12 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Kaija Straumanis on A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan, translated by Napoleon Jeffries, and out from Wakefield Press.

Based on the above paragraph and all the awesome that it contains, this book really shouldn’t need much more introduction: it’s a guide to adventuring, which is cool; the translator’s name is Napoleon, which, right on; it’s from Wakefield Press, one of my all-time favorite small presses. It is common practice at the Open Letter office that, when a new Wakefield review copy comes in the mail, Chad enters it into the “Translation Database” and then promptly hands the book over to me, at which I point squirrel it away and exclaim several things, including but not limited to “Shit yes,” “Mine,” “OmgomgWakefield,” and “I’M SQUIRRELING THIS AWAY.”

There are myriad reasons why I love Wakefield Press so much (they’re also the publisher behind the ENG translation of Fourier’s The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy), but I fell in love with their books after reading René Daumal’s Pataphysical Essays. Pataphysical Essays was a book I wish I had written a review on, but was never able to bring myself to do it—partially due to laziness, but mostly because I had no idea how to write about a book I loved so much but could only peripherally understand. Pataphysical Essays is one of the most insane things I’ve read in the past few years; it’s so scientifically non-scientific, and a joy to find so much humor and delight in something that confused me. It’s absurd, it’s profound. And boils pataphysics (and the world) down to the beautiful equation of:

To know x = to know (Everything – x)

ANYWAY. Back to adventuring. Even without mind-blowing mathematics my brain can stomach, Mac Orlan’s guide (originally commissioned by Blaise Cendrars), is a witty and tongue-in-cheek book/commentary that essentially outlines two types of adventurer—the active and the passive—which of the two is better, how he must function in order to be successful, and warnings for individuals “wishing to seek literature in life.” Here’s the beginning of the review:

For the rest, go here.

12 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Think back to the last adventure- or action-type book you read. Wasn’t it cool? Didn’t it make you want to do things, like learn to shoot a crossbow, hack complicated information systems, travel to strange worlds, take on knife-wielding thugs, or transport a secret package that turns out to be a member of a royal family? Though if you were to actually find yourself in those situations, chances are you’d pee an amoeba-shaped spot onto the front of your pants and wish you were anywhere but there. Basically, and for the most part, these types of scenarios and adventures are best left to the movies, books, and TV shows.

Pierre Mac Orlan says the same. Written in 1920, his A Handbook to the Perfect Adventurer is a dry humored and smart look at how fun it can be to be an “active” adventurer, but how, in the end, it’s probably best to be the “passive” adventurer—a manipulative character of sorts who encourages the active adventurer to go on ahead, and then sits in the safety of his home reading about adventures and imagining what they would be like (all the sexy parts of danger inclusive).

Because it’s been far too long since I’ve written a review, I’m going to apologize, and then just wing it. This is a book you can easily read in one night (if you skip the endnotes, and most of the introduction [sorry, Napoleon! Mac Orlan’s background is fascinating and the intro is well-written, but I just wanted to “GET TO THE WHALE!!” already]), and one that should make you chuckle out loud now and then, unless you don’t get dry humor, but maybe instead you’ll pick up on that WWI facet, in which case, man, those was rough times, hope you don’t get flashbacks.

With short chapters and the occasional list, the Handbook is an entertaining blend of reality and fiction with language that is both playful and essayistic. Mac Orlan doesn’t give you a moment of rest from his instructive train of thought, beginning the first lines of the book with:

It must be established as a law that adventure in itself does not exist. Adventure is in the mind of the one who pursues it . . .

Because an adventure is only an adventure once you label it as such. As kids we devour adventure stories, recreate them in our backyards or basements; as adults sadly, the majority of us drift away from the Gulliver’s Travels and 20,000 Leagues level of adventure stories because we are painfully aware of how juvenile it all is. True, we find the detective, the futuristic—but for some reason, the level those types of books are on seem acceptable and even plausible (re the futuristic part). I can’t quite put my finger on it, but Mac Orlan isn’t so much saying that our imaginations die completely as we grow older, but perhaps our willingness to believe in a fiction more real weakens, instead opting for stories that are either more probable (zombies), or things so ridiculous (sexy[?] half-squid, half-jungle cat space goddesses), that we don’t have to do a lot of mental footwork to get into it.

Mac Orlan goes on to stipulate that the only position he as the writer can advocate safely is that of the passive adventurer. The person reading adventure novels, the person sitting snugly at home only imagining what it would be like to sink into quicksand, instead of being like the active adventurer (whose main features are “total lack of imagination and sensitivity”), who brings shame to his family (they would cry tears of joy if he accidentally got lost at a fun-park, never to return), is always causing trouble, and who would be better off far, far away from the rest of us.

The emphasis and preference placed on the “passive” adventurer is great, even though this type of adventurer is initially said to be a parasite that can exist “only on the exploits of the active adventurer.” But there’s much to be said for living vicariously through the adventures—real or fictionalized—of others, particularly if it means not dying in some stupid way at the hands of a half-squid-half-jungle-cat queen. Mac Orlan states the childhood of the passive adventurer must be completely opposite of that which the active adventurer leads, and can be achieved by a number of characteristics, including:

A conscientious study of the humanities (texts to restore in the future).
Discretion in lying.
A cult of sensibility.
A complete absence of what is commonly called “moral sense.”
A respect for traditions and discipline.
A hatred of violent games, of sports in general—at least in practice. When it comes to theory, the passive adventurer must be a well-informed sportsman.
Literary eroticism (in practice: normal relations with women).
Able to write “whore” in twenty languages.
Knows how to play a few sailor songs on the accordion.

And, most importantly,

Has a gullible friend who can be made into an active adventurer.

Basically, passive adventurers are knowledgeable book-nerds who get all kinds of laid while their unnecessarily macho friends are out futilely battling a band of alligators that have evolved to walk, talk, and kidnap rich heiresses (who probably had it coming anyway). Though all this could, of course, be applied to actual, tangible life, Mac Orlan equates the passive adventurer to being “a more or less conscious novelist.” There it is, my friends. The passive adventurer is someone who has essentially retained a pure imagination, someone who is a creator, someone who knows adventure inside and out without having to get his hands dirty, while the active adventurer is all “WOO, PARTY!” and not a lot of thought process.

While I wouldn’t say Mac Orlan would support an entirely Proustian lifestyle, he clearly favors the passive to the active, though he does maintain that the active adventurer has his purpose. It’s a Möbius strip situation: the passive adventurer creates these adventure novels that are then read by future passive adventurers, who then evolve to become the next generation of passive adventurers, who then create . . . And in turn, those who don’t evolve to become passive adventurers and instead pick up their machetes/slingshots/wasp spray on their way to become the next active adventurer—those are the people who serve as subjects for their passive counterparts. Without one, the other can’t exist.

4 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by regular contributor Will Eells on Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine, which is translated from the German by Andrew Joron and available from Wakefield Press.

Speaking of Wakefield Press, I truly believe that it is one of—if not the—most interesting presses out there today. From the deliciously funny and incredibly off-color Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments to Perec’s Attempt at Exhausting a Space in Paris to Fourier’s “Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bandruptcy,“http://wakefieldpress.com/fourier_cuckoldr.html Wakefield has carved out a niche for doing peculiar books that defy categorization in very intriguing ways. Witness:

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, recently published by Wakefield Press and translated by Andrew Joron, chronicles the two and a half years Scheerbart spent trying to creating a “perpetual motion machine,” a device considered impossible to create due to its violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However, The Perpetual Motion Machine is not just a memoir. In fact, it’s pretty hard to describe what it is at all. Part-fiction, part-memoir, part-blueprints, and part-philosophical-treatise, The Perpetual Motion Machine is the intersection of art and science, presented in the form of a narrative.

The defining characteristic of the text is Scheerbert’s joyful exuberance and his almost unyielding optimism. He truly believes, despite all logic, reason, and evidence, that building a perpetual motion machine is possible, even after countless failures. He has no discernible background in science, and he has to hire a plumber to build his contraptions for him. At times he doubts himself and his work; he even gives up from time to time, but he always goes back to believing. The book even ends with Scheerbart bragging that he “succeeded in flawlessly solving the problem” . . . though he can’t tell the reader how he solved it for fear of “invalidating its registration at the patent offices.”

Read the full review here.

4 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Paul Scheerbart was a German writer and artist who lived around the turn of the twentieth century. He was perpetually broke, even though he was constantly writing books, newspaper articles, and plays. Even when he was alive he was not generally well known or successful, despite the influence his book Glass Architecture would soon garner, or the praise he would receive from eminent intellectual Walter Benjamin.

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, recently published by Wakefield Press and translated by Andrew Joron, chronicles the two and a half years Scheerbart spent trying to creating a “perpetual motion machine,” a device considered impossible to create due to its violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However, The Perpetual Motion Machine is not just a memoir. In fact, it’s pretty hard to describe what it is at all. Part-fiction, part-memoir, part-blueprints, and part-philosophical-treatise, The Perpetual Motion Machine is the intersection of art and science, presented in the form of a narrative.

The defining characteristic of the text is Scheerbert’s joyful exuberance and his almost unyielding optimism. He truly believes, despite all logic, reason, and evidence, that building a perpetual motion machine is possible, even after countless failures. He has no discernible background in science, and he has to hire a plumber to build his contraptions for him. At times he doubts himself and his work; he even gives up from time to time, but he always goes back to believing. The book even ends with Scheerbart bragging that he “succeeded in flawlessly solving the problem” . . . though he can’t tell the reader how he solved it for fear of “invalidating its registration at the patent offices.”

However, what makes The Perpetual Motion Machine occasionally transcendent are the moments when Scheerbert contemplates the ramifications, both good and bad, of his “perpet.” That is when the text bleeds from non-fiction to eerily prescient fiction—or one might say fantasy, or science fiction:

In the year 2050 A.D. there lived in the nation of Germania a general who was more malicious than all the other generals of his time put together.

At that time the Europeans were waging a great war using bombers against the Americans. Many bombing victories were achieved, thanks to the ultramodern science of war. In spite of this, the Americans continued imperturbably to survive.

Naturally this aggravated the most malicious general of his time, who held the highest power of command in Germania.

What did this monstrous person, who went by the name of Kulhmann, do as a result?

Kuhlmann worked out a plan that was supposed to inundate all of America.

He wanted to surround all of Europe with gigantic walls and then inject the waters of the Mediterranean and the Baltic into the Atlantic Ocean with the aid of two billion perpets.

The response to this barbaric plan was a single cry of horror; a peace agreement was immediately reached with America.

Through these hypothetical musings, Scheerbart effectively illustrates what I see as the joy of science: the possibility, the hope, and the expectations that come with the potential applications of a newly developed scientific theory or model. Thus, the question becomes almost more important than the answer, which when unsolved remains unknown, and therefore infinite.

This is how I understand the drive for the individual to pursue science, and The Perpetual Motion Machine is the kind of book, a very specific category to which I would also add Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which renders the beauty of science in a way the artist can experience it. Translator Andrew Joron deserves recognition for his superb rendering of Scheerbart’s humor, joy, ego, and despair, in a language that is extremely readable but somehow still feels like it comes from a bygone age. Though the story drags when Scheerbart explains the insignificant changes he makes to his model, as the reader knows full well the project is doomed to fail, Scheerbart’s flights of fancy—and tailspins into fear—elevate The Perpetual Motion Machine into something that will likely appeal to anyone who dreams of the coming future.

13 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Andrew Barrett on Benjamin Péret’s The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works, translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal and published by Wakefield Press.

If we haven’t sang the praises of Wakefield Press yet, it’s because I’m a forgetful idiot. Prior to starting Wakefield Press, Marc worked at—and translated for—“Exact Change,”:http://www.exactchange.com/ one of the coolest publishers ever. In 2009, Marc (and a few comrades) launched Wakefield with this mission:

Wakefield Press is an independent American publisher devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities in small, affordable, yet elegant paperback editions. Our publications include the Wakefield Handbooks series (the guidebook as imagined through literature) and the Imagining Science series (science as imagined through literature), as well as forays into classic experimental fiction (literature as imagined through literature). Authors range from literary giants to those underrepresented (or unknown) in English.

Their kicked things off with two gorgeous (I love the careful design of all their titles) offers: Balzac’s _Treatise on Elegant Living, Pierre Louys’s _The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments, the latter of which is DIRTYAWESOMEFUN and was in the front display at Idlewild Books until a few customers figured out that the “good manners” being taught here would make a porn star blush. . . . If that whets your curiosity, you can find a few samples by clicking here.

Since these first two very elegant publication, Wakefield has also brought out An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec, and as part of their “Imagining Science” series, they recently published Paul Scheerbart’s The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, translated by Andrew Joron.

Anyway, for more info on the press, visit their site, or read this interview with Marc Lowenthal.

Andrew Barrett is a translation grad student here at the University of Rochester, and is working on a translation of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, which he wrote about for us a few weeks back. We workshopped a piece of this a few weeks back, and after you give in to the odd stylings of the Greek Epic, it’s pretty awesome. Based on the very surrealistic descriptions of bad-ass supervillain Typhon (such as throats flying through the air eating birds), so it only makes sense that Andrew would write this review . . . Speaking of which, here’s a bit from the beginning:

“The President of the Republic could be seen in the distance, dressed in a diving suit and accompanied by the King of Greece, who seemed so young that one had the urge to teach him how to read.” The defining traits-cum-pleasures of surrealism—hallucinatory imagery, dark humor and irreverence toward authority—are already in full bloom by the third sentence of “At 125 Boulevard Sainte-Germain,” the opening story in Marc Lowenthal’s new translation of founding Surrealist Benjamin Péret’s The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works. Each story in this collection (originally published in French in 1957, towards the end of Péret’s life) proves to be a highly saturated snapshot of Péret’s twilit poetic consciousness, wherein all manner of images bleed together in ways humorous and lyrical amidst a palpable atmosphere of derision for taboo and convention. In other words, the experience of reading one of Péret’s stories is comparable to staring at a Dalí painting; you can try to unlock its secrets, which are shrouded in the free association logic of automatic poetry, or you can simply bask in its sheer beauty and strangeness.

It is unquestionably Péret’s devotion to the automatic writing technique, mentioned above, that lends his stories a quintessentially surreal flavor. But, to view the stories in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works as simply undiluted automatism can be misleading. Péret always weaves a thread of traditional narrative structure around the dense, variegated imagery generated by his use of the automatic technique. While nothing approaching a traditional narrative ever actually unfolds in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works, the bare conventions of storytelling are always present to give a story its initial momentum. Thus, Péret’s stories never make for difficult reading (even as they consistently startle, confound and amuse), while their mixture of conventional narrative signposts with dream-like, chimerical imagery presents the reader with compelling linguistic textures that are always unique and accessible.

Click here to read the entire piece.

13 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“The President of the Republic could be seen in the distance, dressed in a diving suit and accompanied by the King of Greece, who seemed so young that one had the urge to teach him how to read.” The defining traits-cum-pleasures of surrealism—hallucinatory imagery, dark humor and irreverence toward authority—are already in full bloom by the third sentence of “At 125 Boulevard Sainte-Germain,” the opening story in Marc Lowenthal’s new translation of founding Surrealist Benjamin Péret’s The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works. Each story in this collection (originally published in French in 1957, towards the end of Péret’s life) proves to be a highly saturated snapshot of Péret’s twilit poetic consciousness, wherein all manner of images bleed together in ways humorous and lyrical amidst a palpable atmosphere of derision for taboo and convention. In other words, the experience of reading one of Péret’s stories is comparable to staring at a Dalí painting; you can try to unlock its secrets, which are shrouded in the free association logic of automatic poetry, or you can simply bask in its sheer beauty and strangeness.

It is unquestionably Péret’s devotion to the automatic writing technique, mentioned above, that lends his stories a quintessentially surreal flavor. But, to view the stories in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works as simply undiluted automatism can be misleading. Péret always weaves a thread of traditional narrative structure around the dense, variegated imagery generated by his use of the automatic technique. While nothing approaching a traditional narrative ever actually unfolds in The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works, the bare conventions of storytelling are always present to give a story its initial momentum. Thus, Péret’s stories never make for difficult reading (even as they consistently startle, confound and amuse), while their mixture of conventional narrative signposts with dream-like, chimerical imagery presents the reader with compelling linguistic textures that are always unique and accessible. Consider, as an example, the opening lines of “The Misfortunes of a Dollar”:

It had been a lovely morning, although all the ducks in town had suddenly died at sunrise, which had not failed to worry M. Detour, the town mayor. M. Detour was a good, if somewhat unrefined man. The sole tooth of his upper jaw made for an admirable substitute for a watch. It actually had the power to turn different colors according to the hour of the day. Red at noon, it went through all the colors of the spectrum to attain a phosphorescent green at midnight. He had a daughter, who had gone off to Paris some years before in the hope of making the acquaintance of a taxidermist. No sooner had she gotten there than the poor woman was killed by a cigarette cast from the mouth of a smoker, which hit her right in the face, penetrated her very cerebellum, and established a cancerous ulcer that carried her off three hours later.

So that morning had been lovely.

Marc Lowenthal’s ability to preserve the almost contradictory elements of Péret’s style—that tension between clarity and chaos—in his English translation is truly commendable. While a lesser translator would perhaps be apt to sacrifice Péret’s syntactical lucidity to the kaleidoscopic parade of his images and characters (or vice-versa), Lowenthal manages to keep the two in perfect balance.

Péret’s wildly imaginative stories remain largely unknown to current devotees of Surrealism in the English-speaking world, even though Péret himself founded Surrealism with André Breton in the early 1920’s and could count Octavio Paz and the aforementioned Salvador Dalí as ardent followers. This is due partly to the rather private manner in which Péret lived (unlike Breton and Dalí, he never sought out the spotlight) but also to the relative lack of Péret material that has been readily available in English translation. Until fairly recently, translations of Péret’s stories and poems have been scatter-shot at best, while a full length English language biography of the man has yet to appear. Thus, Marc Lowenthal’s excellent translation of The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works should be a cause for celebration. Not only does it offer us a sustained and pleasurable experience of Péret at his peak, but it also gives lovers of all things early twentieth century and avant-garde the opportunity to comfortably place Péret into proper historical context within Surrealism’s inverted pantheon.

So, slap a copy of Trout Mask Replica on the hi-fi, pop Un Chien Andalou into the old Betamax, settle into your favorite armchair coated with intestines and crack open The Leg of Lamb: Its Life and Works. You may or may not find out why “That morning little orange-colored fish circulated through the atmosphere,” but either way you will be smiling.

....
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