Monday, November 15, 2021

Stories by Jayant Kaikini, a lost novel by Richard Wright, jittery little poems by Jean Follain - as he reassembled his black vertebrae

These books have to go back to the library.

No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories, Jayant Kaikini (2017, tr. Tejaswini Niranjana).  The second English collection of the stories of Kaikini, a former pharmaceutical biochemist who over four decades published six volumes of stories, as well as poetry and plays and so on, written in Kannada.  He is a Mumbai specialist, and a great part of the appeal of this collection is the trip to and around Mumbai, from the 1980s to the 2000s.  I am not much for the “travel” metaphor of reading fiction, but that is what I was doing here.

Stylistically, the stories would be comfortable in the New Yorker – in fact should have been translated and published in the New Yorker all along – with ordinary people having epiphanies and so on.  The title story (2000), for example, is about a young couple working on their wedding invitation.  They are both orphans, with not a hint of a family – the man does not even have a last name – and the comedy and poignancy comes not from their poverty, since they are no longer exactly poor, but their social anxiety.  Of course they should ask for presents!  They are not exactly rich, either.

The prose has a tendency that is what I think some reviewers identify as “lyrical”:

Popat had been staring in astonishment, waiting to see where the paper ball [the crumpled draft invitation] would fall.  In that moment, the distant half-finished overpass, the iron spikes, the faraway trucks, the construction rubble, the approaching trains, all looked like children’s toys to Popat.  (259)

This is the last line of the story, where earlier elements in the text culminate in a moment of intense meaning for Popat.  As they often do in contemporary short stories.

This collection was created and translated for an Indian market, and distributed as is in the United States, so it is full of untranslated words, unexplained references, and many other things I do not know.  I loved that aspect of the book.  I have the internet.  Even the blurbs are all from newspapers and writers I mostly don’t know.  The blurbage is shockingly measured, sensible, and accurate.  It is possible!  I have now seen it for myself.


The Man Who Lived Underground, Richard Wright (2021, but written 1942).  Am I nuts to think that the publication of a previously unknown prime-period Richard Wright novel – written between Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945) – would once have been a big event?  In, say 1981, or 1991?  Especially when the novel is as good as this one.  I thought it was quite good.  A long accompanying essay about the creation of the novel, “Memories of My Grandmother,” is perhaps even more important.  The novel was turned into a long story, and parts of the essay were pilfered for Black Boy, but still, I don’t get it.

The first sixth or so of the book is a long scene in which corrupt police torture and coerce a murder confession form an innocent black man.  It is rough going, but relevant, I would think?  People talk a lot about relevance.  I don’t know.  The victim escapes and heads into the sewers, where he deals with his trauma in a surprising way, by becoming a kind of existential visionary.  The book in in some ways an allegory, which is hardly my favorite thing, but as allegories go it is awfully concrete.


Transparence of the World, Jean Follain (1969, tr. W. S. Merwin).  Follain is a non-Surrealist surrealist poet, meaning he was not in a movement but the results do not look so different.  He was a friend of Max Jacob and Pierre Reverdy, and based on Merwin’s selections from 1933 to 1967 a minor poet compared to either of them.  He had one great trick, a sharp break between the beginning and end of the poem that shatters straightforward meaning but suggests another, weirder story.

Imperial Evenings (1941)

The emperors have not always donned fresh attire,
but sometimes faded ribbons
and hats worn till they shone
on the door-sills of farms
in the red end of days.
During those melancholy times the children
amused themselves with earthworms
in front of the stagnant water frothed with gold,
the bees hummed no longer,
the drunkard talked to the thicket
that was being swallowed up by the night
as he reassembled his black vertebrae.

Moving the emperors to the farms in the first sentence is also a break in sense.  I love that drunkard at the end.  Why do these particular people and activities need to be collected?  Why specify that they exist simultaneously?  Why not. 

This is Merwin’s translation.  I read the French, not the English, and sometimes skipped Merwin entirely, but when I checked his versions were always better than mine.



  1. Interesting about the Richard Wright. I had seen about it, but it isn't getting much buzz, and I hadn't made much effort to get a copy. Richard Wright is capable of bad writing, but if it's in the league with Native Son, or even close, then it would be amazing. (I'm somewhat less fond of Black Boy, but even that.)

    Whatever it was I saw also mentioned the sewers--living underground--which suggested Invisible Man. To what extent that's justified I don't know.

  2. Part of this novel is a return to the long section of Native Son where Bigger is on the run from the police. Underground has more direct confrontation with the police. The last part, where the Underground Man returns to the surface in his visionary mode but the police are stuck in Naturalism creates some interesting effects.

    The obvious and interesting parallels with Invisible Man are one of the many reasons this book should be more of an event. Another is that it is blatantly a noirish crime novel, the kind of book lots of people read.

    The only bad writing, given that his Naturalism is hardly my preferred kind of writing, I have come across in Wright is in American Hunger when he gets tangled up in the weeds of Chicago Communist Party politics, a hopeless subject. But I have not read anything written later than Black Boy.

  3. My wife just read the Wright, and she's also wondering why its release is such a non-event. You would think, etc. I read Invisible Man a billion years ago, right after Hard Times. Two relentlessly bleak books. Eventually I went back to Dickens, but I'm still wary of Wright, even though we have, I think, all of his books on the shelves.

    I like that Follain poem. Is it representative, or have you given us one of the better poems? I have read almost no poetry this year (I don't count the so-so Ovid translation this spring).

  4. Ah ha! That is why I had this feeling of a lack of fuss. When Ellison's Juneteenth was released in 1999 it got huge coverage, and that was a hacked together mass of unfinished manuscript. The Wright book is a complete, polished novel.

    Native Son and Black Boy are both quite bleak, although at least the latter ends with Wright getting the hell out of the South. Not that Depression Chicago is so easy, but at least he won't be murdered for looking at a white woman the wrong way, or for less than that.

    The Follain poem is representative, perhaps to the point of monotony. How much of that is an artifact of Merwin's selection, I don't know.

  5. My wife recently re-read Invisible Man, and she tells me that Wright's books are bleak in a different way, and better written. So maybe I'll see for myself.

    I have a university library at my disposal, so I suppose I can see for myself about Follain. Not that reading is a high-risk venture in any case.

  6. I don't agree with "better written." Wright uses a well-controlled but common American Naturalistic style. Clear and direct. He is not a klutz like Dreiser of weirdo like Norris.

    Ellison is more individual, more ironic, and more interested in the grotesque. More baroque, like a number of his American contemporaries, like Flannery O'Connor and Saul Bellow.

    A good stylistic head-to-head would be to compare the boxing scene in Black Boy and the one in Invisible Man. Those first couple of chapters of Invisible Man, holy cow.

    1. My wife works for a non-fiction publisher, so "clear and direct" is her idea of "well written" a lot of the time. Possibly I have stated her opinion backwards, too.

      I barely remember the book, but I do remember being exhausted by Invisible Man. Grotesque is certainly more to my taste. Though Saul Bellow, no thanks.

  7. I hadn't read Bellow for a hundred years, so I did a page 90 test on Augie March, which I have not read, to see if I was in error, but no, it's what I meant. I could have picked Gaddis or Barth. The rise of the American Exuberants.

  8. Man, tastes differ. I love Ellison and Bellow and have a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of "better written than Invisible Man." That's one of the few novels I'd save from the burning barn of American Lit.

    1. Ellison's novel is an important book, but in terms of prose, I can't see that it's anything special. I opened our copy (1980 Vintage edition) at random, to page 223:

      My face stung as though it had been slapped. They had made their decision without giving me a chance to speak for myself. I felt that every man present looked upon me with hostility; and though I had lived with hostility all my life, now for the first time it seemed to reach me, as though I had expected more of these men than of others--even though I had not known of their existence. Here in this room my defenses were negated, stripped away, checked at the door as the weapons, the knives and razors and owlhead pistols of the country boys were checked on Saturday night at the Golden Day. I kept my eyes lowered, mumbling "Pardon me, pardon me," all the way to the drab green locker, where I removed the sandwich, for which I no longer had an appetite, and stood fumbling with the bag, dreading to face the men on my way out.

      There's nothing wrong with that prose. There's also nothing particularly noteworthy.

    2. Wait, you're back up here for some reason. I tried to kill the "Reply" button once, and clearly need to try again.

      Anyway, now you're making me go look. Back in a minute, except down in the regular stream of comments, where it belongs.

      "owlhead pistols of the country boys" sounds good to me.

  9. I tell you, that random bit of Augie March I just read - that is writing with gusto!

    1. I read Henderson the Rain King a few years ago, and that is one irritating and useless novel. I don't get the attraction. It was self-indulgent and nothing so funny as the author seemed to think. There's plenty of this kind of fiction in America, and I would leave it in the burning barn.

    2. Yeah, he's a wildly inconsistent author. I'd recommend The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog; I've heard good things about The Dean's December but haven't read it myself yet. If you don't like Augie March you probably just don't like Bellow's style, but that's a personal preference.

  10. I'd add Seize the Day, another schlemiel novel like Augie March, except shorter.

    As for the Ellison, first, there's no boxing match on p. 223. Second, I hope you're not expecting Nabokov-like "every sentence a treasure" writing. This is jazzier prose, with ups and downs, ups like the intrusion of "knives and razors and owlhead pistols of the country boys." Third, a lot of Ellison's art and energy is in the speech. To stay nearby, see pp. 226-7, a piece of grotesquerie O'Connor likely enjoyed.

    One thing that occurs to me, and is possibly wrong, is that both Ellison and Bellow are not just trying to capture the cacophonic speech around them, but are doing it in a language that does not sound like a Hollywood screenplay. Now, of course, every Tarantinoite writes scenes like that one. But not back then.

    1. 1. My Ellison test was equivalent to your Augie March test. It's not my fault I didn't randomly stumble onto a superior bit, is it? I paged around after my random test and as I say, there's nothing wrong with it. It just don't send me, man.

      2. Why would you think I was looking for Nabokovian writing? My wife, as I recall, was comparing Ellison to Wright, and I was reporting (or misreporting that). Your response seems an argument against a condemnation of Ellison, which I have not made. The knives and razors stands out because the surrounding prose is pretty flat, I will say.

      3. There's a lot of Invisible Man that is not speech. Are you saying that a lot of this novel has no art and energy? What?

      I don't understand your last argument about Bellow and Hollywood screenplay dialogue. I do think a lot of American writers in the 20th century were trying to write like Kerouac or something, all hipster bebop, and a lot of it seems flat-footed. Bellow, at least in Henderson the Rain King, has no sense of swing, so it don't mean a thing. That book stinks, is what I'm saying. I am not saying anything similar about Ellison's novel.

      I like the added degree of difficulty in threaded comments.

  11. I guess I'm not worried about being sent. More, am I describing the book accurately?

    I only meant Nabokovian in the specific sense I mentioned, as a writer where every line gets special attention. You found a passage with one unusually interesting bit, a Gogolian metaphor, meaning the metaphor is so elaborate it creates its own characters. One interesting thing of that sort in a paragraph is, for me, a lot. More than usual. Something "particularly noteworthy," even. Flaubert is mostly flat, too.

    The answer to 3 is obviously "no." "A lot of the art an energy is in the speech" and some is elsewhere. Some is, for example, in the audacity of Ellison's wild inventions, like the horrifying, hilarious boxing match.

    The Hollywood thing is me wandering off into an issue I've been wondering about, the back and forth between American screen writing and novel writing, and I do not just mean writers who worked in Hollywood, since everyone watched movies and read novels. I have been trying to understand the phenomenon, and this little cluster of 1950s writers are maybe responding to it, pulling in other languages and kinds of speech. I wonder. Kerouac may well be trying that out, too, although I don't know enough about him to guess.

    It's like painters responding to photography by moving away from photo-like representation. Maybe some writers are doing something like that. But anyway, that was an aside. Something I'd like to know more about.

  12. Well, I think art is not created merely as a vessel for technique, as an object to be accurately observed, and so I hope there's something else there, and in my house we refer to engaging with that something else as being sent. Being sent is the point.

    I guess I don't find the metaphor that powerful. Owl head pistols were an actual thing, a brand of cheap guns that poor people could afford, which is why they are named specifically, so the passage is closer to reportage, in my reading, than it is to figurative language. So I donno. I was going to try an experiment, and find the first complete paragraph of Right's Underground Man on page 223, but I can't find the book here at the house. Meine Frau must've taken it to her office.

    The influence of entertainment on culture is worth pursuing, I think. I have been thinking for some years about how a lot of people try to model their behavior on the stylized actions of fictional characters, from speech to relationship norms to how we approach death. All of it's artifice in different ways. I know I'm not quite talking about what you're talking about.

  13. P. 223 of Underground Man will put you in the "Memories of My Grandmother" essay, which is an interesting place to be. The novel is short. You could try p. 223 of Native Son, where, in the Restored Text edition, the nightmare is just beginning.

    At Wuthering Expectations, I write criticism and literary history, Being accurate is more important than being sent, for these purposes. The condition of sentness happens somewhere else, unless I write something especially good, which may well happen someday.

    I guess, as part of the Hollywood-literature tangle, I am thinking of the influence of two arts on each other. Or perhaps two entertainments on each other.

  14. "At Wuthering Expectations, I write criticism and literary history"

    Absolutely true. But c'mon, you also get your hands dirty, especially in the comments, with subjectivity and untestable aesthetic claims. Just like most of your readers, who seem to me have a high interest in fiction sending them.

  15. The comments are a good place to be a little more loosey goosey. But the way I think about this is that my goal is to improve my ability to write about those subjective claims, which may not be as untestable as they seem if we can find the right language to describe them. Aesthetic frames, unstated assumptions, whatever.

    I can't imagine, now, trying to convince anyone to enjoy a particular book. That does seem to be beyond language. But am I describing Ellison's rhetorical modes correctly? I haven't read the book in 25 years, although I feel I remember it. But maybe I don't.

  16. I thought the question was, "Whose book is better written: Wright's or Ellison's?" which seems entirely subjective since we each use different criteria for judgement. Somehow the conversation seemed to suddenly veer into claims of objectivity and I became confused. I'm sure the fault is on my side; I know that I do not necessarily use my mother tongue the way another native speaker would, as I arbitrarily give private definitions to common terms as I go along. I do believe that seeing a novelist get up to interesting tricks sends you, Mr Reader, just as it sends me. But I'm sure we interpret our responses to texts--our being sent--in quite different ways, because I'm sure we each value different things about our responses. We both are capable of gushing when we like a book, but I've never thought that you write reviews here and gush about relatability and sympathetic characters, whatever in God's name those are.

  17. The "better" part is just voting. I tried to put a basis under my vote with "ironic / individual / grotesque / baroque," where I risk being wrong. Maybe the book is not like that. Maybe they're not even useful criteria. That was definitely the question for me.

    Meanwhile (two days ago), Reading James Baldwin's "Autobiographical Notes" in Notes of a Native Son and find: "Mr. Ellison, by the way, is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life," and my response - I will write about my response here - is "What does he mean by that?" Which was also my response to your "nothing particularly noteworthy." It's a productive question.

    One reason I am reading Baldwin now is because he wrote some famous critiques of Wright, so his vote is clear enough.

    I used to be gushier. I think I used to be gushier.