An actual paragraph by Cyril Connolly

Ancestor, my old incarnation, O Palinurus Vulgaris, the Venetian red crawfish, langouste, or rock-lobster, whether feeding on the spumy Mauretanian Banks, or undulating– southward to Teneriffe, northward to Sicily– in the systole and diastole of the wave: free me from guilt and fear, free me from guilt and fear, dapple-plated scavenger of the resounding sea!

from The Unquiet Grave


Flypaper by Robert Musil

Tangle-Foot flypaper is approximately 36 centimeters long by 21 centimeters wide; it is coated with a yellow, poisoned paste and comes from Canada. If a fly alights on the paper –not eagerly, but more out of convention, because so many others are already there– it is glued at first only by the outermost members of its arms. An entirely light and disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to tread on something with our naked soles– nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable resistance, and yet something into which a gruesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand somehow just lying there and with five ever more perceptible fingers grabs hold of us.

They hold themselves forcibly erect, like cripples who do not want to be noticed, or like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, as when you are standing on a sharp edge). They stand at attention, gathering strength and contemplating their situation. A few seconds later they have decided and begin, as best they can, to buzz and try to lift themselves. They perform this furious operation until exhaustion forces them to a halt. A pause for breath follows, then a new attempt. But the intervals become longer. They stand there and I feel how helpless they are. Bewildering vapors rise up from below. Their tongue gropes about like a tiny little hammer. Their head is brown and hairy, as if it were made from a coconut; manlike as an African idol. They twist forwards and backwards on their firmly fastened little legs, bending at the knees and straining upward, like men trying  their utmost to move too heavy a load: more tragic than the working man, truer as an athletic expression of the greatest exertion of Laocoön. Then comes the extraordinary moment when the need for one second’s rest overcomes the almighty instinct for self-preservation. It is the moment when the climber voluntarily loosens his grip for the pain in his fingers , when the man lost in the snow lays himself down like a child, or when the pursued stops on account of his burning lungs. They no longer hold themselves up with all their might, but sink a little lower and are in that moment completely human. Immediately they are held somewhere else, higher up on the leg, from behind, or at the tip of the wing.

When they have overcome the spiritual exhaustion and resume, for a little while, the fight for survival, they are fixed in an awkward position an all their movements become unnatural. They lay down with outstretched hind legs, propped up on their elbows and try to lift themselves. Or they sit on the ground, reared up, with outstretched arms, like women who try in vain to twist their hands free from a man’s grip. Or they lay on their bellies, head and arms in front, like fallen runners, and only the face held high. But the enemy is simply passive, and wins in these desperate, bewildering moments. A nothing, an it, draws them in. So slowly that one is almost able to follow them, often with an abrupt acceleration at the end, when the last inner breakdown comes over them. They let themselves fall forward, face down, head over heels; or sideways, with their legs distended; often rolled to one side, with legs paddling in the rear. Like fallen airplanes, one wing reaching into the air. Or horses pushing up the daisies. Or with endless gesticulations of despair. Or like sleepers. The next day one may yet wake up, fumble with one leg or flutter a wing. Sometimes this motion spreads itself throughout the entire scene, then the lot of them sink a little deeper into death. And only on the side of the body, in an area near the shoulder socket, do they have some small pulsating organ that still goes on living. It opens and closes –one cannot see it without a magnifying glass—it looks like a miniscule human eye that ceaselessly opens and shuts.

Translation by Matthew Spencer. Based on the German original with consultation of the English version by Peter Wortsman included in Posthumous Papers of a Living Writer published by Eridanos Press (1987).

Modernist nostalgia with Voices and Visions

A large part my interest in books and writing stems from two early influences. The first was the Norton Anthology of English Literature, an aged copy of which was given to me by my paternal grandmother when I was about 13 years old. The second influence was Voices and Visions, a documentary series on American poets produced in the late 1980s by a South Carolina PBS affiliate. VHS copies of each episode always seemed to be on hand at the local branch of the Fort Vancouver Public Library. Something about the about those videos suggested to me, even then, that they would see very little use.

It’s difficult to separate the reasons why Voices and Visions appealed to me as a young teenager and the reasons why I still enjoy the series today. Perhaps I felt something hypnotic and seductive in the way each poem was visualized: a line or a stanza appearing on the screen with a picture of the corresponding image, then followed by some critical eminence like Frank Kermode or Hugh Kenner patiently but confidently explicating thornier issues such as meaning or intention or the history of the art form.

Watching the series now, what strikes me most is how many people were still alive who knew the great modernist poets during their prime. You get the eerie impression that Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore had died just recently. In hindsight, this must have had a strong impact on the writers I would later identify with—and not an altogether positive one. I felt more engaged with people who had died thirty or forty years ago than I did with anyone in contemporary culture.

I leave it to the reader to enumerate reasons why nostalgia for the early 20th century is misguided. But after the all the reckonings and reassessments,  there is something persistently magnetic about the Modernist era, a time when literature and the world at large were, for better and for worse, running on the same course. Voices and Visions captures the spirit wonderfully.

You can watch all thirteen episodes for free on the series’ website here.