I hadn't read him until recently, when I picked up a copy of Expelled From Eden, a greatest-hits set apparently designed to make Vollmann's famously sinewy and labyrinthine writing palatable for normal people.
I've read about 1/10 of what's there so far, and my feelings are mixed. He can certainly turn out a sparkling sentence, and I also like his focus on mankind's inherent violence and depravity. His two main obsessions seem to be global war and prostitution, though I'm really not sure what the connection is between the two subjects.
I'm going to keep reading, but I'm already turned off by the back cover blurb that calls Vollmann a future Nobel Prize winner. Why? He hasn't fully won my vote yet ... in fact I'm not even sure I'm going to keep reading the book. I'd like to know if anybody else has any opinions on this guy.
I know, you think I'm probably joking, but I'm totally not. Because seriously -- she has some really good songs! I know she doesn't write them herself or anything, but whoever does the writing deserves some credit for the accurate capture of life itself. (Maybe it's Barry Manilow, since he writes the songs that make the whole world sing and all.) 'I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman'? I feel like that every day. It's because I'm 25.
Last week I asked about your favorite poems, and I really enjoyed the stream of responses which included, in the order in which they were posted: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot, "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, Jr, "The Height of the Ridiculous" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Matthew 6:25 - 34, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" by Walt Whitman, "The City in Which I Love You" by Li-Young Lee, "Poem In October" by Dylan Thomas, "Constantly Risking Absurdity" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "A Supermarket in California" by Allen Ginsberg, "l(a" by e.e. cummings, the entire "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman, "Herbsttag" by Rainer Maria Rilke, "Death Fugue" by Paul Celan, "Cloud" by Vladimir Mayakovsky, "The Waste-Land" by T. S. Eliot, "What a Piece of Work is Man" (from "Hamlet") by William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare, "The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats, "Kaddish" by Allen Ginsberg, "Power" by Gregory Corso, poems by Jane Kenyon, Anne Sexton, Christina Rossetti, Carl Sandburg, "Wild Swans at Coole" by Yeats, "The Drunken Boat" by Rimbaud, "Sonete Postrero" by Carlos Pellicer, "Sonnet" and "Masa" by Cesar Vallejo, "in Just-/spring" by e. e. cummings, "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg, "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe, "When i consider how my light is spent" by John Milton, "The Purist" by Ogden Nash, "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost, Sonnet 116 by Shakespeare, "As The Mist Leaves No Scar" and "The Reason I Write" by Leonard Cohen, "So I said I am Ezra" by Archie Ammons, "This is Just to Say" by William Carlos Williams and "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" by Kenneth Koch, "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" by Dylan Thomas, "In Society" by Allen Ginsberg, "Acquainted with the Night" by Robert Frost, "13 Ways of looking at a blackbird" and "The poem that took the place of a mountain" by Wallace Stevens, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell, "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas, "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost and "Love is a Dog from Hell" by Charles Bukowski.
The first one mentioned (by none other than my LitKicks co-editor Jamelah) happens to be my own favorite. T. S. Eliot began writing his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1910, when he was a 22 year old philosophy graduate student. Five years later it was published in Poetry Magazine, and it became his first famous work.
Pretend you're dead. What will the newspaper say about you? How did you go? Freak fishing accident? Accidental decapitation? Who survives you? What kind of memorial service will you have? Something traditional, or will you have your ashes shot into space?
Tell all. Spare no details. Go.
In this stark story, a prison officer is demonstrating a high-tech torture device to a mysterious visitor. This device is designed to kill prisoners over a period of twelve hours by slowly writing a few corrective words -- such as "Honor Thy Superiors", or "Be Just" -- directly into their bodies with mechanical needles implanted in a harrow over a bed where the prisoner lies, biting on a stub of felt for relief.
The officer demonstrates the method to the visitor by executing a prisoner for the crime of falling asleep on duty. This short story might be mistaken for a simple indictment of torture, but every Franz Kafka story cuts at least two ways. In fact, the officer seems to suffer from his own feelings of guilt and inferiority, and he squirms uncomfortably as he tries to explain the virtues of his sadistic machine. The mysterious visitor seems to be an inspector of some kind, and the officer intuits that his beloved torture machine, once a popular device, might now be considered too barbaric in the fast-changing modern world.
One of the great tsunami disasters in recorded history took place on November 1, 1755 in Lisbon, Portugal. An earthquake hit the heart of the city, followed by a sweeping wave, five days of fires and looting, and a long aftermath of disease, chaos and fear.
This incident was a defining moment for the French philosopher and author Voltaire. Just as the shocking destruction of the city of Guernica inspired Picasso's most famous painting, the Lisbon tragedy enraged the middle-aged social critic, and formed the basis of his most important novel, Candide.
Candide is the satirical journey of a young man through a series of horrible disasters -- including an earthquake in Lisbon, followed by a tsunami:
Scarcely had they set foot in the city, still weeping over the death of their benefactor, than they felt the earth quake beneath their feet. In the port a boiling sea rose up and smashed the ships lying at anchor.
The book moves quickly on to other adventures -- it's a short, breezy, even funny read. The purpose of Voltaire's satire is to frame the dull reactions of the various characters to the disasters that befall them, one after another. In Voltaire's world people are complacent, resigned, and, and worst of all, satisfied by the neat answers given them by the Church (which is Voltaire's real target in this book, as much of his career was spent fighting the repressive religious doctrines of his age).
European Christianity is no longer seen as the most controversial ideology in the world. Still, the sense of outrage Voltaire seeps into this book resonates today. Other sections of the short satire describe scenes of military carnage in helpless villages, scenes that call to mind My Lai and Rwanda and the Sudan.
The French author also wrote a well-known poem about the Lisbon tragedy, which includes some memorable lines:
Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!
or, the parting words:
I can only suffer, and in silence
(Thanks to Penn Jacobs for alerting us to the Candide reference.)
He was born in 1809 in the backwoods Poltava Province of Ukraine to middle class Cossack parents. Bullied at school, nicknamed "the mysterious dwarf," he immersed himself in literature, writing a shoddy epic poem written in sentimental German style called "Hans Kuchelgarten." Written under a pseudonym and at great expense, when it became clear it was a complete failure, Gogol burned all the copies he could get his hands on.
At the age of 19, Gogol decided to move to St. Petersburg, and made it there a year later. Determined to discover an artistic bohemia, he was devastated when instead he found "a graveyard of dreams." Nonetheless he was intrigued. St. Petersburg, later the cockpit of the Russian Revolution, was a city ruled by the prejudices and snobbery of a pompous bourgeoisie. Bitterly disappointed, but with his heart set on a literary career, he entered a government ministry. Working in the civil service he held nothing but hatred and derision for his coworkers, obsessed with their "trivial, meaningless labors."
Soon he would wreak his revenge in print.
Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, his book of short stories (all based on Ukrainian life), gained critical acclaim and he was taken under the wing of the mighty poet Pushkin. Though very different in style, he and Gogol were a revolution in Russia, being the first to use everyday speech in literature and both having a passionate social conscience.
In 1836, Gogol produced his first real masterwork, the play The Inspector General, a scathing satire on the stupidity and arrogance of bureaucrats. The play follows local officials of a provincial town who mistake a young traveler for an expected government inspector and offer him bribes so he will overlook their incompetence and corruption. Bizarrely, its first stage production was given in the presence of the Tsar, an insane move considering the Tsar's tyrannical nature, and Gogol's explicit condemnation of his regime. As he left his box after the premiere the Tsar murmured, "Hmm, what a play! Gets at everyone, and most of all at me!" Shortly after this, Gogol fled Russia, traveling through Germany, Switzerland, and France and eventually settling in Rome, returning only sporadically.
While Gogol was in Rome, he received the devastating news of the tragic death of Pushkin. Russia had lost its greatest poet; Gogol had lost his hero and a stabilizing factor from his life. From now on he was alone and facing a future of uncertainty.
In exile, Gogol worked on the work which would destroy him, a book in which he sought to single-handedly solve all Russia's social ills. Dead Souls, originally published in English under the alternative title Chichikov's Journey, is akin in scope and importance to Don Quixote.
The protagonist Chichikov, an ambitious, cunning, and amoral adventurer, travels from town to town buying the names of peasants who have died since the last census using these "dead souls" to gain loans and inheritances. Chichikov's travels provide Gogol with an opportunity to examine the corrupting influence of serfdom on both landowner and serf, and he excels with remarkably vivid and memorable characterizations. In effect, he brings the people of Russia to life on those pages, and in return, Dead Souls exerted an enormous influence on the public with many of its witty sayings becoming Russian maxims e.g. "However stupid a fool's words may be, they are sometimes enough to confound an intelligent man."
Dead Souls was to be the first part in a trilogy documenting Chichikov's fall and redemption and his adventures through a Russia plagued by moral disorder ending in redemption and salvation. The trilogy was to be nothing less than a bible for a new Russia. Having spent eight years on the first part, he spent ten years on the second, and planned a third. He began to lose his mind while working on the second part, at times defending the authoritarian Tsarist regime, and at others espousing revolution. He suffered a nervous breakdown after a pilgrimage to the Holy land brought an unbearable clash of depression, hypochondria and manic religious fervor. In a vulnerable state, he came under the malevolent influence of a puritanical priest who told him to burn the sequel to Dead Souls. Ten days later he was dead. He'd been fasting for some time and had starved himself to death. Refusing to take any food, various remedies were employed to make him eat -- vodka was poured over his face, hot loaves were tied to him, leeches were attached to his nose.
He died on March 4th, 1852 in Moscow, leaving behind his books and chilling rumors that he had been buried alive.