes.

Just your ordinary sex-obsessed grandpa.

It’s hilarious, a puffed up skin tableau, an endless display of human pleasure, and he’s so obviously mocking the sex writing of everyone else that the fluff feels almost mean. If it weren’t so good.

He can write well: “Rhumpa . . . saw a pepper grinder in the middle of the table and while they talked about the price of tires she unscrewed the little knob on top, and when it came off she lifted the wooden part off the central spindly thing and looked inside, where she could see the shadows of peppercorns. She thought, the peppercorns are waiting to be ground up. They’re still round, like little dry planets, but not for long.”

There’s no real plot, just page after page of erotica. He uses every descriptive word you can think of for human genitalia and it is a blast to read. Here’s an example, of when Rhumpa first arrives at the House:

“ ‘I like men who are intelligent and witty,” Rhumpa said. ‘Also kind to animals and interested in other people and able to hold a conversation of reasonable length.’

Daggett frowned and looked at his clipboard. ‘It says here that you favor a man with a heavy, dark dick. It quotes you as saying, “Some nice things are just not possible with a small, pale dick.”’

‘Where did you get that piece of information?’ Rhumpa asked, outraged.

‘During reassembly we do spectrum analysis,’ Daggett said. ‘They screen for diseases, of course, comb through for lurid thoughts. What’s your ideal sexual encounter?’

‘Oh, touching, kissing, caressing,’ Rhumpa said, at a loss.

‘It says here that you would favor having three Italian airplane pilots in uniform shoot their comeloads onto your belly while you cup your clitoris with a wooden spoon.’

“They don’t necessarily have to be Italian,’ Rhumpa said. ‘And they can be race-car drivers if that’s easier.’”

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