Michael Mungiello

Barrelhouse Reviews: Aug 9-Fog by Kathryn Scanlan

Review by Michael Mungiello


Publisher: MCD/FSG
Pub Date: 06/04/19
Page Count: 128 pages
Price: $18.00

There are two stories in Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9-Fog: the story, and the story of the story. The latter is that Scanlan finds the diary of an 86-year-old woman at a public estate auction; she buys it and spends years rearranging this old lady’s words until she’s turned them into art. The story inside the diary is what remains: the daily dozen to two dozen words about the weather, a loved one’s health (“not bit good” or “real good”), sometimes a phrase about meals or animals (“fine snow rabbit got away”). For all I know, both stories are pure fiction, but for the sake of praising Scanlan, let’s say we can trust her, and the source diary was real.

Stylistically, Scanlan’s sentences are as clipped, elliptical, and lyrical as those in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. And I do consider them Scanlan’s sentences, though not hers alone. Some credit for the concision goes to the diarist herself. In her introduction, Scanlan tells us that the source text was written in a diary with tight margins, which forced the owner to boil down her life to what could fit, writing in a “cramped hand.” I couldn’t help but think of Robert Walser, who after a great deal of psychological duress could only write in a scrawl so small you needed a microscope to read it.

Indeed, it sometimes takes a rude shock to reduce our reflections to what’s essential. Madness, war, a diagnosis, age. Our lives upend and we feel the need to record what “really matters” so we can pass down concise wisdom. But so often meditations on life’s brevity stink of effortful preening, a writer hot in the armpits with self-consciousness and straining toward profundity. “Realized love is meaning of life.” “Saw God, is good.” Bless her, our mystery diarist didn’t trudge into treacle like that; or if she did, Scanlan doesn’t let on. Aug 9-Fog is brimming with the authentic boredom of actual life: “That puzzle a humdinger….D. frying chicken.” “Profound” bromides written for some imagined future audience, for “eternity”? That’s just death talk, an unfortunate consequence of the fact that when people realize life is precious, they embrace preciousness.

Of course, there are writers who realize the heart of life is found in the ephemeral details of daily survival, accumulating into an identity. Scanlan is one of these writers, harvesting and arranging banalities like a cornucopia on the Thanksgiving table. There’s an underlying gratitude throughout Aug 9-Fog: the diarist’s gratitude for D. and snow (“Big snow flakes like little parasols upside down”), and Scanlan’s gratitude for the accident of the diary’s acquisition. Like most sincere expressions of thanks, this novel is notable for its straight-shooting anti-sentimentality. The writing celebrates life without becoming self-indulgent; for all its praise of dismissable minutiae, Aug 9-Fog remains disciplined, and never enumerates life’s small pleasures in the hopes of fluffing up the page-count. It feels like Wittgenstein edited Knausgaard.

We read like we live: next to death. When you write, you’re asking someone to spend something finite on something fake—so it’s got to be good. Aug 9-Fog is not only good, but it fulfills fiction’s only moral obligation: to bring us as close to death as possible. Scanlan finds a reflection of herself in this anonymous diarist. She was a writer who was here, a real-life memento mori. In her introduction, Scanlan tells us, “I have possessed this work so thoroughly that the diarist has ceased to be an entirely unique, autonomous other to me. I don’t picture her. I am her. The diary has become something like kin—a relation who is also me, myself.” The reader shares in Scanlan’s symbiosis; we’re also dead and making sense of what the dead leave behind.

Aug 9-Fog is brilliant and ordinary, rife with life’s ordinary miracles and ordinary disasters, the sort of book you need to reread and want to memorize—a morsel you can savor forever, like how you wish life could be.

Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Condition of Secrecy by Inger Christensen

Review by Michael Mungiello


The Condition of Secrecy

Inger Christensen, Trans. Susanna Nied

November 27, 2018

New Directions

“The outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy.” If you don’t know what to make of that phrase, then you understand it perfectly. And if you enjoy the confusion washing over you right now (and if it’s not vexation you feel instead), then you just might enjoy The Condition of Secrecy, an essay collection by Inger Christensen that lies somewhere between between memoir, philosophy, and grammar guide.

The central conceit of The Condition of Secrecy is interplay. Christensen (1935-2009) believed in lexical autonomy, rather than lexical slavery: words are sovereign and we cannot make them bend to our will. Like the animals with which we share the earth, words are in our stewardship, not in our control. Literalism and symbolism are both betrayals of language for Christensen. She wouldn’t have you take her at her word, but she wouldn’t have you put words in her mouth, either.

But let’s return to that nut I’ve been trying to crack: "the outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy." This secrecy is willed illegibility, or the fact that we cannot pin down the meaning of the world and should travel through it as we travel through our own mind—that is, with passive acceptance and without complete understanding. Christensen writes, "[j]ust as the letters within a book will never be able to read the book, we will never be able to read the world." We couldn’t read the world, because as soon as we put one word of it under our magnifying glass we’d see it shift into something else and then something else again, as if we are physicists observing particles under a microscope.

Admitting our inability to understand the world is simple enough. But then, can anyone perceive the order in what’s random? Traditionally, the answer to this is either Nobody or God. And though Christensen doesn’t believe in God per se, she comes close: “[b]ecause humans use the word god (or have used it in the past), god exists (is still in existence) as the concept that corresponds to our sense of interrelatedness among all the atoms in the universe. (And so it’s quite possible that god is a loaded word.) I feel that what we call style is the closest we come to expressing that inconceivable concept.”

Make no mistake: she’s saying style is god. Art is her religion and individual words are members in the hierarchy of angels. Or maybe they’re more like saints whom Christensen adorns with personalities: "All adjectives are very helpless... All verbs are very agreeable… All prepositions are nearly invisible."

Part of the project of The Condition of Secrecy is to blur the relationship between language and what it latches onto: words become a porous membrane between our minds and reality, inside and outside. This couldn’t be further from the traditional (Augustinian) idea of language, that words are what get people to hand you the stone you need to build a house, that words are labels appended to objects. In Christensen’s Testament, the Word becomes Stone.

But language does not just fuse with the world. It is itself a product of nature. Language is as natural as apples, and poetry is as physical an activity as eating. We think of language "as man-made, something that we alone hold the patent on. But just as we ourselves are a part of the remarkable biology project that makes the earth unique, at least in our part of the universe, so too is language a part of that biology project." Christensen argues that what we think of as culture is in fact nature. And then, powerfully, she argues that since language is the product of nature, and the outer world is the inner world raised to the condition of secrecy, “Humans as a group are a chemical poem in praise of the earth and its sun." We are but the world’s words.

What Christensen accomplishes here is no small feat. She vivifies the supposedly abstract structuralist position. It was once assumed that when we write we don’t express ourselves; rather, language expresses itself through us. Christensen’s cunning twist on structuralist theory is ecological: it’s not language so much as nature—the earth itself—that expresses itself in our words.

Like any decent ecologist, Christensen is convinced of the interconnectedness of all things, not just aesthetically but politically. "Each and every one of us personally bears responsibility for every wrong action, even if it is committed by someone completely unknown to us. This kind of thing is neither theory nor practice. It's magic. Or, to use a less loaded term, it's style."

She’s making a political argument starting from aesthetic principles. If you’re stylish, if you have good taste, then you’ll want to bear responsibility for your fellow people: supporting each other like parts of speech to form the sentence that is society. This social democracy of letters is a place where I’d like to live. Originality has no great power here, but in its absence, we have communion: "I write in the certainty that this has already been written before, in all possible ways, and that all its mad self-contradictions are a part of that reassuring form. It should have been a lullaby, like the one that waves write on water: humans are not abandoned and alone, it tells itself." One of Christensen’s special qualities is an acknowledgement of one’s own superfluity that feels not like resignation, but reverie: a thankfulness for one’s predecessors.

For Christensen, it is better to be connected than it is to be unique. She doesn’t write to make sense, or to say something correct, or even to say something true. She writes to connect, to praise the writing of the past and record the world of today for the future. Life without connectedness—without magic or style—is "an isolated travesty" to her.

Christensen calls her writing magic, but this is mysticism. Like all mystical writers, when Christensen gets it right, she’s transcendent. But of course she doesn’t always get it right. I wish New Directions had been more selective: the throwaway shorter essays that pad the back end of The Condition of Secrecy (“The Regulatory Effect of Chance” and “The Shadow of Night”) make the book less than the sum of its parts. But the extraordinary essays in the first half of this collection (“Our Story About the World,” “The Condition of Secrecy,” and “The Naïve Reader”) are linguistic defibrillators, galvanizing our relationship to writing, ourselves, even punctuation, revivifying that core of your mind where word and world mix. Only William H. Gass (1924-2017) comes to mind as a writer interested in achieving the same end, and he, like Christiansen, has met his own.

Who will follow in their wake? Somewhat disappointingly, the wackiness of Christensen’s notions is never quite matched with a commensurate zaniness of voice. She’s formidable, Olympian, stately. But as we anticipate what’s next, I imagine a counter-Christensen: a writer who enthusiastically seizes on the chaos of language, instead of piously meditating on its haughty inscrutability. Where’s the Ginsberg to Christensen’s Emerson? Who will emphasize not the equipoise but the cacophony of interconnectedness?

Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.


Barrelhouse Reviews: In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes by Giorgio van Straten

Review by Michael Mungiello


In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes

by Giorgio van Straten, Trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Serge

October 16, 2018

Pushkin Press

We write words dozens of times a day and hit send. We immediately forget what we wrote, but our texts are archived forever. Naturally we don’t think of all writing as precious. However, in Giorgio van Straten’s work of literary history and criticism In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes, we’re reminded of a past method of mourning, one founded on a romantic idea: that the object of readerly love is precious, irreplaceable. Straten’s is a less utilitarian, more humanistic approach to writing.

In Search of Lost Books tells eight stories, each about a manuscript by a Great Writer (Romano Bilenchi, Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway, Bruno Schulz, Nikolai Gogol, Malcolm Lowry, Walter Benjamin, and Sylvia Plath), each thought beyond retrieval. The “lost” of the title is synonymous not with “misplaced” but with “dead.” Straten’s book is thin, pleasant, and just a bit snobbish; it’s caviar on a Ritz cracker. Straten wears his old-world eloquence, his sense of culture, on his tailored sleeve. One gets the sense he takes his “mission” “seriously.” In other words, In Search of Lost Books might have been written by Niles Crane.

Straten frames his searches as spells of unrequited love, explicitly invoking Proust not only in his title but in his introduction. And just like Proust, it is entirely possible that Straten wrote this book from his bed. You might think our author literally searches for these books, donning the cap and cape of a literary Sherlock, but no. Instead, Straten compiles what amount to book reports on the eight unpublished books: biographical summary, literary anecdote (“anecdote” meaning gossip), and paeans to Important Authors that verge on pontification.

Despite his Proustian pretensions, Straten is surprisingly shallow. There’s a lack of introspection or invigorating literary analysis. The author bandies about flashy signs of knowingness without revealing any underlying knowledge. Where we might look for an archaeologist willing to get into the dirt—how did the loss of Gogol’s redemptive sequel to Dead Souls shape Russian literature and its sense of pessimism? What did the destruction of Byron’s memoirs mean in the context of the Romantic argument for catharsis through self-disclosure?—we instead find a charming tour guide delivering a lecture from the top of a double-decker bus, gesturing vaguely at ruins we’re meant to respect.

“It is possible that from those lost pages, despite everything, the traces of a tremendous talent would have nevertheless emerged.”

“Instead of this text we have only a few surviving fragments…small pieces of paper with burnt edges, like maps of pirate treasure.”

“Is it too much to hope that sooner or later—by chance, scholarship or passion—someone will rediscover those pages and enable us to read them at last?”

“It is next to impossible to know what really happened.”

Despite vagueness and grandiosity, Straten is charming. He’s self-aware, and I have a sneaking suspicion he’s a sharp dresser with good teeth. In a sense, Straten himself is the sort of person disappearing from the world: the cultivated European aesthete, seemingly unsullied by extraliterary preoccupations, unashamed of his elitism, proud deployer of polysyllables.

Appropriately, Straten makes no effort to appeal to contemporary taste, no argument for the “relevance” or “urgency” of In Search of Lost Books. And why should he? Straten’s book is a languid love story, an indulgent rumination on the romance of what’s lost, including the phenomenon of lost manuscripts. This romance is rooted in a dream of wholeness: the lost book acquires a magical aura . The lost book is the one missing piece to the puzzle of an author’s oeuvre. Somehow, it’ll make everything cohere. Straten’s fondness for lost books mirrors my fondness for his manner. He has a holistic sense of literature as the missing piece to complete a cultivated life. His faith in culture, in literature, is uncommon.

Perhaps for good reason. Straten’s love of lost books seems indulgent, but it might be worse than that. Who’s to say Straten’s love is harmless? Isn’t his aestheticism apolitical, bourgeoisie, simplistic, weak-minded? Although a preservationist orientation could be mistaken for conservatism, the evidence points to the contrary. Straten preserves the work of the past to encourage the progress of writers and readers to come.

One of the binding threads of In Search of Lost Books is Straten’s PSA-like appeal to readers (and future literary trustees and heirs) that books, even books that their authors disdain, should never be destroyed. He suggests that authors and their descendants seal up embarrassing or dangerous manuscripts for a few centuries to protect the privacy of said authors’ loved (or hated) ones. But what’s written should never be destroyed, he argues. “The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.” The readers of the future take priority over a writer’s temporary contemporaries. And in this sense, Straten’s idea of culture isn’t just pining for the past, but belief in a canon that continues accumulating into the future forever. A faith in continuity, stretching forward as well as backward, vivifies the otherwise clichéd nostalgia of In Search of Lost Books. If we believe great writing is precious, and worth preserving, then even the automatic preservation of online texts seems meaningful. In Search of Lost Books is almost a cautionary tale: this is what it was like when manuscripts were on paper and could be completely lost. Don’t forget.

Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.