Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The most decadent and delightful

and baroque-but-also-somehow-aesthetically-stringent novel I've read for some time is Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes by my literary idol Wayne Koestenbaum. (The excellent and energetic Richard Nash, now blogging for Soft Skull, sent it to me after reading my previous raves about the demented Koestenbaum genius.)

I haven't finished reading it yet--I gulped down about fifty pages (or five "notebooks," in the book's unorthodox scheme of organization) and then realized I was wasting the pleasure of it if I tried to have it all at once. The prose is remarkable, truly like nothing else I can think of and also much funnier than you would expect from something so stylized. The book beggars description, but I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to see what can be done with words and a twisted aesthetic and a morbid sense of humor. Here is the opening paragraph, which I love:

Thirty-five years ago I lost my red beanie cap. I accidentally left it in the unheated third-grade classroom. The fickle hat never reappeared. Pigeons alighting on a dung-splattered Roman Catholic church (I see it out my bedroom window) are more important than my cheap cap, worn once.

And here is the paragraph describing the narrator's encounter with one of the local hustlers, his consorts:

I met Friedman for a session: beyond oral, beyond anal: a practice we call '"detente," or "fracture." Diplomatic, visceral, frightened of the law and yet expert at evading it, he specializes, as hustler, in unknown, painful positions (ads call him "The Wrecker"), positions he renames after legal cases, physical ailments, political maneuvers. Sex's purpose is nomenclature. Friedman is more interested in words than in sensations.

(Aside from his other talents Wayne is a punctuater of great subtlety and originality.) There is something about the quality of the prose that I find absolutely irresistible. I have written before about how much I loved being a teaching assistant for Wayne's version of the Daily Themes class at Yale. If I was in New York I'd dig out the exact text of the best assignment he gave that semester, but I'll have to reproduce it: one week (with diction as one of the rubrics, as opposed to others' more ordinary topics like "point of view" or "character") he told the students all about Perec's novel "A Void" (which denies itself the use of the letter 'e'), then gave them an assignment that involved picking five letters and writing a short piece (one of the 'daily themes' of the title--I think the terminology dates roughly from WWI...) on some topic I don't remember in which they only used words without any of those five letters.

This assignment led to the most amazing results in terms of diction (and has always stuck in my mind since then as the perfect example of how stringent artificial constraints can lead to a real sense of freedom, like some kind of a fetish-y chastity belt thing): even students who usually wrote fairly workmanlike prose were coming up with really incredible consonants bumping up against each other and strange missing articles (like Russian-speakers run wild--try and write a paragraph without using "the" or "a" and you will see how odd and appealing the effects can be) and a sense of distinctiveness that they could then often recapture when they returned to writing prose the usual way. This is the feeling Wayne's sentences give me: as if they have been written according to the dictates of some set of rules undisclosed and impossible-to-be-deduced and altogether arcane and occult and esoteric. Mmmmm....

On a more mundane note I hit the Henry Weston Farnsworth Room at Lamont Library the other day; officially devoted to non-curricular leisure reading, the Farnsworth Room is a fantastic place in theory but in practice rather down-at-heel, too many empty places on the shelves and too many students studying like crazy in spite of its being a no-laptop zone. (Don't get me wrong, I approve of studying, but this room was originally a study-free zone and I did think it would have been nice to see one or two people frivolously reading novels instead of sitting hunched over books. Also you feel like a real pest when you have to inch around the corners of the studiers to access shelves.) Though it all looks a bit chaotic, I did spot some great stuff that I would have seized upon if I hadn't read it already (new novels by Ken Bruen and Gwyneth Jones, for instance--the collection is particularly strong in crime and fantasy and science fiction--and by the way if you have not been reading Bruen you must take it up, it's a better habit than smoking, I particularly recommend White Trilogy but you can't go wrong).

So last night (Farnsworth-procured) I reread my least favorite Mary Stewart novel, Wildfire at Midnight (which I picked because I've read it so many fewer times than the others which I like more--this is the way that favorites get equalized, I am always doing it for Dick Francis too where I have to resort to the less good ones I haven't already reread in double digits & then fall for their charms); and tonight I read the latest novel from Henning Mankell, Before the Frost, which I thought was excellent. (I read too many of these all at once when I first discovered them, and was too attuned to their repetitiveness though I liked them very much; but this one very appealingly breaks the mold. Very good.)

I'm in New York Wednesday to Saturday, so no posts until late Saturday or Sunday, but I should have a good combination by then of things to post about, including the elements of style, the Moscow Cats Theatre and whatever I end up reading on the bus.

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