Friday, June 12, 2009

Revisiting the Big Dalkey Get

As is traditional around here, I move from the deadly serious to the irretrievably trivial. . .

When this blog was but a month old, I posted a list of the 55 Dalkey Archive books I'd acquired a couple years previously when a friend and I took advantage of their big sale (100 books for $500). I thought it would be amusing to take another look at this list in the context of my change in focus, shifts in my reading life, and so on. At the time of the original post, I'd read 23 of the 55 books; as of today, I've read 31. But I've also discarded some of them, others are on the edge of removal, and even of those that are relatively safe, a few remain that I wish I hadn't picked.

Here is the list, with those I've read in bold and the discards crossed out:

1. Chapel Road, Louis Paul Boon
2. Rigadoon, Céline
3. Some Instructions to my Wife, Stanley Crawford
4. Storytown, Susan Daitch
5. Island People, Coleman Dowell
6. Too Much Flesh and Jabez, Coleman Dowell
7. Phosphor in Dreamland, Rikki Ducornet
8. Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, Stanley Elkin
9. George Mills, Stanley Elkin
10. The Rabbi of Lud, Stanley Elkin
11. Van Gogh's Room at Arles, Stanley Elkin
12. Mrs. Ted Bliss, Stanley Elkin
13. Foreign Parts, Janice Galloway
14. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, William H. Gass
15. Quarantine, Juan Goytisolo
16. Blindness, Henry Green
17. Concluding, Henry Green
18. Nothing, Henry Green
19. Doting, Henry Green
20. Fire the Bastards!, Jack Green
21. The Questionnaire, Jirí Grusa
22. Flotsam & Jetsasm, Aidan Higgins
23. Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley
24. Time Must Have a Stop, Aldous Huxley
25. A Minor Apocalypse, Tadeusz Konwicki
26. The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus
27. Reader's Block, David Markson
28. AVA, Carole Maso
29. The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, Carole Maso
30. Cigarettes, Harry Mathews
31. Singular Pleasures, Harry Mathews
32. 20 Lines a Day, Harry Mathews
33. The Human Country, Harry Mathews
34. The Case of the Perservering Maltese, Harry Mathews
35. Women and Men, Joseph McElroy
36. Impossible Object, Nicholas Mosley
37. The Hesperides Tree, Nicholas Mosley
38. Odile, Raymond Queneau
39. Collected Novellas, vol. 1, Arno Schmidt
40. Nobodaddy's Children, Arno Schmidt
41. Two Novels, Arno Schmidt
42. Is this what other women feel, too?, Jill Akers Seese
43. The Sky Changes, Gilbert Sorrentino
44. Imaginary Qualities of Actual Things, Gilbert Sorrentino
45. Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino
46. Pack of Lies, Gilbert Sorrentino
47. Blue Pastoral, Gilbert Sorrentino
48. Under the Shadow, Gilbert Sorrentino
49. Something Said, Gilbert Sorrentino
50. The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein
51. Annihilation, Piotr Szewc
52. Monstrous Possibility, Curtis White
53. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, vol. one, Marguerite Young
54. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, vol. two, Marguerite Young
55. Marguerite Young, Our Darling, Miriam Fuchs, ed.

With 31 books read and four discarded, that leaves 20 books. Why did I get rid of the four? Well, the real question is, why did I pick two Aldous Huxley books?!? I've never read anything by Huxley, including Brave New World. At the time of the purchase, I was smack in the middle of what I have been calling my "days of despair", but the period wasn't always despairing. I believed in the virtue of diverse reading, an expansive view of what constituted literature, of what I thought I wanted to read. (I'm not saying I don't now believe in diversity, but my approach is markedly different.) I also had--still have--a tendency to read the less famous book(s) by an author first. This has paid off handsomely in many cases, but it has its pitfalls. One of which is making you not want to read the more famous book at all. Anyway, this is partly what happened with Huxley. I figured I'd read Brave New World at some point, and, hey, Point Counter Point was also on that Modern Library list, so... It is in this spirit that I'd acquired a used (Dalkey) copy of the latter, and included the other two Huxleys as part of my selection in the big purchase. I suppose I should have paid more attention to my previous passes at the first page of Brave New World. In retrospect, I realize that I found the prose unreadable at worst, uninteresting at best. It turns out the same is true of these other Huxleys. Nothing interesting about the prose at all. Off they go. (I'm sure I could elaborate some more, but these are books I've not read and will not read, right?)

I'm not surprised I included the Ben Marcus volume in my pick, but after several attempts at reading this book, I decided that I simply couldn't. I couldn't make sense of it at all, nor did I relish the work needed to unpack its mysteries. Away!

As for Céline, here is another case where I should have read the more famous book(s) first before acquiring any others. I've kept my copy of Journey to the End of Night (a New Directions book, of course), so I may yet read it, even though my early passes at it have not kept my interest. And Rigadoon, and all the other Céline books I've looked at, is much the same. The style looks irritating. I know writers I admire have sworn by Céline, but I just don't care. (I still think that Death on the Installment Plan is a first-rate title, however.) Sold!

Ok, that accounts for the four discards; what about the remaining 20? One book in particular is on the chopping block: Joseph McElroy's Women and Men. Read my earlier Dalkey post for remarks about McElroy and this book. Here, I'll just say that this mammoth novel survives only because I hope to read some of the sections explicitly mentioned by Garth Risk Halberg in his year-end post (and comment) at The Millions. If those sections don't work for me, it's gone.

Others: Unexpectedly, I've been unable to make it through William H. Gass' (incredibly short) Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. Gass is one of my favorite writers, but this book is rather too cute (Gass plays here with fonts and type sizes and the shapes of words and I don't think it's nearly as interesting as he does). I've tried several times to read Goytisolo's Quarantine. This novel is also short, but the writing strikes me as vague and unfruitfully obscure. I'll give it another pass, but if I can't make it through, it'll have to go. I wish I hadn't selected Jack Green's Fire the Bastards!, if only because I don't think I care enough about the shittiness of newspaper reviews, or even the review reception of Gaddis' The Recognitions, more than 50 years on. I still expect to read one of the Dowell books and the Aidan Higgins (a collection I began but never finished for no good reason). Carole Maso's AVA is in the current TBR pile. She's always a keeper, but she requires slowness and attention I don't always have to give (plus, I wanted to have read some Beckett before reading it, which I now have). I'm sort of out of my Nicholas Mosley phase, so The Hesperides Tree has languished and isn't likely to be read anytime soon. The lone remaining unread Stanley Elkin book on my shelves, the three novellas making up Van Gogh's Room at Arles, will get read. Elkin's another favorite, but I just haven't been in an Elkin place in the last couple of years. Same with Sorrentino. I was mildly disappointed in his Mulligan Stew (still a very funny book), and that may have put me off reading Pack of Lies and Blue Pastoral. But also I simply wasn't there. I sort of wish I hadn't included the Curtis White (non-fiction) book, but it's slim enough and probably not without interest, so I imagine I will read it. Arno was the over-the-moon enthusiasm of The Complete Review that moved Schmidt onto my radar. I'd had some good success with Complete Review recommendations up till then, but since then I've become aware that my tastes are very different, so I wonder if the Schmidt selections (three of them! how insane am I?) were a mistake. I've thought about trying one or more of them a few times, but the layout of the words on the page is odd enough to have distracted me. I wasn't up for it. Two of these books are hardcovers and thus very expensive, so if I decide to sell, who knows, I may do OK on them. But I still hope to give them a decent chance. (Meanwhile, I've seen very few references to Schmidt anywhere outside The Complete Review. I'm not sure if that tells me much of anything.)

That leaves Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans and Marguerite Young's two-volume Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (plus the small critical volume about Young and her book; I probably didn't need this book either). I leave these for the end because of their length, their perceived difficulty, and the fact that both writers were women. We think of men as being the writers of difficult literature, do we not? I certainly do, I have to admit. One clear exception is Gertrude Stein, who is famously difficult, in particular The Making of Americans. Marguerite Young's enormous novel doesn't appear to be difficult to read, at the level of the sentence or paragraph, but it does appear to be hugely ambitious. With either book, I will need to psyche myself up for a serious attempt at a reading that does justice to the material.

Interestingly, when I took part in this big purchase, I was madly in love with the Dalkey Archive. To me, it was the ideal press: attractive books, excellent mission, and a massive stable of interesting books by underappreciated authors. My opinion has shifted. It still is all those things, and I still think it's an exemplary publisher. But its considerable focus on the self-consciously experimental or post-modern, however one chooses to define those terms, is, let's say, not quite in line with what I want from literature anymore, what I think is valuable or interesting about it. But of course that's what this blog is about, when it's about literature, so I won't expand on the point here.


S. Sparks said...

I recently found your blog. There's good stuff here, especially this list. I had always cherished the idea of buying into one of Dalkey's special sales, but have always hesitated because of the price - although it is a steal.

I agree about Huxley, although I went through a phase of reading his novels, I think always in the hope of finding one that would be as good as his non-fiction (The Devils of Loudon, in particular). But the novels fail to do it for me. Huxley struggles not only with his prose, but with plotting and character as well.

Richard said...

Hi, thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading. I hope you find enough here to keep you coming back. Cheers.