The work of Jorge Luis Borges has always been a touchstone for me: the concision and entanglement of his fictions and artifices and inquisitions are a source of great pleasure and inspiration. I am pleased to report that James Cummins Bookseller catalogue 145, Jorge Luis Borges, is ready, describing more than 400 items from the private collection of Gary Oleson, proprietor with Franny Ness of Waiting for Godot Books in Hadley, Massachusetts. Waiting for Godot were long- time specialists in twentieth century literature (among many other fields), including Latin American authors, and Oleson began buying Borges material in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The collection includes books owned by Borges, manuscripts of essays and stories, autograph notes, photographs, inscribed books, and a comprehensive group of books, periodical appearances, ephemera, and secondary literature. The cover illustrates a book by Capt. Marryat, signed by Borges at age 11, 25, 33, and 42, and with the ownership signature of his English-born great aunt, who taught him English
As with the writings of Borges, patterns and connections reveal themselves across the pages of the catalogue, which is published on the occasion of a Borges centenary, the hundredth anniversary of the publication of his first book of poems, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). [HWW]
Catalogue 145, Jorge Luis Borges is in two sections, an illustrated catalogue of 130 items, and a descriptive listing of 275 items. A printed catalogue is available, and many items will be on display at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair 27-30 April at the Park Avenue Armory, in the Cummins booth A1. Your correspondent will be there, come say hello.
sixteen years of the Endless Bookshelf
24 January 2023
Today marks sixteen years of the Endless Bookshelf, and the past year was an eventful one to be “simply messing about in books”. To have played a part in the long history of The Book of Ryhmes (1829) by Charlotte Brontë, now at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, was a signal delight. It was a good year to be a reader, too.
The Endless Bookshelf book of the year, The Silverberg Business by Robert Freeman Wexler (Small Beer Press, 2022), is a work that affirms the utility and possibility of fiction, and it’s a weird, fascinating story.
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In February, I expect to be at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena, booth 514 (James Cummins Bookseller) at the Oakland Marriott City Center, Friday 10 February through Sunday 12 February. If you are in the vicinity, come by and say hello (and please let me know in advance if you would like a pass). I will have a handful of Temporary Culture publications on the booth.
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in memoriam : Peter Straub (1943-2022)
Peter Straub, who died on 4 September 2022, was the smartest of writers and a truly fine man. He was one of the few magicians I have ever met: that rare real thing, a writer who starts a tale in a recognizable place and enables the reader to go somewhere unexpected and unsettling. I didn’t know him well, but saw him regularly over the years in New York and at Readercon, and I treasure his work. It was always a pleasure to hear him read from works in progress.
It was a signal honor and delight to moderate the panel discussing his writings when he was guest of honor at Readercon 23 in July 2012. It was a wide-ranging, zigzag conversation between Gary K. Wolfe, Mike Allen, John Langan, and your correspondent, discussing character, place, and story in Straub, as well as a host of other topics. In one exchange we drew attention to connections between minor characters across the decades. Peter was in attendance and we could witness his pleasure at the seriousness (and sly humor) with which we brought the vivisection of the Works . . . . In my introductory remarks I observed, “What is a book but the record of the struggle of a story to tell itself?” and I had been thinking of Shadow Land in particular, but all of his works grappled with the relationship between story and form. Just take a look at the intensity with which he read Henry James: The Process (Is a Process All Its Own) (2017), contributes an episode in the life of the Master which no other author could have conceived and told. The Dark Matter (2010) is another fascinating work.
In September, his daughter, novelist Emma Straub, wrote a succession of posts on twitter, beginning here , and a very moving memoir of her father, This Time Tomorrow, Today.
That Readercon panel was followed by a convivial dinner gathering — not a table of doom — with many (but not too many) luminaries. Peter inscribed my copy of Shadow Land, which I included in A Conversation larger than the Universe.
The photograph at the top was a rare late public appearance, when Peter attended the birthday celebration organized by Derrick Hussey of Hippocampus Press for critic S. T. Joshi in June 2018.
As my friend Liz Hand (present at that Readercon dinner) remarked after learning of Peter’s death, “count none but sunny hours”. Peter Straub was a Mensch, with a big heart, and I am glad to have known him.
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The Locus obituary here :
The Peter Straub Papers (MSS 185) are held at the Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University. The detailed finding aid is here: http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/fales/mss_185/
R. B. Russell, Fifty Forgotten Books
— R. B. Russell. Fifty Forgotten Books. With numerous illustrations. 255 pp. Sheffield : And Other Stories, 2022.
Sometimes, all it takes is one book. When Mr. Brookes, who kept a bookshop in Brighton, gave handsome young Ray Russell a Corgi paperback copy of Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams (1907), how could Mr. Brookes have known where it would lead? Not perhaps where he thought. As proprietor (with Rosalie Parker) of Tartarus Press, Russell has championed and published Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Sarban, and other early authors of supernatural fiction, and developed a consistently excellent list of new authors in the field. Fifty Forgotten Books is Russell’s engaging memoir of how that came to be, in a braided succession of chapters (and discussing many more than 50 books).
The two best qualities of Ray Russell’s memoir are the eclectic nature of his list of titles and the delight a reader has in walking around in his library as the collector pulls volumes from shelves to tell stories of books, and of the booksellers, friends, and authors summoned in memory in the telling. First things first: this is an eclectic chronicle of a curious reader from his teenage years to the present, so after a bit of second-hand existentialism by way of Colin Wilson, we get to it. The Hill of Dreams, “better written than anything I had previously read. [. . .] When I went back to Brighton two weeks later, it was to hunt for more Machen, but I was sorely disappointed. Machen’s books were hard to find at the time.” Another early stage in his reading was French literature in translation, with Baudelaire, André Gide, and Raymond Radiguet, and Le Grand Meaulnes (which Russell would himself translate from the original in 1999). Learning of Oscar Wilde and the 1890s led to Ernest Dowson’s Dilemmas (1895) and M. P. Shiel. Russell writes of his quests in used and antiquarian bookshops up and down England and Wales, on an architecture student’s budget. The intellectual generosity of some booksellers is sometimes exceeded by the wiliness of others, such as the late George Locke.
It always comes back to Machen: a copy of the Knopf compendium, Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, bought on his American trip to see buildings and the manuscripts of H. P. Lovecraft, reaffirms his esteem for the Welsh author. Things really get going when Russell attends a meeting of the Arthur Machen Society and meets enthusiasts who become lifelong friends. The delight of Fifty Forgotten Books is in the stories of convivial encounters — a certain amount of drinking is sometimes involved — and in seeing the life of these communities of readers and writers described: books and friends* and landscapes to ramble in, what more could one ask? Russell’s first publication was a stapled pamphlet, but two years toil in a dodgy local vanity press schooled him in the logistics of book production, and Tartarus books have since then had both a consistent design style and a pleasing feel in the hand.
Russells recounts the enthusiasms for Machen and Robert Aickman that shaped the early output of Tartarus, and how these led to other interests. Through Janet Machen, Russell became interested in the writings of Sylvia Townsend Warner, and eventually founded a literary society devoted to her. After his friend Mark Valentine, suggested reading Sarban, their researches led to a genuine rediscovery and to the preservation of that author’s archive. The accounts of visits to the author’s daughter are great fun.
In Fifty Forgotten Books Russell is not defining a canon, rather issuing a good-natured challenge to the reader ‘to determine how many of these works they remember’. While you may have read many of these books, some of which are hardly forgotten (The Quest for Corvo, for example), you won’t have read all of them: my own tally was 16, with two or three more that I have handled but not read. Like two other recent stellar examples, Godine at Fifty (2021), and Bill Reese’s Narratives of Personal Experience (2016), Russell’s memoir earns a place on the shelf and suggests future reading: I am looking forward to The Brontës Went to Woolworth’s (1931) by Rachel Ferguson, and several others. Pick up a copy of Fifty Forgotten Books and see for yourself.
* I first met Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker in person at the inaugural Halifax Ghost Story Festival in 2010, but I had known of their Tartarus Press ever since I came across an irresistible title, The Smell of Telescopes, in Ev Bleiler’s essay on Rhys Hughes a decade before; I had bought a copy the Tartarus Press re-issue of The Hill of Dreams from an American specialty dealer’s list when it appeared. At that same festival, I met Mark Valentine, a longtime penpal, and several other of their friends.
— F. & E. Brett Young. Undergrowth . Cassell, [Popular Edition, 1925].
Undergrowth is a brisk, interesting novel of the subjective experience of the uncanny in a remote landscape. It is the first book by doctor and novelist Francis Brett Young (1884-1954), written with his brother Eric and published just before the first world war. The influences are plain to see: Algernon Blackwood and, explicitly, Arthur Machen. Undergrowth is formally a club story and begins with a frame setting as mundane and chummy as the opening of a John Buchan yarn (I’ll circle back to those three names on occasion), when the unnamed narrator walks through stinking, “devitalized” Soho streets to the Étoile gleaming amber through the fog. The table talk turns to “pagan” landscapes in England and “cheap literary revivals” dismissed by the narrator, but his companion proposes a remote mountain valley where, despite sunshine and a jolly little brook, he “left in a deuce of a hurry” after an uncomfortable half an hour.
Undergrowth is the story of Forsyth, a construction engineer who comes to rural Wales to supervise the completion of a dam and reservoir which will flood the sparsely populated Dulas valley. The manager is a cockney named Hayward. Forsyth’s lodgings are in the house of an unlettered Welsh shepherd, Abel Morgan, who functions as the Celtic other and stands as a mirror of the moods of Forsyth and Hayward. Forsyth has an uneasy dream his first night in the house:
It seemed to him that he was stifled with the green which surrounded the house; that the trees of the woods which climbed the mountain above, and the tangled thickets that tumbled to the river, were robbing him of his breath. On every side green multitudes hemmed him in — gnarled monsters with twisted arms for branches, sappy climbing things, relentless parasites, like snakes. He could not breathe for the oppression of this hostile vegetable life.
Morgan spends more time out of doors than in his house. He offers laconic remarks on the hills and vales, and recounts the significance of a Neolithic standing stone, the Dial Careg: one man’s deep-rooted oral history is another’s quaint folklore. Forsyth sorts through the books of his predecessor, the late Mr. Carlyon (a Cornishman who “read his head off”), found in a heap in one corner of the house: six-shilling novels, geology and engineering texts, books from Mudie’s circulating library, worm-eaten calf, and Arthur Machen. Forsyth begins reading a diary kept by Carlyon, the core of the novel, and this second frame becomes entangled with the story it encloses.
Undergrowth is a deft chronicle of sensations: the oppressiveness of the Mynydd Llwyd and Pen Savaddan, the mountains looming over the valley, and the menace of the tangled undergrowth filling its lower reaches, contrast with the tone of liberation in Carlyon’s diary and in the kinetic descriptions of climbing to the high ridges of Pen Savaddan and mountain meadows. The account of makeshift nursing during an epidemic in the work camp is rich in specific details of kindness and delirium. In Carlylon’s diary and in the latter portions of the novel the traces of Blackwood and Machen show clearest; the transcendent function of landscape in narrative anticipates Buchan, and the weather, too (I’m thinking of Richard Usborne’s observation in Clubland Heroes).
It’s not a perfect novel. There are unexplained shifts and the substrand of Morgan the shepherd is essential to the larger arc of the story, but he suddenly vanishes after uttering his curse. and sometimes it feels like the narrative escapes from the authors’ control (maybe not a bad thing, but occasionally puzzling). Undergrowth introduces the notion of older settlements and histories being drowned beneath the waters of a reservoir for a distant city (prefiguring “The Colour out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft). The Elan Valley in Powys, with its “drowned villages”, is often mentioned as a possible setting for the Dulas valley of the novel.
Undergrowth is a book I had been seeking for some time, repeatedly recommended by Mark Valentine, and I can see why. Valentine’s essay, “A Landscape At the End of the World: The Supernatural Terrain of Francis and Eric Brett Young”, gives an excellent overview of these writers an can be found in A Country Still All Mystery. Francis Brett Young was also author of Cold Harbour (1924), praised by Lovecraft.
The last chapter of Undergrowth is a rush of enthusiams and terrors and ambiguities. I think that one must read the story literally and join Forsyth in the snow on the Savaddan ridge to witness the vast lake “emptying itself in foaming masses above the broken masonry of the dam.”
how I spent my summer vacation (part two)
Publication day for NAPLES by Avram Davidson, 11 September in Castel del Ovo, Napoli
fascio ti sfascio : the writing on the wall, Salerno
how I spent my summer vacation (part two and a half)
a short city walk & a visual gloss to NAPLES by Avram Davidson [for DVS]
recent reading (march through august 2022)
current reading :
— Marcel Proust. La Prisonnière . À la recherche du temps perdu III. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. [still climbing the mountain].
— R.B. Russell. Fifty Forgotten Books. Sheffield : And Other Stories, [forthcoming, 13 September 2022].
recent reading :
This was tough going at times, but there was always a remarkable passage or narrative surprise to quicken interest — and what a crack of the whip at end, rooted in earliest beginnings.
— Ngaio Marsh. Night at the Vulcan . Pyramid Books, [Second printing, December 1974].
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— —. The Corvo Cult. The History of an Obsession. Strange Attractor Press, 2014.
Two well written, engaging, and thoroughly documented overviews of the Frederick Rolfe phenomenon: the people surrounding him and the evolution of the cult of the author.
. . . and everyone is there, in this kinetic Blakean procession, to be animated from Stanley Spencer’s giant painting .
A volume in the excellent Outspoken Authors series, with Terry Bisson’s interview of Eileen Gunn, “I Did, and I Didn’t, and I Won’t”, including this observation about an early job as a advertising copywriter :
“They taught me how to understand subjects I’d never studied and how to work with capitalists without becoming one.”
Nimble, funny, literate Oulipian explorations of food and words. [Gift of WW].
Reading this, one has the sense that somehow England will find a way through the present mess.
Rich, beautiful exploration of friendship, place, and time (the Maine setting is deeply rooted), with turns and surprises worthy of Dickens ; a notable feminist interrogation of privilege and expectations.
When the Romanian singer started in on « Un dimanche après la fin du monde » I was engaged ; and then the first pages of Chapter 13, The Man Collecting Names is a remarkable sequence of reflections. [Gift of DS].
[Bought in March but misshelved and only found in early June.]
/ above : in the Bibliothèque Mazarine
Collection of nearly two dozen essays, talks, and vignettes about the uncanny, spanning almost the entire career of supernatural writer Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). The earliest, “The Psychology of Places” (Westminster Gazette, 30 April 1910), seems almost a gloss on his story “The Willows”; the majority of the pieces are from the late 1940s and were often delivered as radio or television broadcasts. Ashley notes Blackwood’s general reticence about any of his own psychic experiences. The essays “collected here reveal his views on the world and the occult, show his diverse reading and experiences, and his appreciation of the experiences of others.”
Illustrated history of a notable twelfth-century manuscript Gospel which survives in its original binding.
The text of The Pirate King resembles a children’s bedtime tale, while the collage illustrations suggest a very different story. A remarkable tension arises between the visual and verbal references.
Rhododendron Day, 2022