Off the Shelvesby Book Staff
The Weird American by Paul Grimstad
H. P. Lovecraft, Tales (The Library of America, 2005)
Early in Sam Raimi’s 1987 slapstick horror experiment Evil Dead 2, stop-action animated pages of the ancient Book of the Dead fly open to reveal extraterrestrial anatomies inscribed in blood. From these otherworldly inscriptions, Raimi launches the jacked-up tracking shots by which he gleefully smashes through a catalog of schlock devices: walls vomiting blood, Exorcist-like demon voices, Wizard of Oz-ish mobile oak trees, and spidery effusions of smoke spreading across a full moon. The only way to stop the evil tearing through the woods is to recite passages from the ancient book.
Raimi’s book riffs on The Necronomicon, Abdul “the mad Arab” Alhazred’s work of occult scholarship. Both author and work were fabricated by that American auteur of the weird tale Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a selection of whose tales is now available in a Library of America edition. Though not as annotatively obsessive as the collection prepared for Penguin under the direction of S.T. Joshi, the handsome Library of America volume does contain an extremely thorough and informative chronology, generally excellent editorial notes by novelist Peter Straub, and 800 pages of Lovecraft’s perversely intense prose.
If Edgar Allan Poe was the hysterical American around whom three generations of cultishly devoted poètes maudits lined up to pray in Paris, H.P. Lovecraft might serve as the 20th-century avatar of that Franco-American feedback loop. In novelist Michel Houellebecq’s recent biography of Lovecraft, Contre la vie, contre le monde, we get a picture of the writer as a reclusive misanthrope, whose inwardness led to his aggressively odd (and for Houellebecq, unsurpassably beautiful) literary productions. As with Paul Valéry’s deification of Poe, Lovecraft is elevated to the status of a detached master of literary special effects, mixing up letteral compounds in the private laboratory of a cahier intime.
As a precociously literary youth, Lovecraft read The Arabian Nights alongside astronomy textbooks, later discovering Coleridge and at some point, fatefully, Poe. Most of Lovecraft’s literary tics can be traced to this hybrid of the antiquarian, the macabre, and the celestial: ghoulish professorial figures obsessed with ancient inscriptions; underground alchemical laboratories; sprawling non-Euclidean cities, and terrifyingly strange organisms arriving from deep space, hissing in languages older than the universe.
In fusing science fiction with the “weirdly horrible” tale (a subgenre Lovecraft coined in his own short study of supernatural literature, none of which is included in the Library of America edition, sadly), Lovecraft fuses two of Poe’s inventions. But what he most faithfully inherits from Poe is that disarming synthesis of the weird and the precise. What Poe called the “air of method” surrounding the intuitive stratagems of his ratiocinating detective, Lovecraft apes in the meticulous refulgence of his prose. Houellebecq calls it Lovecraft’s “materialism”—that peculiar take on the supernatural that has nothing to do with belief but is rather the hypothesis that the very fabric of the universe, if described carefully enough, can be shown to harbor unthinkable monstrosities.
In Lovecraft, the more outré the horror, the higher the amplitude for diagramming the “indescribable.” In the case of “Herbert West—Re-animator,” it is a matter of detailing the synthesis of a chemical agent capable of returning life to the freshly dead. Lovecraft shows us the raving Dr. West digging up graves, then the makeshift operating table on which the stolen corpses are tested for possible reanimation. The feverish researcher is of course Lovecraft himself, carefully injecting the corpus of gothic science fiction with a potent, life-enhancing fluid.
At the center of the Library of America collection are Lovecraft’s two novel-length pieces, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” serves as a compendium of his recurring preoccupations: grave robbing, the reappearance upon the Earth of powerful ancient beings, bookishness bordering on the decrepit, and so on. It is another great example of Lovecraft’s ability to elevate the “weirdly horrible” into a baroque craft.
The other long piece in the collection, “At the Mountains of Madness,” borrows from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym the premise of an Antarctic expedition gone unspeakably wrong. It shows Lovecraft expertly assimilating the terminology of geology and Arctic exploration into a fantastical scenario: part-by-part diagrams of drilling equipment, exotic topographies of Arctic mountain ranges, and the discovery, at the center of the South Pole, of an ancient city whose architectural logic defies the known laws of geometric proportion. Alien architecture is an elementary particle of Lovecraft’s aesthetic that Houellebecq traces back to his two-year residence in New York City, just before he began producing his major pieces. Still, for all the vertiginous precision of the descriptions, there is usually that moment in Lovecraft of arriving at something unspeakable (and it’s usually italicized).
Lovecraft’s tales in a Library of America edition is in some way a confirmation that American literature—from the hellfire Puritan jeremiad to Emerson’s “I become a transparent eyeball” to Hawthorne’s uncanny allegories to a one-legged Lear chasing a gigantic fish to Miss Dickinson’s dash-riven angst to the murders of hard-boiled L.A.—all of it has always been weird. With the inclusion of H.P. Lovecraft in this wacked canon, can Library of America volumes of William S. Burroughs and Phillip K. Dick be far off?
Paul Grimstad is a Ph.D. candidate in English at NYU.
Expressions of Ourselves by Roger Kamholzich
Leila Hadley, A Garden by the Sea: A Practical Guide and Journal (Rizzoli, 2005)
Leila Hadley, the author of the two memoirs Give Me the World and A Journal With Elsa Cloud, has tried her hand in a new genre—a book on gardening entitled A Garden by the Sea.
In spite of its ostensible appearance as a handbook of a specific sort, A Garden by the Sea alludes to a personal summation of Hadley’s longing for quietude after her long odyssey detailed in her previous memoirs. Written in a warm and nostalgic tone, Hadley’s text fluctuates between manual, memoir, and metaphor, subtly demonstrating how “Gardens are expressions of ourselves, our creativity, and our connection with nature, the true beauty of life, and the mystery and wonder of all living things.” The poetry of Emily Dickinson, who also was a respected gardener in her own time, often sought to corral similar sentiments in her verse.
Learning from her mother at an early age the lesson of restraint, Hadley nonetheless defines her practice with a creative bravura that often defies conventional approaches. She possesses an impassioned interest in the discipline tempered by reason and experience.
With its meticulous yet frequent richness of language, A Garden by the Sea bestows an immaterial, dreamlike quality on the surrounding landscape while expounding on many technical facets of gardening. The result is an engaged illustration of the activities of gardening as a means of reconciliation with nature’s mystery.
Living Life Out Loud by Joscelyn Jurich
John Falk, Hello to All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace (Holt, 2005)
In 1993, the war-ravaged, besieged city of Sarajevo was a plausible destination for a young freelance foreign correspondent, but an unlikely one for a chronic depressive. John Falk happened to be both, and at the age of twenty-five he came to Bosnia to “start” his life. “Maybe a genocidal conflict seems a strange place for this purpose,” Falk admits. “But I had waited so long and I was determined.” Severely depressed since age twelve, Falk had been sequestered in his parents’ attic just months before his arrival, toying with a family rifle and contemplating suicide. A prescription for Zoloft and a lifelong zeal for foreign war adventuring brought Falk to Sarajevo, where saving his life, not taking it, became his priority.
Fear not: Hello to All That is not the male version of the insufferably indulgent Prozac Nation, though it could easily have descended into those wallowing depths. Yes, Falk is another depressed upper-middle class kid. But he wants to emerge from endless self-inspection: Though he possesses the temperament of a satirist, not an artist, it’s clear that Falk desperately wants to embrace Zola’s declaration: “I am here to live life out loud.”
With hubris-filled faith in the drug that brought him out of his illness and to Bosnia, Falk assumed that the year’s supply of Zoloft he’d stuffed into a tube sock in his suitcase before leaving was all he really needed to be “cured.” He spent 1993 through 1994 living in and reporting from Sarajevo, discovering along the way that he required much more than a drug to make him whole: What he really needed were connections to people outside of himself and to issues outside of his own. A Bosnian family, the Nonoviches, provided Falk with shelter, community, and a sense of purpose. Prompted by his mother’s request that he do something good for at least one individual in Sarajevo, he decides to help their two children, Dina and Omar, as well as their niece Olja, out of the city. With his own family’s help and much of his own effort and finagling, Falk secured them all scholarships to American universities.
An untrained journalist with a broad and basic understanding of the Bosnian conflict but uninterested in delving deeper—“I really didn’t give a fuck about the history of the place,” he concedes—in Sarajevo he was one of many freelancers; those he describes are comic and motley, like Harald, a twenty-three-year old Dutch “Marxist-Leninist-Socialist-Progressive- Anarchist-Anti-imperialist-Anti-colonial-Anti-corporate-Anti-anything-not-run-for-and-by-the-People.” But none are as endearingly bumbling as Falk himself. He only learns about the daily UN press conferences from Dina, and then proceeds to accidentally sleep through them regularly. Falk’s official spiel is that he works for NBC radio, yet he inexplicably travels only with a camera. He is finally such an unlikely journalist that he’s rumored to be a spy. But while interrogated, Falk’s complete ineptness—he literally sets his pants on fire with a cigarette—quickly calms fears of espionage. It is in fact the Nonoviches, not Falk himself, who ultimately secure his big story: a profile of Vlado, an “anti-sniper” who hunted and killed Serbian snipers, including one of his best friends. Falk told the story in a Details article, later made into the 1998 film Shot Through the Heart.
When Falk returns to the U.S., his life becomes more conventional, and so does his memoir. The last two chapters feel rushed and incomplete. We never learn why Dina, Omar, and Olja seem unhappy in the U.S.—and by this point in the book, we are emotionally invested enough to really care. Falk tries to cheer them up by taking them to see Forrest Gump; unfortunately, that film’s simplistic sentimentality has started to seep into Falk’s writing toward the book’s close.
While Falk’s writing is elsewhere buoyant and his pacing generally meticulous, Hello to All That’s imaginative strength is in its structure. The memoir’s duality derives from its construction, in which chapters alternate between Falk’s Bosnian “adventure” and his history of depression. The alternating stories allow the reader to draw, or ignore, possible parallels between what Falk and the Sarajevans faced in Bosnia and the internal struggles he grappled with when depressed.
Herein lie the most interesting and untouched issues: Is it fair to use war and peace as metaphors while real people are experiencing real war and hoping for actual peace? For all his good-natured self-deprecation, the worry lingers. Though Falk is likable enough to pull it off, there is still something disturbing about the idea of using the Bosnian war experience to mirror one’s own emotional journey. “The most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1978 work Illness as Metaphor. One wishes that Falk had grappled with the ethics of metaphor. Had he done so, his memoir would have had a level of depth closer to Robert Graves’s autobiography of the First World War, Goodbye to All That, from which Falk derived his title.
Nevertheless, Falk has written a compelling and complex memoir, tragicomical and thoughtful, mordant and moving. And we might even be tempted to salute Falk, his family, and the Nonoviches with the traditional Bosnian toast: Zivjeli! (“To life!”)
Joscelyn Jurich is a writer who lives in Manhattan.
Cruel Beauty by Arthur Vaughan
W.G. Sebald, Campo Santo (Random House, 2005)
There’s an unusual levity to the opening essay of Campo Santo, the latest, posthumous work by W.G. Sebald. Sebald, feeling “carefree and at ease,” visits two museums in the Corsican town of Ajaccio, Napoleon’s birthplace. Afterwards, he considers prospects for the evening: “Over coffee,” he writes, “I studied the advertisements in the local paper and wondered whether to go to the cinema. I like to visit the cinema in foreign towns, but neither Judge Dredd at the Empire, USS Alabama at the Bonaparte, nor L’Amour a toux prix at the Laetitia seemed to me the right way to end this day.”
Anyone familiar with Sebald’s work has to pause here to imagine the grand master of Teutonic gloom sitting in a dark, Corsican theater, watching Sylvester Stallone (dubbed in French?) stagger his way through a ridiculous comic book fantasy. Alas, Sebald didn’t go. And yet the two words in the title of that film miraculously suggest his main preoccupations: guilt and dread. The guilt—collective, resulting in cultural amnesia—is native to postwar Germany. The dread—always delineated with the utmost eloquence—is personal, although it derives in part from the destruction wrought by humans. This is the writer who, in The Rings of Saturn, chose to view all of human history as one endless process of combustion, with people burning ever more fuel to ends that seem at best inscrutable, or, more likely, completely futile. (Imagine how much energy was consumed in the making of Judge Dredd.)
Guilt and foreboding dominate Campo Santo, and after that curiously light first essay we find Sebald traversing his usual ominous terrain. The book’s first section is a series of four essays on Corsica. (Sebald had intended to write a book about the island but abandoned it in order to write his magnum opus, Austerlitz.) While the first, third, and fourth essays are engaging and informative, none display the mastery of Sebald’s best work. They’re more like preliminary travel essays, pieces to be reshaped until they reach that finely wrought pitch maintained throughout four previous works of essay/travel narrative/quasi-fiction. This is no disparagement: Middle-of-the-road Sebald is still magnificent.
And we might not even know what we missed, were it not for that second essay, the one actually entitled “Campo Santo.” It’s here that we find that familiar ring, and where we read what is probably the best piece of sustained prose published in Sebald’s name since Austerlitz. It’s an unanticipated joy (if that’s ever the right word with his work) to find that classic prose, wisely left by its editor as one long, uninterrupted paragraph, allowing Sebald’s brilliantly associative drift to carry the reader: It starts with an almost suicidal description of a swim (“I felt I could simply let myself drift away into the evening and so into the night”), which yields to accounts of a Corsican cemetery, Corsican death rites, banditry among the hills and along the roads, memories of his childhood reaction to death, and so on until the final crescendo, in which Sebald considers the declining value of death in light of an exploding population.
Of the reviews, discursions, and occasional pieces that form the second part of the book (published in the German press), there is again a distinction in quality. There are two soaring essays here, meditations on Kafka and Nabokov, tantalizingly short but infinitely suggestive. Sebald’s focus on the minute allows him to make broad historical connections: “We are attending the séance staged by Nabokov, and strangely familiar characters and objects emerge surrounded by that claritas which has always, since Saint Thomas Aquinas, been regarded as the sign of a true epiphany.”
Critics have compared Sebald to Proust and Nabokov as an elegist to memory, but this is never quite accurate, as shown in the penultimate essay “An Attempt at Restitution,” where Sebald asks, “What can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying around in our minds?” Memory, for Sebald, invokes dread before nostalgia. The unease, the baleful sense of existence have more in common with Kafka (a particular favorite of Sebald) than with Proust or Nabokov. At one point, in the essay “Kafka Goes to the Movies,” Sebald might almost be describing himself: “Kafka, who often felt like a ghost among his fellow men, knew of the insatiable greed felt by the dead for those who are still alive.”
How is it that such meditations are so insinuating and seductive? Perhaps because Sebald frames and captures the inevitable, seizing upon it while we are still able to appreciate its cruel beauty. Like Kafka, Sebald envisions a state halfway between consciousness and emptiness, and reading him allows us a perspective normally reserved for ghosts. He has shored up a world against oblivion, and the value of this is clear in that second, mesmerizing Campo Santo essay, where Sebald envisions a culture that has dispensed with remembrance:
The whole past will flow into a formless, indistinct, silent mass. And leaving a present without memory, in the face of a future that no individual mind can now envisage, in the end we shall ourselves relinquish life without feeling any need to linger at least for a while, nor shall we be impelled to pay return visits from time to time.
Arthur Vaughan is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.