What Have They Done To My Book?
JULY 20, 1998: There they lie on the shelves, those books with familiar titles by familiar authors with unfamiliar covers. They're called reissues, works of fiction or nonfiction by classic or not-yet-classic writers who for some reason are enjoying a renaissance in readership. Sometimes, though, the authors aren't enjoying a renaissance in readership; their publishers are reissuing their works anyway in the hope that they can create that renaissance. Among recent reissued authors are Anita Brookner, Jim Thompson, Herman Hesse, Jacqueline Susann, and James Baldwin and Paul Robeson (in February, Black History Month). Reissues are ending up in the hands of new readers, although their issuance is unpredictable, depending as much on cultural trends as on economics and marketing. For the traditionalist reissues arouse that familiar refrain: What have they done to my book? What they have done, according to Linda Rosenberg, is carry on business as usual. Several weeks ago, Rosenberg was hired in a new position, director of paperbacks, at Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux (FSG); for the past 14 years she has been the managing editor at Vintage, a frequent publisher of reissued fiction. According to Rosenberg, if an established author has a new book out, reissues of the author's previous works frequently accompany the release of the new book. "If there's going to be a new book that will draw attention to that writer, you may want to give new life to some of the older books by making them more attractive. Generally after 20 or 30 years, the style of book design will have changed," Rosenberg says. As for FSG, the works of Elias Canetti (1905-94), a European intellectual and 1981 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, are a case study. Recently, FSG published Canetti's last work, a book of notes and aphorisms called Notes From Hampstead, which is full of refreshing thoughts like, "Second meetings always ruin first impressions; should there be only first meetings?" Accompanying that release was Canetti's wide-ranging mob analysis, Crowds and Power, which first appeared in English translation in 1962, along with his only novel, Auto-da-Fé, which was published in 1935 and this year is in its sixth printing. "All have similar-looking covers. The designer of the Canetti is the same designer who did the Vintage International series, so it has a kind of restrained, elegant, kind of European look, which is generally appropriate these days to literary fiction and literary nonfiction," says Rosenberg. "[The Canetti books] have linked covers - not identical - but they have a certain thematic look to them." And that, in the world of reissues, is "quite common."
Reissues also appear when critics begin telling their readers that they should read such-and-such unfairly neglected author. When Rosenberg was at Vintage, "the New York Review of Books had an article by Brad Leithauser about Independent People by Halldor Laxness, a Norwegian novelist, who actually died recently at the age of 95. Most of his books are not available in English but supposedly his masterpiece Independent People had been out of print for many years and Vintage decided to bring it back partly because of the interest that was aroused by the Leithauser article. And it did quite well. It did better than it did when it first came out."
On the back of Crowds and Power Iris Murdoch declares in bold type that "Canetti is one of our great imaginers and solitary men of genius." Susan Sontag is also cited, asserting Canetti's importance. This intellectual validation from recognized authors is requisite, particularly for reissues of somewhat obscure writers like Canetti. Rosenberg acknowledges that "it helps if you have a) an attractive cover, and b) if you have the kind of copy and reviews on the cover from writers that book buyers have read and make them want to buy it." That validation, of course, is no guarantee of purchase. Many fiction buyers seek out new works by following either word of mouth or the bestseller lists. But more than in any other category, according to Rosenberg, fiction is "an impulse buy." But now, most anywhere, there are plenty of opportunities to buy fiction by impulse. Rosenberg attributes the fact that literary fiction has "a much broader sale than it used to" to the superstores stocking so many titles. "Now if you go into any Barnes & Noble, they have a huge selection of fiction and they really require a huge selection to fill their shelves. It used to be independent bookstores, you know, the small neighborhood bookstores and the college bookstores where serious fiction would be sold, but now it's much more across the board." -Claiborne Smith
The Executioner's Song
by Norman Mailer
The darkly handsome Gary Gilmore, who at 32 had spent over half his life in jail, murdered two Utah Mormons in 1976 and was condemned to death. Rather than accept a typical stay of execution, which can either exonerate Death Row inmates or at least buy them some time (à la Dead Man Walking), Gilmore demanded Utah fulfill its promise to kill him. He then selected the method of his own execution: death by firing squad.
At the time Mailer chose to write his story, the successful author turned successful journalist had long been criticized as a violent, narcissistic writer who merely exploited the evil in society for his own use. Ironically, it was 1979's The Executioner's Song, about the short and brutal life of a murderer, which elicited the most unqualified praise, bringing the author his second Pulitzer Prize (the first came in 1968, for Armies of the Night). Over 100 witnesses submitted to extensive interviews with Mailer. And throughout these 1,000 and some odd pages, Mailer extinguishes his own self-conscious style and instead becomes a medium for their voices, repatching their words and thoughts in spare, unsensational prose. These voices are transmitted in the novel's basic unit: short paragraphs of only a few sentences. With these chunks of narrative, Mailer acts almost like a sketch artist, adding depth here and there, a spark of hope, a glimmer of doom. At times, Gilmore is portrayed as a lost soul, who prompts one woman to comment, "He was grabbing at everything. It was as if the world was just out of reach of his fingers." But at times, Gilmore was also unapologetically sadistic, manipulative, prone to bouts of drunken wrath and needless cruelty, such as coercing his girlfriend's suicide attempt. He is both a helpless victim and the perpetrator of his own demise, unable to reverse the patterns of failure, hate, and violence that have scarred his life thus far. But when Gilmore finally embraces his fate, he achieves a certain dignity. "I have accepted sentences all my life," he tells the jury. "I didn't know I had a choice in the matter." Of course, Mailer is exploring more than Gilmore the killer here; also on trial is the wave of media sensationalism that made him a star, the countless lawyers, advocates, religious figures, psychologists pushing and prodding him, and, in no small part, the very use of the death penalty itself.
Vintage's reissue of this reputable novel on the modern American criminal is, I think, only the beginning of a wave of work on the criminal mind (the movie version of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho is in the works right now, with no less than Leonardo DiCaprio as its star). As commentators and families scramble to point the finger for America's violent ways, as psychologists plumb their case books to account for the loosing of mental screws, our fascination in the American psychotic becomes at once more shameful and more understandable. But The Executioner's Song doesn't really attempt to answer why (for that, look toward Gilmore's brother Mikal, who wrote an impressive book called Shot in the Heart). In 100 witnesses, no one has any real answers - only empty psychological jargon and textbook explanations. Notably, Mailer claimed the subject of the book was not really Gilmore, but rather American Virtue, a title he considered for the book, because he saw in this almost Keystone Kops of tragic proportions a classic story of misguided intentions, where everyone wanted to do right, but simply didn't know how. Even in Gary, with all his blustering ne'er do well and botched attempt at life, there is an extreme example of the earnest but misplaced American virtue. Like Gary, we are punching into the darkness, hoping that the flawed judgment that brought us here will somehow be the thing that gets us out. It may be this that prompted Mailer to once comment: "[Gilmore] appealed to me because he embodied many of the themes I've been living with all my life. I used to hate America for what it was doing to all of us. Now I hate all of us for what we're doing to America."9 -Sarah Hepola
by Ralph Ellison (Vintage, $12 paper)
In 1961, nearly 10 years after the publication of his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison was to admit, "I blundered into writing." Originally a student of music who dreamed of composing a symphony by the time he turned 26, a lack of money forced him to leave Tuskegee Institute before his senior year. A year later, in 1937, he traveled to Dayton, Ohio to be with his mother, who had fallen ill. Her illness, tuberculosis of the hip, was misdiagnosed as arthritis, and she died. In a letter to friends, he wrote, "She was in such pain that she knew no one. It is the worse [sic] thing that has ever happened and I can't explain the emptiness." Ellison had written one short story, "Hymie's Bull," before this; now, however, he began to write in earnest as a way of escaping his personal pain.
The 13 stories collected in Flying Home and Other Stories were written during this early period in Ellison's career, when he was just beginning to sift through what he'd seen and what he'd read and what he knew. They reveal in nascent form what would become the earmarks of his best writing: the gift for surreal improvisation, the flights of eloquent rhetoric, the sharp ear for rhythms of speech and language. As well as a preview of the work he would eventually do, Flying Home has the effect of being a retrospective of Ralph Ellison's life up to that point: "I Did Not Learn Their Names" and "Hymie's Bull" are stories inspired by the author's own experiences hoboing in the early Thirties, while other stories are set in Oklahoma, where he was born in 1914. All of the stories, however, touch upon facets of an experience that can only be called quintessential. "A Party Down at the Square" depicts a lynching from the point of view of a white child. In "Mister Toussan," the young heroes of several of Ellison's other short works, Buster and Riley, find inspiration in the career of Haitian insurrectionist Toussaint L'Ouverture to poignant effect.
By 1944, when Ellison completed the title story in this collection, "Flying Home," he was well on his way to uncovering and grappling with what would become one of the central challenges of his writer's life. "For I found," he was to write later, in Shadow and Act, "the greatest difficulty for a Negro writer was the problem of revealing what he truly felt, rather than serving up what Negroes were supposed to feel, and encouraged to feel." Ellison had traveled from Oklahoma to Alabama to New York City in search of an acceptable definition of himself and his experience. In 1944, in Dayton, Ohio, a place that he had never expected to be, he found himself closer than ever to reaching a part of that definition. "Flying Home," about an African-American military airman who crashes his plane on a white man's land, features Todd, a character much like the protagonist in Invisible Man. Todd, an educated man, finds himself caught midway between the white people who scrutinize and suspect his success as a pilot - the metaphorical epitome of the "uppity Negro" - and the uneducated African-Americans who watch his upward striving with a mixture of pride and mocking curiosity. "Flying Home" concludes with an image of hope as Todd is carried out of danger by a tenant farmer and his son: "A new current of communication flowed between the man and boy and himself. ... like a song within his head, he heard the boy's soft humming and saw the dark bird glide into the sun and glow like a bird of flaming gold."
Flying Home, with its excellent and insightful introduction by editor John F. Callahan, is a collection with appeal for the affectionate reader of Ellison as well as the serious scholar. Reading it, one has the sense of the author working in a private sort of hush, working and thinking and writing, dependent often on the kindness of others, striving to learn the craft that would change his life. These are stories that occasionally stumble, occasionally soar - but always retain a sense of the author as a man with a clear eye for evil and a vast incurable optimism. -Barbara Strickland
by Elias Canetti
Elias Canetti: A peculiar name, but less peculiar than the character of Peter Kien, the protagonist of Canetti's novel Auto-da-Fé. Kien is a renowned scholar, the world's foremost Sinologist, or the world's foremost expert on Chinese literature. At one point, "in the lofty halls of his library," Kien "paced up and down and called on Confucius. He came towards him from the opposite wall, calm and self-possessed - it is easy to be self-possessed when you have been dead for centuries." Auto-da-Fé, the Portuguese term for the burning of a heretic at the stake, is founded upon just how very much Kien's library of 25,000 volumes means to him. It's a legendary library, one he won't let anyone enter for fear that a visitor would disturb his precious books. At the novel's beginning he hires the experienced Therese as a housekeeper and clearly outlines her duties and the fact that she is not to touch his wall-to-wall stacks of books, ever. When the two decide to marry, the relationship doesn't change much until one night when the admittedly small-minded Therese bends down to a divan, which of course is full of books, "and with one all-embracing stroke of her left arm, swept the books on to the floor." Kien cries. Later, she decides to strike up a deal with him in order to make some space for herself in the book-filled house. She can have half the house if she'll only keep to herself during meals. Kien attempts to discover whether Therese can really uphold her end of the bargain:
"Will you undertake to remain silent during meals?"
"Yes indeed, I shall be glad not to speak."
"I should prefer to have that in writing."
Although Auto-da-Fé is a wholly serious work of fiction and though critics routinely get starry-eyed over Canetti and mention things like "the horror of the modern world" when talking about him, it seems to me that humor is really a requisite reaction to someone like Kien, who is portrayed as such a snooty, indomitable force that he's almost unreal. In 1973, Canetti wrote that he initially gave Kien's character the designation "B.," short for "Bookman, for that was how I saw him, as a bookman, and so intensely that his connection to books was far more important than he himself." For example, at the opening of Auto-da-Fé, Kien meets a child on the street who appears beyond his years in yearning to know more about the books in a storefront window, which is where Kien happens to meet him. The child's family lives in Kien's apartment building and when he comes over one day to look at Kien's books (since Kien had made the rare move of offering to show them to him) he is swiftly turned away because Kien simply can't be disturbed. Don't ask Kien to tea; he won't come.
Nonetheless, he is a sympathetic character, in part because it's readily apparent how much his books and work genuinely mean to him. His gradual unraveling from his wife's influence is tragic and forms the basis of the plot. Auto-da-Fé is a perfect candidate for reissue: It's a welcome reappearance, one of those books by one of those authors you may have heard of but never got into because there were other, more seemingly germane things to investigate. -Claiborne Smith
by Walker Percy
When The Moviegoer was published in 1961 by Knopf, it won immediate fame and the National Book Award for its author, Walker Percy. Some critics think that Percy's subsequent works - his last novel was 1987's The Thanatos Syndrome - manifest a chronological decrease in quality, which is really just another fine example of people concluding that new talent can never live up to its initially inspired burst onto the stage, as if all new inspired writers are neurasthenic worrywarts.
The worrywart in question here is not Percy but his young protagonist Binx Bolling; since The Moviegoer is a modern tragedy, its protagonist is concerned about the "malaise" and "howling void" haunting society. Since The Moviegoer is firmly rooted in themes that are representative of American literature, investigating this malaise becomes the protagonist's search. It's evident that by the novel's end Binx (people call him "Jack") has found some kind of answer in his quest to live in a real way, but you might not know that if you met him because he eagerly seeks out the charming but evasive niceties and conventions his established, sprawling, and very Southern New Orleans family have taught him. He's a bored stockbroker but an avid moviegoer who can't keep a secretary for any length of time because he dates them all. He has an on-and-off relationship with his cousin Kate, who, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, is, by her own admission, beginning "to slip a little," a phrase which deftly illustrates the way these Southerners elegantly express themselves (this is probably what drove Joyce Carol Oates to call Percy "a 'Southern' writer"). And Bolling is blasé: "Ten years ago I pursued beauty and gave no thought to money. I listened to the lovely tunes of Mahler and felt a sickness in my very soul. Now I pursue money and on the whole feel better."
There's a trenchant, sarcastic, but inventive way Bolling refers to things (the "lovely tunes of Mahler"?). His world view is apparent throughout; here's his theory about "certification": "Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere." Percy opens The Moviegoer citing Kierkegaard on despair, but this playfulness, evident here and elsewhere, is reason enough why The Moviegoer has never been out of print since its initial publication. -Claiborne Smith
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