Wayne Koestenbaum’s Figure It Out

Picture the brainy friend you like to accuse of overthinking things and to whom you often say, “That’s maybe a bit of a stretch” visiting you for the weekend, and it’s Sunday, their last day in town, and while you both woke up hung-over, drugs or some other remedy have eased the hangover pains enough that your friend is now talking in comfortable monologue about things you’re only partially familiar with, commenting on your art on the walls while you find another record to put on, discoursing on the aspects of his discourse that surprise him as you pay only partial attention.

If that sounds like a perfect afternoon, go buy this book.

“My new idée fixe is asemic writing,” he writes in “Corpse Pose”—”writing that doesn’t use words or signs.” Koestenbaum’s a painter, and throughout the book fall essays that read like lists of writing prompts, or art prompts, or both, which essays urge us to let ourselves get reckless and productively aim-less with our artmaking. Though as an essayist, he’s stuck with language and its trap of signification, much of the pleasures of the book come when he leaps about his subject in attempt to slip that trap. These are essays so horny for signifying’s decay, if not writing’s total dissolution, and Koestenbaum knows language itself can do the job, the way silicone lube tends over time to eat away at silicone sex toys.

It’s not, the collection, my favorite of his books (that would be Humilation), and while I glossed over a few of the pet obsessions and more abstruse topics, I was glad for this book, for giving me over the course of a week that long-happy-afternoon feeling I mentioned above.

In short: I love listening to Koestenbaum think, even if only to himself. Let me see if I can capture for you something of his singular, inimitable gifts. Here’s a segment (or “crot” as John Barth taught him to say) from “‘My’ Masculinity Remix” wherein he thinks out some anxieties about his role/function as an essayist:

“can I do this spiritual drag, collective agony wishful thinking,” wrote kari edwards. I, too, wonder if I can do this drag of speaking or thinking collectively, drag of not being singular, drag of shedding the rags of self. Adrienne Rich once excoriated these rags as “personal weather.” She opposed personal weather to “the great dark birds of history.” Syllables shamed by birds of history can intoxicate the ear. Remix, please, a consciousness, nominally mine, governed by its enthrallments, and hell-bent on squeezing cadence out of thrall.

No one I read has a vocabulary as rich at the high-end and the low as Koestenbaum, and no one does this sudden header into metaphor and lyric off the diving board of intertextuality like he does.[*] It’s a steady hand behind his lines, one that somehow in its mastery allows room for, and then accepts, anxiety.

But my real love lies in the way I’m led to feel things about/toward/for his narrator while rarely getting any access to a direct emotional space. Koestenbaum’s essays hold me by and within his intellect, a place that’s never cold, despite everything I continue to hear about the warmth of the heart and how vital it is to pour it out if you want to connect with a reader.

Buy Figure it Out from Soft Skull Press.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. His friend Maggie Nelson might be a peer in this regard, too.

Three Translated Paragraphs of Huysmans’s À Rebours

I picked this book up again last night, a favorite from grad school, a germinal novel of French decadence. You may know it as the book that corrupts Dorian Gray halfway through Wilde’s novel. Quick precis: the final scion of a long decaying, inbreeding aristocratic family leaves society and shuts himself up in a large house where he lives, eats, and breathes decadently. Nothing really happens. It’s a beautiful book.

I read it in the Robert Baldick translation, from 1959 and put out by Penguin, and as I’d earlier this summer loved Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary, I thought maybe I’d see about rereading a newer translation. Searching The Booksmith, I found two: one from the 90s by Margaret Mauldon, and one from the Oughts by Brendan King.

King reviewed Mauldon’s translation for the TLS, favorably, calling it an improvement on the Baldick, so I originally assumed I should go get his translation, which is even newer. Also, I had this feeling that I wanted a queer’s translation. Des Esseintes, the “hero” of Huysmans’s “novel”, screws around with women (as you’re about to see) in his fall into decadence, but once holed up becomes, in ways, a queer hero.

At least, the paper I wrote in grad school about the novel argued so.

I have no idea on King’s sexuality or gender expression, or Mauldon’s for that matter. Or hell, even Baldick’s (queers existed in the 1950s, I sometimes forget). But mostly I was favoring King because his was newer. I have this idea that people are translating old texts better now than they used to; for one, translation studies is growing in academia, and for two, translators are less interested in “smoothing over” some roughnesses or X-ratednesses to attract “sensitive” readers.

In other words, I couldn’t imagine that a 1950s translation could be as decadent as the original, given the goings-on at the time in the US/UK.[1] The newer the queerer the better.

Or so I thought. What I’m going to do now is shut up and show you a paragraph from the book’s prologue (written by Huysmans after the original publication), which prologue summarizes Des Esseintes’s rise and fall. I’ll quote the ¶ in chronological order: first the original (for those who speak French) and then translations by Baldick, Mauldon, and King.[2] Look at the different approaches to style and voice:

Une seule passion, la femme, eût pu le retenir dans cet universel dédain qui le poignait, mais celle-là était, elle aussi, usée. Il avait touché aux repas charnels, avec un appétit d’homme quinteux, affecté de maladie, obsédé de fringales et dont le palais s’émousse et se blase vite; au temps où il compagnonnait avec les hobereaux, il avait participé à ces spacieux soupers où des femmes soûles se dégrafent au dessert et battent la table avec leur tête; il avait aussi parcouru les coulisses, tâté des actrices et des chanteuses, subi, en sus de la bêtise innée des femmes, la délirante vanité des cabotines; puis il avait entretenu des filles déjà célèbres et contribué à la fortune de ces agences qui fournissent, moyennant salaire, des plaisirs contestables; enfin, repu, las de ce luxe similaire, de ces caresses identiques il avait plongé dans les bas-fonds, espérant ravitailler ses désirs par le contraste, pensant stimuler ses sens assoupis par l’excitante malpropreté de la misère.

J-K- Huysmans, 1884

One passion and one only—woman—might have arrested the universal contempt that was taking hold of him, but that passion like the rest had been exhausted. He had tasted the sweets of the flesh like a crotchety invalid with a craving for food but a palate which soon becomes jaded. In the days when he had belonged to a set of young men-about-town, he had gone to those unconventional supper-parties where drunken women loosen their dresses at dessert and beat the table with their heads; he had hung around stage-doors, had bedded with singers and actresses, had endured, over and above the innate stupidity of the sex, the hysterical vanity common to women of the theatre. Then he had kept mistresses already famed for their depravity, and helped to swell the funds of those agencies which supply dubious pleasures for a consideration. And finally, weary to the point of satiety of these hackneyed luxuries, these commonplace caresses, he had sought satisfaction in the gutter, hoping that the contrast would revive his exhausted desires and imagining that the fascinating filthiness of the poor would stimulate his flagging senses.

Robert Baldick, 1959

One passion only, the passion for women, might have restrained him in this universal contempt that was gnawing at him, but that passion too was spent. He had tasted the feasts of the flesh, with the appetite of a capricious man who suffers from malacia, who is beset by pangs of desire yet whose palate rapidly grows dull and surfeited; in the days when he consorted with so-called country gentlemen, he had attended those long-drawn-out suppers where, at the dessert stage, drunken women unhook their gowns and bang their heads on the table; he had also frequented theatrical dressing-rooms, sampled actresses and singers, and had to endure, over and above the innate stupidity of woman, the frenzied vanity of third-rate performers; then he had kept women who were already celebrated whores, contributing to the prosperity of those agencies which provide questionable pleasures in exchange for money; in the end, sated and weary of this unvarying profusion, of these identical caresses, he had plunged down in among the dregs of society, hoping to revive his desires by contrast, and thinking to arouse his dormant senses with the provocative squalor of extreme poverty.

Margaret Mauldon, 1998

A single passion, woman, might have restrained him in the universal contempt that gripped him, but she, too, had palled. He had tasted the feasts of the flesh with the appetite of a capricious man afflicted with bulimia, one who is obsessed by hunger, but whose palate is quickly dulled and surfeited; in the days when he had associated with country gents, he had participated in those protracted suppers during which drunken women unfastened their clothing at dessert and slumped their heads on the table; he had also scoured the wings backstage at the theatre, sampled actresses and singers, suffered, in addition to the innate stupidity of women, the frenzied vanity of third-rate leading ladies; after that, he had kept already notorious whores and contributed to the fortune of those agencies that supply dubious pleasures for a modest recompense; finally, sated, weary of these unvarying lusts, of these identical caresses, he had plunged into the slums, hoping to revive his desires through contrast, thinking to stimulate his deadened senses with the arousing indecencies of poverty.

Brendan King, 2008

Right away we notice a few things. Contempt is either taking hold of, gnawing at, or gripping him. There’s this malacia/bulimia problem of what Baldick calls a “crotchety invalid” (crotchety shows up later in the prologue, I think it’s a pet word for Baldick). Malacia from what I can tell is a softening of tissue and appears nowhere in the original, and bulimia puts far too contemporary a diagnosis for what seems like habits well below a pathology. (The term “bulimia” has existed long before the 20thC diagnosis, but it seems always to have referred to overeating, not so much craving or hunger.)

We can look also at the misogyny in/of the passage: la bêtise innée des femmes. Baldick calls it the innate stupidity of the sex, Mauldon has the innate stupidity of woman, and King has the innate stupidity of women. King’s is surely the worst, which somehow in its plural seems to apply the idea of this innate stupidity to all women as individuals, whereas Mauldon’s “woman” very subtly indicates Des Esseintes’s/our narrator’s misogyny being an idea, a fancy, more than an assertion.

N.B. I think Baldick’s does this too. At this stage, I’m ready to ditch King’s translation. It seems far too loyal, or literalistic. Too transcripted without taking artistry of language into consideration. (In the passage we’re about to look at, his “arousing indecencies” seals it for me.) But when you look at the final sentence (well, it’s 2 sentences, the whole passage, so the final set of clauses I mean), I think Baldick comes out ahead, surprisingly.

I don’t really know French, but what I know of it in reading shampoo bottles and international signs is that it requires more words to say a thing than English does. Push red button for help becomes in French something like “For the assistance of yourself, press you the button of red.” To say nothing of French’s needing two words to express a negative.

This gives translators a choice to make: do you capture the language’s florid syntactic excesses, or do you translate those to a more Anglo-Saxon-based English-language idiom? Do you leave diction in place but alter syntax, or vice versa? At the end here, Huysmans leads us to focus on the objects Des Esseintes hopes to revive himself with: the poor, the gutter, the filth. If you believe in the power of the periodic sentence to save for its end a sentence’s most important or compelling aspect, these objects themselves are stressed, syntactically.

Mauldon is faithful to French syntax. Baldick is unfaithful, stressing instead what’s wrong with Des Esseintes: his exhausted desires, his flagging senses. This is the right move; Des Esseintes is a sickly hero. But also that syntactic choice captures, for me, what the experience of hope feels like and where our focus within hope ultimately lies, once the totems have been found and employed.

Plus, I’ll always prefer “gutter” over “dregs of society”, “flagging” over “dormant”, and “fascinating filthiness” over “provocative squalor.”

Once, in a fiction workshop, another student referred euphemstically to a certain passage in a text we were discussing, a passage on shit if I recall, as “earthy”, and it made me laugh. Life decays in the earth, so I’m going to stick with Baldick this second go-around.

But no translation is perfect. Which is your favorite, and why?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It’s also why I thought the translated title was so terrible. À rebours translates roughly to “backward,” which is great because of the backward-learning accent the title begins with. I’ve read that some have used “Against the Grain” as a translation, but I’ve never seen a book published with this title. It’s for sure an improvement. Maybe the novel is more concerned with The Natural and Des Esseintes going against it (I seem to recall a large turtle he acquires and covers with gold and gems), but to me the title has always ringed (and not in a good way) of “a crime against nature”, that euphemism for gay sex.
  2. For fun, here’s Google Translate’s version: Only one passion, woman, could have kept him in this universal disdain that gripped him, but that one, too, was worn out. He had touched carnal meals, with the appetite of a quintentious man, afflicted with illness, obsessed with cravings and whose palate dulled and grew blatant; at the time when he was companions with the hobereaux, he had taken part in these spacious suppers where drunk women unhook themselves at dessert and beat the table with their heads; he had also gone behind the scenes, dabbled in actresses and singers, suffered, in addition to the innate stupidity of women, the delirious vanity of cabotines; then he had entertained already famous girls and contributed to the fortune of these agencies which provide, for a salary, questionable pleasures; finally, sated, weary of this similar luxury, of these identical caresses, he had plunged into the shallows, hoping to supply his desires with contrast, thinking of stimulating his drowsy senses by the exciting filthiness of misery.

Bjørn Rasmussen’s The Skin is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body

After a teenager enters into a passionate, devoted BDSM sex relationship with an adult, what remains? What is the aftermath once the teenager is an adult himself? That’s what Rasmussen’s … I’m going to call it an essay (though the publisher calls it a novel) seems committed to evoking. The assumption of course is scars—emotional and in the protagonist Bjørn’s case literal, as one of the things he does is cut lines, shapes, and words into his skin. What I liked about the book was how it always complicated the narrative of abuse, and kept the lines between love, lust, devotion, and subjugation evocatively blurry.

Plus the language is sublime in places:

When the weed kicked in, you waded into the pond. I watched you standing there, the red remains of evening winking in the water that surrounded you from the hips down. The pronounced V of your Apollo’s belt reflected in the surface, ripples caressed your public hair, the insects flitted around you.

You were crying. I’d never seen you cry before. You’ve cried many times since, and with good reasons; my two hands aren’t enough to count the times you’ve been pained to the bone, but at the time: your chest heaved, snot ran from your nose, the sound you made was like a stag maimed by a botched rifle shot. You roared.

This, of course, is a translation from the Danish, so I’m talking less about the words/sounds themselves, and I’m talking much less about the sentiments or emotions behind these words (this, too, isn’t beautiful because it depicts a man crying, or because it depicts devotion and beauty), I’m talking about Rasmussen’s choices of how to build this moment, and where to take the sentences. I’m talking about that roaring stag. Maybe this bit does a better job of capturing his imaginative talents:

Believe nothing of what I say about feelings. I only have the rudiments of anything genuine. And if anything genuine does come along, it always falls to pieces: talk to me about implosion, about atoms. You chase a frog for hours and when finally you get your hands around it, it dies of shock. And if I really get you someday, I won’t want you anymore. I’ll want something else instead. What. Tell me the difference between want and need—I don’t think there is one. What is there then. Capitalism, talk to me about capitalism. No, human nature. Oh, listen: it’s black as night inside my ass; inside my ass, about 6cm up, there’s an erogenous zone equivalent to the clitoris or the head of your dick. Fact. When this point is touched, vibrations go through the spine, the hammer, the stirrup, and listen: the asshole is dialectical, the asshole is a dead man’s flower, a dead woman’s flower, the asshole is a fugue, a theme with variations; feelings, on the other hand…frogs, mothers, riding instructors, and feelings, they’re the same old story. Suck my plot.

The book is elliptical in this way, usually not my thing, but a friend recommended it after I told of my complaints about the writing in Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, where sex becomes in its slow detailed scrutiny utterly lifeless, and Rasmussen’s talents lie in all the ways he’s able to make sex come alive, all the things he can make of sex. A longer post than I have time for would get at Rasmussen’s and Greenwell’s different handlings of sexual submission, but all I’ll say here is that The Skin is the Elastic Covering… left me with the clearer sense of how submission can fill the self with warmth and strength that doesn’t necessarily lead (only) to a hardened core, a scarred shell.

Buy The Skin is the Elastic Covering that Encases the Entire Body at Two Lines Press.

On Amanda Goldblatt’s Hard Mouth

A gal with a sick dad and a lab assistant job leaves both to live (and possibly die) alone in the sort of off-grid cabin you need to be flown to. That’s the quickest summary I can give you of this book I loved a lot. It is not really an adventure book, and not at all a testament to the human spirit like you might expect from Wild or Into the Wild or Where the Wild Things Are. (Well, maybe that last one actually.) It’s a character study of somebody who sees her life wrong and feels (or pretends to feel) mostly untroubled by that.

The book’s big selling point is its sentences. I should say Amanda’s a good friend. I saw her read from this in Brooklyn when I was there seventeen years ago on this endless trip I’ve been on for seventeen years, and since August I’ve carried the book to Vermont and to Finland, and now here in Maine, where I just finished it. I kept emailing her about sentences I loved.

Flipping through at random, here’s an exemplary couple:

While walking I did idly wonder what animals I would find in the cabin, what disarray. It would be good, I thought, to confront the entropy. To embrace the surprise, to discover, to not know till.

Denise (our protag) is lyrically hypererudite, batting language about the way a cat does a mouse. That might be inaccurate. I just flipped through and saw “My temples hurt from squint,” and it’s probably more exemplary of her voice than the above. Note: not squinting. There’s like this pruning or honing that goes on throughout the book toward the kinds of constructions we all use casually, as though everyday language were shabby and unkempt and Denise wants to better capture her life and viewpoint not by dolling or gussying that language up, but by stripping and even malforming it into a way that makes us look more queerly as what we say and why.

It’s a pose and a mask, too. Language helps Denise focus on the how of her speech when the what of it might be too difficult.

Like I said, she exits her life for the woods. Perhaps the biggest gift Amanda’s novel gave me was getting to spent a lot of time with a woman on her own. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel where a woman departs on her own for the woods, and when I think about Women In The Woods, I feel like they traditionally fall into madonna-whore dichotomies of like a Linda-Hamiltonian Take-No-Shit prepper type on the one hand or a hubristic, silly trespassing horrorfilm victim on the other.

Denise, instead, is just a gal who commits to a stupid but important idea. She does her research on how to survive and does her best. She is strong and weak, shrewd and dumb, compassionate and cold. In her unreal voice she appears very real.

Plus there’s like these satisfying wisdoms she can voice in ways that make the unknown ring out as eternally true. Here’s a great ¶ that comes when she’s saying goodbye to the man who flew her to the cabin:

“Do you have headlights on that thing?” I asked. He laughed and said yes, that he’d get off and back fine, long as he didn’t have to land in the water, which he didn’t. What if I undid his overalls, I thought, though I didn’t move. We exist with sets of stories or lists: the ways we must feel during loss or solitude, the ways we must present the self to others, the ways we must act. But there are other and scarier ways to be.

One of my favorite things about Denise is how she’s horny, like a person is. Not horny like a frat dude or like a nymphomaniac (whatever that is). Her horniness is neither a comical trait nor a conflictual one. She just lets herself want sex and sometimes enjoy it and sometimes regret it. Like a person.

A nonpathological erotic mind is a pet concern these days, given what I’m writing about. Sex in non-pornographic art is more often terrible than good, and by “good” I mean It Helps Us See Sex For What It Is And Not What We’ve Been Told To Make It.

So chalk that up as the other great gift of Amanda’s book.

At any rate, you should buy this novel if you want an adventure story that’s always more human than an adventure story. Oh and it finds just the perfect image to end on. Really a treasure. Find it here.

The Gay Male Sleuth

I didn’t know he existed (Poirot being just Belgian) until I came across Drewey Wayne Gunn’s The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film in the reference section of the Mechanics’ Institute, where I’m now spending my days writing so’s to steer clear from campus during my sabbatical (or clear enough: I pass campus every day I step outside).

Here’s something worth noting from his opening essay on the GMS, about a specific novel he marks as the first appearance of the character type:

The novel incorporates two important patterns that would become hallmarks of the gay mystery. First, Tony [the sleuth in said novel], in the process of solving the mystery of his ex-lover’s [Julian’s] suicide, begins to understand more the nature of his own sexuality. […] Second, the novel is the prototype of the gay mystery as romance. As Tony uncovers the facts about Julian’s life since the time that they were lovers, he discovers the key to unlocking his own emotions. […] Thus, from the beginning, gay mysteries have willfully violated Chandler’s belief that a “[l]ove interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a type of suspense that is antagonistic … to the detective’s struggle to solve the problem.” For the gay detective, it’s complementary.

I’ve never taught mystery fiction, knowing nothing of how they’re put together, but I can imagine using that craft text of Chandler’s (“Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story”) and in a flash alienating any gay students I’d have and overlooking an entire subgenre of the genre.

And so suddenly this is a post about representation? But also it’s a post about queering forms. So happy I stumbled across this book that showed me yet another way gay artists bestrange and bedevil the forms they work in. For more on this idea, see this great essay by playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

On Abandoning A Book

I never used to do it, owing probably to something instilled in my PhD program: there’s always something to learn from this book you might not enjoy. But in the last year I’ve abandoned 4 books:

  • How to Grow Up, by Michelle Tea
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, by Andrea Lawlor
  • A Brief History of 7 Killings, by Marlon James
  • My Struggle, Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Tea book was, it gradually dawned on me, not written for a 40yo man with a job as a tenured professor. (Michelle Tea fans are now laughing at me, which laughter I accept.) The Lawlor book, about a shapeshifting queer kid living in Iowa City, was remarkable and did some incredible things with gender performance and story structure, but it was also about 80 percent “hanging out at bars” and I couldn’t get engaged in the book as anything other than a remarkable tour de force.

Same with the James novel. It won the Booker Prize, it was a queer writer, everyone who I told I was reading it raved about the book. It is a wonder of voice and character and point of view, a marvel, jaw-dropping at times in how well done it is, and though I gave it 200 pages, waiting for the story to kick into a forward momentum, it never did, or didn’t enough for this reader, and I set it aside.

I used to worry that if I didn’t like an award-winning book, or a book that the majority of my friends liked, there was something wrong with me. I asked myself if, by not finishing these books, if I was, at worst, racist or sexist or transphobic, or, at best, just stubborn about engaging with novels about people from different backgrounds than me.

Then I picked up the Knausgaard, having read gleefully through the first 5 volumes. That’s 2500 pages of reading time I devoted. Again: gleefully. I won’t get into why I loved the books so much, because the point here is that I couldn’t bear Volume 6, which deals mostly with the publication of the book’s first volume. I gave it 200 pages again, and once Karl Ove and his friend start talking about fascism and Hitler, I flipped forward and saw this was going to go on for a while, and I put it away.

Once, this would have been anathema to me. If I got 100 pages into a novel, I couldn’t bear not to finish it, just because of all the labor I’d put in. The idea of not completing this 6-volume novel now feels like a relief. Oh. I don’t have to read this if I don’t enjoy it. As much as I love books about ideas, I realized what I couldn’t bear this time was forcing myself to listen to two middle-aged men talk about Nazis.

Am I trying to get at a feeling I have that I know myself better than I used to? Surely I now find myself saying things like “That book wasn’t for me” more than “That’s not a good book,” which I used to say a lot. I no longer have the confidence to say what is and isn’t a good book, but I have more confidence to say what I like in a book, or what I need or am looking for.

It’s a kind of growing up.

What I’m reading now is Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, and it is perfect. It’s a perfect novel that strangely has very little forward momentum, but what holds me close is this voice of her misanthropic protagonist, full of hope but bereft of motivation. She’s strong with desire and full of hatred toward, and sickness about, her body. I don’t know why she’s exactly what I need right now, I just know that she is. I’m so glad for this book’s landing in my life.