Time for a comeback even at this late (80) age. I have had symptoms sort o like PTSD, except this is what you might call PTCOVIDS–Post Traumatic Covid Syndrome. Seeking isolation yet also hating it–feeling trapped. But here I come. New books, new marketing strategies. It’s all the on the way.
The book is entitled The Paris Bookseller. The author, Kerri Maher. It’s a rather insipid, if accurate title, I think, for a novel about the literary event of the twentieth century. I’ve had my struggles handling this epic novel. Its obvious excellence often outdistances my understanding. As for its successor, Finnegan’s Wake, I confess bewilderment. A terrible thing for an English major to say, I suppose, but that’s the way it is. On the other hand, I’ve been enthralled with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from the first moment I touched it, so I do have some creds. However, of the effort it took to bring Ulysses to readers, I was close to completely ignorant. I knew it ran into censors and legal challenges and that there was enormous opposition to its publication, but I had no idea. I thank Kerri Maher for this engaging, painful, exciting, and often heart-rending tale.
Though Joyce and Ulysses are seemingly at the heart of the story, the novel is multilayered. It opens with young Sylvia Beach and her first visit as an adult to Paris in post WWI. She hasn’t been there since her family had spent some time there when she was a young girl, but in her heart she never left. She’s smart, well-read, and eager for adventure. She’s also a lesbian. This was a heady mixture for someone from sex-repressed America and who was of a revolutionary frame of mind and ready for adventure and romance.
She soon fell in with the literary crowd that frequented the left bank of the era. Hemingway, Dos Passos, Joyce, and a flock of others became her everyday companions. The atmosphere was bilingual, and she soon became enamored of the notion that she might do well to open a bookstore that catered to the English-speaking crowd that was part of the literary mix. Thus was born Shakespeare and Company, sponsored largely by Adrenne Monnier, who was Sylvia’s lover and the owner of a French bookstore that was already famous among the literati.
All well and good, but what about the Ulysses connection? It happened this way: In the midst of composing his epic, Joyce was having a hard time finding a publisher. He and Sylvia had become close friends as well as colleagues by this time. So, Adrienne and Sylvia cooked up a scheme whereby Sylvia would publish this work by a man they loved who wrote the prose they thought would reshape English literature.
We all know the result of their labors, but if you’re as ignorant as I was, what it took to reach the result is astounding. Thus, the layers I spoke of came into play. Sexism, selfishness, betrayal, misogyny, and greed all became characters in the ugly and thrilling drama that unfolded over many years. The book was finally published in 1922. By that time a pirated edition had emerged, which cut into sales and royalties. In the U.S., the case went all the way to the supreme court despite the fact that the book had appeared in various versions all over the world.
I’ll leave it to you to read the book and discover how Sylvia Beach, the original publisher, editor, and mentor of Joyce and his work fared amid all this sturm und drang. If not for her endurance and sensitivity, the story of Ulysses would likely have ended quite differently. Cream rises to the top? Don’t believe it. Not automatically. It needs a lot of help. Thank goodness, in this case, it got what it needed. Of course, the effect on other writers and readers that succeeded the 1922 group is incalculable. And, despite it all, Sylvia lived a rich and relatively long life. When she died 1n 1962 at the age of seventy five, she was still in Paris, still the proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, still unheralded in comparison to all that every reader and writer owes her right down to present day.
John Wilkes Booth is perhaps the most famous assassin in history, certainly the most theatrical. His killing of Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theater on April 14, 1865, not only marked the downfall of one of the most important and well-known men since, say, Julius Caesar, but changed the course of a nation.
As author Karen Joy Fowler asserts in her afterword, so much has been written about the event and its perpetrator that there is no need to add to his individual legend or further lionize the murderer by focusing on his story alone. She has chosen instead to zero in on the Booth family and to tell the tale of Wilkes’ (A stage name he gave himself for a time) people. it was a tough challenge. “How to write a book about john Wilkes a book without centering on John Wilkes. It was a is something I grappled with on nearly every page.” To my mind she succeeds superbly.
In the pages of we get Booth get tales of those who knew him, nurtured him, reviled him from his 1838 birth to the day he committed one of history’s most notorious crimes. And beyond. She tells the tale vividly and powerfully. There are plenty of stories connected with the wild personalities of the Booth family without putting John in the foreground. In fact, she puts him largely in the wings, which creates a wonderful suspense for the reader. When will the main character in this drama appear to perform his horrible deed? He steps out for an episode or two, then disappears for a while, then he repeats the process.
Booth’s family was large, complex, and chaotic. He was considered illegitimate because his father was a bigamist, having married in England, then again in America, without bothering with a divorce. Despite his unsavory past, father Junius was a renowned Shakespearean actor. He was so revered that Walt Whitman wrote “there are no more actors” as part of a post-mortem tribute. In addition to his on-stage fame, Junius was a dominating personality who held sway over his family even considering his many and extended touring/performing absences. His fame was such that his sons all aspired to match his accomplishments. Only one, Edwin, managed to make a theatrical name for himself. The others, including John Wilkes, attained mainly the pater’s reputation for carousing and whoring and drinking (This last was common to the whole lot of them.) Still, lacking though he might have been as an actor, John was handsome and magnetic. Attach those qualities to his father’s famous name, he managed to garner many stage engagements and make a bit of a name for himself. It was that notoriety that contributed to his ability to walk into Ford Theater and past the (rather lackluster) security precautions and fire a bullet straight into the president’s brain.
Fowler tells the story with wit and great narrative skill, delivering telling descriptions that reveal both character and condition with eloquence and economy. Of a relative’s family’s unwelcome appearance at the Booth doorway, she writes:
Mother opens the door and lets them all into the house. The seven strange children have runny noses and blistered feet. Drops of rain are beaded on their greasy hair and streaking their cheeks. They smell awful.
Or take this description of one of John Wilkes sister’s reaction to the news of their father’s bigamy:
The way Rosalie sees it, pretty much everyone in London was abandoning their wives to run away with their sweethearts around the time that father met Mother. It seems to have been quite the fad. Sodom and Gomorrah with tea.
The Booth family was bred primarily, though not exclusively, in Maryland, close to those who were fierce advocates of slavery. Even though Maryland never officially joined the confederacy, there was no lack of enthusiasm for secession among the populace. John Wilkes was among the those who saw slavery as a benign institution which benefited both Negroes and whites and was very nearly the most important institution on which American was founded. Given those beliefs and his attraction toward dramatic and extremist notions, it was in hindsight nearly inevitable that he would enter into the kind of conspiracy that he joined on that April night. The rest of the Booths were loyal to their brother and son, but none of them held the fervent attachment to what became known as the “Lost Cause.” They were much more devoted to art and family than to politics.
It is that nearly apolitical tendency among the Booths that makes Fowler’s account of what led to John Wilkes’ great crime special. He became a radical not by any single political or social conviction, but by virtue of the political environment that surrounded him and of his his volatile personality. He never could stand to be ignored or bested and he always considered himself destined to do something great for which he would always be remembered.
He succeeded, of course. And Fowler succeeded as well in her aim “to write a book about john Wilkes a book without centering on John Wilkes.”
In the afterword to her recent novel, The Sentence, Louise Erdrich makes a number of reading recommendations. I’ve started working my way through the list. The first was The Hatak Witches https://www.carlrbrush.com/casting-spells-with-the-hatak-witches/. a And now, here comes Brian Evenson’s The Father of Lies. Jesus labeled Satan that way in the gospel of John, so you’d expect the novel to have a religious bent to it, and boy would you be right.
Evenson has structured the book in a fascinating way, ping-ponging back and forth among letters, delusions, therapy sessions, and savagery. Sometimes you feel you are in the hands of a novelist telling a story. Other times, you are in the mind of the protagonist in what you might call his “right mind” state. Then again, you are witness to the “right mind” state which turns out to be delusional. Sounds confusing? Yes. ExceptEvenson keeps us all straight somehow.
The aforementioned protagonist is named Fochs (pronounced “Fucks.”), who is a recently appointed provost of a religion or church order called The Blood of the Lamb. The adherents are called “Bloodites.” The opening pages focus on an exchange of letters between various church officials that leave the reader with bits of information but wanting more. There is mention of “The Fochs matter” without mentioning who Fochs might be or what the “matter” might consist of. The officials are insistent that the affair, whatever it is, be concluded immediately and kept under wraps. As the communications proceed, we are introduced to to a therapist who has been employed to help our provost rid himself of disturbing thoughts. Highly unreligious and immoral thoughts. The prime directive of the Bloodites is obedience. The male director commands the provosts, the provosts, all male, who have families, command their wives and children. Question the father or the director? Not done. Excommunication is the price to be paid for disobedience, and no one wants that.
As the therapy proceeds, the line between our provost’s disturbing dreams and reality begin to blur. Our therapist begins to wonder when fantasy ends and reality ends. It also becomes harder and harder for our provost to separate imagination from reality for himself. I’ll stop with synopsis here to avoid spoiling things. However, I think it’s worthwhile to look at the themes.
At the core of Evenson’s story here are the dangers of hierarchy and authoritarianism. If the central concern of an organization is to maintain control and image, if that, indeed, is the central morality, nothing else matters much. Since there’s no admitting that the object is power for power’s sake, the power is assigned to guess who? Hint. Name starts with a “g”. A capital “G”. So what happens when our provost and his cohorts become wrapped up in those assumptions and rules? It’s quite predictable, and it mirrors the institutions of our daily lives. We don’t protect the innocent and punish the guilty so much as protect our institutions and punish the whistleblowers. It took me about thirty seconds to think of a couple of such incidents. Maybe it will take you longer. Maybe two minutes, but you can do it. Go ahead. If you have a problem, turn back to The Father of Lies. The answer is right there.