I’ve been waiting these two since *checks own blog* well, at least since March. Today they’re both in my hands since Dalkey Archive seems to have an habit of shipping way earlier than release date. It’s also been trickier to get oversea books at a reasonable price but I managed it this time as well, so I’m happy.
This blog post is all about appearances over substance, so it should be meant to be filled with images but, since I’ve jet to join the modern age, I’m still unable to produce pictures of my own and so had to scour the internet, or more specifically twitter to get them. That also required dodging lots of explicit gay porn as apparently “dreaming” of “bottoming” is that kind of thing.
Let’s have those sexy sizes listed here. Starting from the small one, “Jerusalem” by Alan Moore. This one is a standarly shaped hardcover, I like the cover but not much the art, but at least when you look at it it’s big in a standard kind of way, not too daunting if you’re used to big books. Actual interior size is still impressive, though. It falls short of early claims of 1 million words plus, but it’s right on track to qualify for the 600k one. In fact, since it’s available in ebook format as well, I could count precisely and I have a still mind-boggling 615k. I think I’ve yet to read or even own a book this big, my personal previous maximum of books read from beginning to end have been Infinite Jest and Parallel Stories, both around the 550k mark.
I’ve also kept an eye on reviews and this is what I’ve deduced: the book is fairly well received overall, lots of complaints about it being “overwritten” but it’s exactly the norm when paid reviewers have to write an article in record time to maximize exposure. My biggest worry was that the book wasn’t going to be very readable and be instead very esoteric, meaning that even if you put patience in reading it it would still defy comprehension (and enjoyment), making it just dull and frustrating. Instead it seems that even if it’s plenty experimental, weird and also challenging, it’s still within a certain accessibility. It’s is not a book that shoves you away for the sake of literary elitism, or obscurity for obscurity’s sake (and this might even unbelievably apply to the book below).
The first is a series of walking tours of Northampton, echoing the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses,” undertaken by a number of various characters set in different time periods. This serves to introduce many of the ancestors of Mick and Alma Ward, other significant characters such as Marla the streetwalker and poet Ben Perrit, as well as many ghosts and angels. The history of Northampton is encoded in it’s topography and there are connections that can be drawn throughout the ages.
The middle section of the book chronicles the adventures of four-year-old Mick Warren in the afterlife during the brief time he was dead. He becomes involved with a group of kids who call themselves the Dead Dead Gang. Imagine the Little Rascals as written by a brilliant, philosophical madman with pretensions of explaining the metaphysical mechanisms of the entire universe.
Section three is by far the most challenging. While it appears disjointed at first each of these chapters not only moves the story forward but serves to tie together the many, many threads he has introduced. Mr. Moore writes from different points of view, exploring a variety of styles, some maddeningly experimental. One chapter is written in the form of an epic poem. Another is a crime noir detective story with the main character, who is not what he appears to be, investigating the connections between Northampton and William Blake. There is the script for a stage play which features the ghosts of several poets and thinkers, including Samuel Beckett, which is appropriate given the “Waiting For Godot”-like structure of the play and its meta-commentary on the entire book.
There are the chapters that appear to be overt paeans to Joyce. One is a stream of consciousness flow without punctuation, a la’ Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in “Ulysses.” Another is, without a doubt, the most difficult chapter to read and the one that is most likely to thwart those who try. Earlier in the novel Mr. Moore establishes the idea of the language of the angels: Words that sound like nonsense, but unfold within the mind of the listener to contain layers of meaning and metaphor. This entire chapter is an attempt to capture that experience, composed entirely of a made-up language. It is nonsense poetry spoken by Lucia Joyce (the daughter of James, who spent part of her life in an asylum), that gradually, as it is read, begins to reveal an internal logic and meaning.
I’ve had to decide between UK hardcover by Knockabout or the US Liverlight, in the end the local Amazon decided for me since the US version is still not available for some reason. It’s also available as three paperbacks inside a slipcase but I do my reading comfortably at home, so it’s hardcover for me.
VERY IMPORTANT: DO NOT BUY (if you can choose) the UK/Knockabout version of Jerusalem by Alan Moore, buy the US/Liveright. Page format is baaaad. The UK one is 100 pages shorter, 1174 versus 1262 of the American version, that means more text is crammed on a single page. But the worst aspect is that for some absurd reason they also decided to use huge white margins, so you have all the text into a tiny rectangle on the page, and that means it uses a super-tiny font that’s quite hard to read. The US version, looking at the scans on Amazon, seems to have completely fixed that. I REALLY do regret having bought this version to the point I’m considering sending it back so I can get the other one… (though the UK backcover has few more good quotes, whereas the American only has the funny last one)
If Jerusalem wanted to be the literary event of the month, if not the year, when it comes to overambitious, oversize book then it needs to reconsider that, as it is completely BLOWN AWAY by the landing of space-time bending Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt, translated by eminent-professor John E. Woods. This one brings the definition of big book back to medieval terms. You aren’t going to read this one in bed or while commuting, even if it would be fun seeing one trying…
This Bottom’s sizes are an impressive: 14×10.8 inches, 1496 pages, 13 pounds. I had already seen all the images I’m linking below, and yet I was still utterly awed when I finally saw the physical book. It’s just an absurd sight, as if one has the feeling that the proportions are all wrong. It simply stands apart from everything else I’ve seen. And then you open it. It’s a thing of beauty. When you hold it you truly realize that the premium price really isn’t premium at all.
(all images have been scoured from the internet, on twitter specifically. I don’t use the original source because they have the habit of disappearing. If you check my twitter I’ve retweeted them all)
“I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was,” says Bottom. “I have had a dream, and I wrote a Big Book about it,” Arno Schmidt might have said. Schmidt’s rare vision is a journey into many literary worlds. First and foremost it is about Edgar Allan Poe, or perhaps it is language itself that plays that lead role; and it is certainly about sex in its many Freudian disguises, but about love as well, whether fragile and unfulfilled or crude and wedded. As befits a dream upon a heath populated by elemental spirits, the shapes and figures are protean, its protagonists suddenly transformed into trees, horses, and demigods. In a single day, from one midsummer dawn to a fiery second, Dan and Franzisca, Wilma and Paul explore the labyrinths of literary creation and of their own dreams and desires.
Since its publication in 1970 Zettel’s Traum/Bottom’s Dream has been regarded as Arno Schimdt’s magnum opus, as the definitive work of a titan of postwar German literature. Readers are now invited to explore its verbally provocative landscape in an English translation by John E. Woods.
Hype seems to have preceded both Jerusalem and Bottom’s Dream. If Jerusalem was given at 1+ million words and had to settle for mere 600k, I had Bottom’s Dream given either at 2+ million or 1+ million. No idea of the actual wordcount, or even how you decide how to COUNT those words. Because those words are typographically weird to even defy a wordcount. And some hype about translation too, since I had read the translator worked on it for more than twenty years. Instead there’s in the book a two page “afterword” by the translator himself, making fun a bit of the style of the book.
For the translator, however, there was really only one strategy available, the same one most readers will at least attempt: Start to finish – damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. Well, perhaps »speed« is the wrong word, it did take me some six years (spread over twelve) of labor, an arduous task to be sure – with sporadic moments of either elation or gloom, the latter due mostly to my sense of inadequacy to the task.
Wilma is right, it does take a »fool« to enter fully into this topsy-turvy linguistic world. And so I set on my fool’s cap, and sang and danced, took pratfalls and belly flops – and occasionally, taking a deep breath, I launched into the Neith-time sky to soar with the bats. The judgement as to whether or not I succeeded in capturing at least something of the aesthetic and intellectual enjoyments of the original (that being, after all, the nirvana of every translator), lies with you, the reader.
My fool’s cap has never left my head, I’m ready. Skimming through the pages is really a pleasure because of how playful the layout is. This is a puzzle more than a book. The language used itself is amazing and even if my only way to decode it right now is merely about flavor and form over any amount of meaning (as in answering: why did he write it that way?), I still delight at this (this quote actually removes some weird characters used that I don’t even know how to reproduce with this keyboard):
: – » – « -. (Alone with the kid in the ficket : cave!). – : »FirSt off hold all supercilia quiet : snaring with lids & snatching with slick lips aren’t alloweD here! – Prick ope your ears : When talk turns to Your cares, Y’ immuddytely b’have ‘sif Y’ had just gobbled up ev’ry evil kno’n since the Creation : surely You overestimaiD Your crim’nall abilities.« / (And still She had not raised her beFringl’d lids ?) /
Repeat for the remaining 1500 pages with a text column 50 lines long every page (well, it’s a slimmer one, thought it essentially never breaks, even when it spirals around).
I love it so much I wish I had two copies. One just to keep there and worship as an idol, another to treat badly and scribble all over it…
This is going to be really fun.
…And after writing all this I spotted this link. So perfectly timed for this blog post!
excessively long books are a form of undemocratic dominance that impoverishes the public discourse by reducing the airtime shared among others.
We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire.
(after reading that article fully, though, I have to say it’s not as ridiculous as that quote out of context would suggest)