A Medley of Gass Interviews and His Influence

Over at the Reading William Gass website, curated by Stephen Schenkenberg, a video has been unearthed of Gass talking in Paris about five years ago. He reads from The Tunnel for a short time–then excitedly talks about the sentence. It’s a marvel.

There is a great new Bookworm interview with Gass about Life Sentences.

At Word Patriots, Mark Seinfelt interviewed Gass twice: once about his new book and once about Stanley Elkin. There are also three shows dedicated to Paul West.

Finally, my essay at The Kenyon Review–On Influence: Starting and Stopping Cracks–takes some lines of Gass as a starting point for a meditation on writing and art. The first paragraph:

Why not stand up straight for art? Rainer Maria Rilke’s older lover, Lou Andreas-Salomé, cared greatly about his relation to words and made him improve his handwriting, urging the poet to take control of everything in his life before communing more with the muse. Soon Rilke purchased a stand up desk to improve his circulation while he wrote poems—by changing his methods, he changed what the methods produced. This might speak to a few things about influence and who we are willing to listen to (Andreas-Salomé, also a former lover of Nietzsche, was a distinguished psychoanalyst and writer), but undoubtedly, art is at least as much physical as emotional.

A Year of Reading

I read 203 books in 2011, or, on average, a little more than one book every two days. You would think I would be burnt out, and I am a little, but, as trials go, it was strictly Judge Wapner presiding. Small stuff. (I don’t want you to think I’ve got a big head or anything (I do, but only in the literal sense — can’t wear hats).) Continue reading

Guest Post: W.F. Lantry Remembering Stanley Elkin

Stanley Elkin: Fiction as a Form of Mathematics
By W.F. Lantry

So there I was, just inside the Beltway, watching some popular movie the other day. When you’re writing a novel, there’s a lot to be said for watching movies from the same genre, and besides, the heroine was pretty. Anyway, at one point, the protagonist is about to be indicted. He’s not sure what to do, and he’s standing at an intersection here in town. It’s really more of a crossroads, and he stops at the corner. He has no idea which way to go.

His lawyer is in one of our glass office buildings, a few stories up, and sees him standing there. So the lawyer takes out his cell phone, and calls the guy. And he says, “Trust me on this one, I’ve seen a lot of these cases. No matter what happens from now on, you will never be the person you were before. You need to give all that up. You need to figure out who you’re going to be from now on. It’s just a problem you need to solve.” The scriptwriter must have been a fan of Stanley Elkin.

Continue reading

Stanley Elkin, ghosting through Boston, beautifully.

Stanley Elkin proved remarkably supportive and generous with me, c. 1977 in Boston.  He’d come to town as a visiting writer at Boston U., just another of the amazing lineup (Barth, Barthelme [Donald], Cheever [alcoholic, alas], more…) brought in by George Starbuck while he was running the writing program.  I was a recent graduate and still spending a lot of time in the department, while freelancing as a teacher and writer in town.  I’d read a couple of his novellas, stuff that later wound up in Searches & Seizures and The Living End, and I’d started A Bad Man after seeing Gass recommend it in one of his essays, then had it snitched off my seat by a stranger on the MBTA.

The photo used elsewhere on Big Other is the figure I recall. Elkin and I met at a department functionStanley Elkin, c.'78 and, drink in hand, he proved a delightful sourpuss, for instance regarding his friend Bill Gass.  “Listen,” he groused, “I’ve written better novels than Bill ever will.”  This with obvious fondness!  And energy, too — this was before Elkin’s MS put him in a walker.  I don’t even recall seeing him with a cane.   Continue reading

Guest Post: Hilma Wolitzer on Stanley Elkin

It was such glorious fun to be Stanley Elkin’s friend as well as his reader. He was always wonderfully irreverent and free of sentimentality.  Hence the questionably qualified rabbi (in The Rabbi of Lud) who attends an offshore yeshiva in the Maldive Islands, and likens the services of a “Traveling Minyan” to Meals-on Wheels and the U.S. Postal Service in one breathless paragraph.  Stanley was the same way in conversation—fast, articulate and outrageously funny.  Once, when a cousin of his mentioned that an elderly relative was in diapers, and Joan Elkin said she’d want to be shot if that happened to her, Stanley immediately quipped, “Not me.  I’d want to be changed.”

Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: “The Condominium”

“The Condominium,” the third and final novella in Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures, features another rather garrulous “hero,” this time Marshall Preminger, a thirty-seven-year-old virgin, who describes himself as “ripe for conventional, even classical, introspection, a cliché of a man” (294), a man who, upon the unexpected death of his father, inherits a condominium, which he rather witheringly describes (in what is later described as a lecture he was preparing, but what I think as a kind of last will and testament) as follows:

“At first one thought it was a metal alloy, or perhaps a new element. Maybe it was used to fashion industrial diamonds. There were those who thought it had to do with big business, international stuff—combines, cartels. Others thought it was a sort of prophylactic. It was strange that the very people who would later become most intimate with the term should at first have had so vague a notion of what it meant. Only after doctors tell him does the patient know the name of his disease. Condominium. (Kon’-də-min’-ē-əm.)” (195)

Preminger proceeds with an imagined history of these dwellings, more rant than fact, as hilarious as it is faux-erudite and simply nutty.

Continue reading

Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: “The Making of Ashenden”

Ken Emerson, in his rather fine article “The Indecorous, Rabelaisian, Convoluted Righteousness of Stanley Elkin” (March 3, 1991) writes:

Elkin, no lover of those writers he has called “the Minimalistas,” when advised by an editor that “less is more,” retorted, “I don’t believe less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough.”

Continue reading

Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: On “The Bailbondsman”

If you’ve been following along with us here at Big Other, you know that in January we read and discussed Tom McCarthy’s C (more here and here), followed that up with Mary Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy (more here, here, and here) and Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (more here, here, here, and here), in February and March, respectively. We’re reading and discussing Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures in April, and I hope you’ll consider joining us as we look at the book’s collection of three novellas.

Continue reading

A Good Man Gives Me A Bad Man

Tonight, I went with Greg Gerke to an event honoring the ever-inimitable Stanley Elkin. After a short documentary of Elkin’s life (featuring soundbites from his wife, daughter, William Gass, and others), Sam Lipsyte and David C. Dougherty weighed in. Lipsyte discussed the might and mythos of Elkin, and remarked on the effect that Elkin’s prose had on his own bitingly comedic writing, singling out “A Poetics for Bullies” for especial praise:

I’m Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants—cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.

One time I was pushing this red-haired kid (I’m a pusher, no hitter, no belter; an aggressor of marginal violence, I hate real force) and his mother stuck her head out the window and shouted something I’ve never forgotten. “Push,” she yelled. “You, Push. You pick on him because you wish you had his red hair!” It’s true; I did wish I had his red hair. I wish I were tall, or fat, or thin. I wish I had different eyes, different hands, a mother in the supermarket. I wish I were a man, a small boy, a girl in the choir. I’m a coveter, a Boston Blackie of the heart, casing the world. Endlessly I covet and case. (Do you know what makes me cry? The Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal.” That’s beautiful.)

If you’re a bully like me, you use your head. Toughness isn’t enough. You beat them up, they report you. Then where are you? I’m not even particularly strong. (I used to be strong. I used to exercise, work out, but strength implicates you, and often isn’t an advantage anyway—read the judo ads. Besides, your big bullies aren’t bullies at all—they’re athletes. With them, beating guys up is a sport.) But what I lose in size and strength I make up in courage. I’m very brave. That’s a lie about bullies being cowards underneath. If you’re a coward, get out of the business.

I’m best at torment.

Continue reading

Announcing the Book Club Schedule!

The votes are in, and the winner of the poll for the first book to be discussed in the Big Other Book Club is Tom McCarthy’s C.  Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hailed by many and knocked by maybe even more, McCarthy describes the book as dealing with technology and mourning.  I’m excited to have, as our first book for discussion, a contest finalist that’s merit has been argued.  All the more fuel for our discussion. I’ll start reading quite soon, and begin posting questions, comments and death threats in January.

In the  mean time, here’s the rest of the schedule for 2011:

January: Tom McCarthy C

February: Mary Caponegro The Complexities of Intimacy

March: Manuel Puig Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

April: Stanley Elkin Searches and Seizures: 3 Novellas

May: Djuna Barnes Nightwood

June: Lyn Hejinian My Life

July: John Barth The Sotweed Factor

August: Gordon Lish Peru

September: John Gardner and John Maier translation of Gilgamesh

October: John Hawkes Travesty

November: Helen Vendler Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries

December: Mo Yan Big Breasts and Wide Hips

1 of 100

I’m giving a lot of thought to the 100 titles I’m going to order from Dalkey Archive Press this year. I think I’ve just found my #1: Stanley Elkin’s Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers. Here’s an excerpt from “A Poetics for Bullies”:

Suddenly I raise my arms and he stops. I feel a power in me. I am Push, Push the bully, God of the Neighborhood, its incarnation of envy and jealousy and need. I vie, I strive, emulate, compete, a contender in every event there is. I didn’t make myself. I probably can’t save myself, but maybe that’s the only need I don’t have. I taste my lack and that’s how I win–by having nothing to lose. It’s not good enough! I want and I want and I will die wanting, but first I will have something. This time I will have something. I say it aloud. ‘This time I will have something.’ I step toward them. The power makes me dizzy. It is enormous. They feel it. They back away. They crouch in the shadow of my outstretched wings. It isn’t deceit this time but the real magic at last, the genuine thing: the cabala of my hate, of my irreconcilableness.