Vladimir Nabokov, the Grimm Brothers, Destroying Cities, and the Numbers Station
The Poet Exposed
Christopher Felver
(Alfred van der Marck)
A hundred or so photographs of current poets (or those recently deceased); mostly American; with scrawled notes In Their Own Hands accompanying the shots (all in black-and-white). Nice work, fun to leaf through, although Felver's definition of "poet" is broad (John Cage? William Burroughs? Lawrence Durrell?) Our personal favorites are James Broughton in pork-pie hat and scarf, with John L. Lewis' eyebrows, saying,

    This is It
    and I am It
    and you are It
    and so is That
    and he is It
    and she is It
    and it is It
    and that is that

and David Antin who has no hat, no scarf, and no eyebrows whatsoever, not even his own, who says "I used to think as a poet i was looking for the light --- but theres so much light now and its all so bright I'm looking into the shadows," and Charles Bukowski, no hat, no scarf, no picture (nor eyebrows), leaving nothing but a short short poem NO VISITORS. The prize for words (not visage) must go to someone named Sharon Olds who captured "My Parents Wedding Night, 1937:"

    I leave them wrapped in that stained sheet like a
    double larvum in a speckled chrysalis,
    they sleep with their mouths open like teenagers,
    their breath sweet, the whole room smells
    delicately of champagne and semen and blood,
    I let them rest, but I go back again and again
                       to that moment,
    I watch them over and over until I get used to it,
    like God watching Adam and Eve in the garden ---
    that first sprining rill of dark blood,
    I eye it the way the castaway staves at the
    blackish life pouring out of the turtle's throat
                        where he severs it.

VN: The Life and Art
Of Vladimir Nabokov
Andrew Field
There are some volumes that we treasure; there are some we let slide lifelessly from our hands; and there are a few, a very few, that we smash to the floor ("Hey! What's going on?" they yell from the other room.) Field's VN is in that latter category. Nabokov himself had a sincere detestation of critics and literary biographers (he called them "psychoplagiarists'') for he saw them as the pismires on the corpus of belles lettres. Indeed, several of his books (notably Pale Fire) mocked, in a devilishly astute way, the whole English Lit critical world.

It is then of considerable Nabokovian irony that Andrew Field sneaks in under the eaves to bad-mouth the master, write slightingly of some of Nabokov's great works (the dreamy, spell-casting Ada is described as "the weakest novel he wrote, and the most overpraised by many critics,") and in general defecate on the grave of one of the great writers of the century. There are many sly allusions to his brilliant conversations with the author ("When I put this to him, he exclaimed gleefully: 'Yes, yes, exactly! I planned it that way!'" Translation: Field, you're so goddamn bright.)

His petty assessments of Nabokov's life, loves, teaching, and writings has brought us to the reluctant conclusion that Field doesn't exist, that Nabokov isn't dead at all, but went into hiding in Switzerland to prepare this last and most subtle joke of an astonishing literary career, and we point out that "Andrew Field" is itself an anagram --- "Fie, lewd dran" --- a dran being Russian for poseur.) Thus Nabokov has here managed to create, with his usual exquisite skill, an extremely tasteless, short-sighted, smarmy, and illiterate precis of his days and works. That he could subsume his own stellar pyrotechnical writing skill (as represented, for instance, by Lolita and Speak Memory) to come up with this dog makes it worthy of Kinbote himself.

The Comfortable House
North American
Suburban Architecture
1890 -1930

Alan Gowans
It is passing strange the way we Americans assassinate our cities. Ours are probably the only metropolises in the world built not by architects, certainly not by artists and aestheticians, but by accountants and the tax laws. City centers, graves to humanness and scale, with forty- or sixty- or eighty-story tombstones, are, in fact, monuments to double depreciation, interest deduction, and the unbound willingness of cities to subsidize and supply the vital (and expensive) drain on their services to maintain these memento mori. The result is the New Yorkization of our urban areas which is doubly ironical: who the hell in San Francisco or New Orleans or Seattle wants to live in New York City?

It's an interesting contrast to discover what our forebears wanted (and gave to) metropolitan areas. The "City Beautiful" Movement created parks and the various codes and zoning, and required downtown setbacks which prevented straight-sided tombstone buildings by staggering the vertical. (This was abandoned by most cities when the corporations bought up the zoning boards from Atlanta to Ypslanti).

In the days of city-beautiful, lovely prefabricated houses could be ordered (from Sears, or Monkey Ward, or Aladdin) at astonishing prices: a two story Sears pre-fab in 1908 cost $1,137; a six room "Michigan," complete with "hardware, locks, hinges, knobs, nails, and paint" was available from Aladdin at $797.05.

Alan Gowans, who teaches art history at the University of Delaware, seems to have a fine time with this volume, discerning from these kit houses the welter of styles: Queen Anne, Picturesque, French Second Empire, Classical Revival. He is not beyond some logic jumps. For example, he believes that the coming of "The Comfortable House" coincided with the end of the frontier range; that these houses -- so easy to buy, transport, build -- represented another phase of American Wanderlust; and, just so, the present day mobile home is the ultimatc representation of national historical attachment to The ltchy Foot.

No matter: this edition is lovely, with over 200 illustrations, including fascinating reproductions of pages from turn-of-the-century catalogues.

The Three Languages
Jakob & Wilhelm Grimm
(Creative Education)
The Grimm brothers invented Grimm's Law, which tried to prove that Germans are more studious, pedantic, and phlegmatic --- thus, more grim --- than anybody else. When the Grimms weren't inventing laws, they spent their evening mixing pleasantly with peasants (which they mistakenly called "pheasants") --- collecting lore to put in their books.

In general, they were pleasantly (or pheasantly) grim themselves. No one could tell Jakob from Wilhelm except for the wig --- and for the fact that Jakob's house moved around thus they titled their study Kinderrund Hausmarchen. Despite all this confusion attendant on their Germanic, scholarly life, they put together 5,546 fairy tales, each one dumber than the one before.

The Three Languages tells of a nobleman who had a stupid son who could only talk to birds, dogs, and frogs. Some people talk to the stars --- others to the trees: this one talks to poodles, hoptoads, and magpies. The Pope dies, the powers are looking for a miracle, and so two doves fly down and perch on this kid's shoulder --- and they make him pope. (It was, as you can see, a far simpler time.) He doesn't know beans about chanting mass, but the two doves sit on his shoulder and whisper sweet Dei's in his ear. Creative Education puts out some of the finest children's books around, and that's the only thing in this whole blamed review we didn't make up. Or maybe that we did.

Ken Grimwood
(Arbor House)
Jeff Winston is a "replayer." Starting with a heart attack at age forty-three (in 1988), he returns to 1963 with his knowledge of the future intact. It's not a one-night stand: he gets to live through his days, have the same old heart attack, again and again, with a slight "skew" --- the visits get shorter and shorter.

He chooses to live the reruns differently each time, depending on what he has learned from the last incarnation. Once, he's a recluse; then a fabulously wealthy businessman; a world traveller; and --- in perhaps one of the more cynical tales --- a peacenik. (This latter fails: because of his unerring and well-publicized predictions, he gets nabbed by the Feds, and dies virtually a prisoner as the world goes extra screwy --- partially because of his prescience).

This is a fun book, perfect for those who suspect that if we had a chance to do reruns of our lives, it would be no better the second or third time around -- in fact, it could be a little worse. One of Winston's most ironical attempts at historical rewrite is his aborting of the assassination of JFK at Dallas by forging a threatening letter by Lee Harvey Oswald to the Secret Service. No Go. The president gets done in anyway (Texas Book Depository, high-powered rifle, "Nelson Bennett" is the assassin.)

The evocations of the 1960's are fairly wrought, but the love passages are somewhat purple (and moist),

    Jeff's hand moved higher, touched moist silk. Pamela let out a tiny groan as he gently pressed her cleft, and she arched back against the leather seat. He slowly pulled his hand away, letting the tips of his fingers trail lightly down her leg.

The great classic aeonian travel book is H. G. Wells' The Time Machine with its anomalous neo-Marxist descriptions of the far future, and a prose style as precursor to the 20th Century American realists. Not far behind is Jack Finney's fine Time and Again which brings turn-of-the-century New York to vigorous life. Grimwood presents us with a distant but quite presentable third.

Uno, Dos, Cuatro:
A Guide to the Numbers Stations
"Havana Moon"
(Tiare Publications)
The "Numbers Stations" are there, right now, on your short wave receiver. There's a voice repeating numbers, endlessly, in English, German, or Spanish. The numbers are repeated in groupings of four or five. It goes on around the clock, on dozens of different short wave frequencies, sometimes in short bursts, sometimes for hours. The voice is often mechanical, the reproduction scratchy. This numerology of the æther has been going on, as far as Mr. Moon can determine, for a quarter century or so (in fact, he traces it back to secret German transmissions from Manhattan in 1939).

Mr. Moon tells us little about himself, except for the fact that he was once in "intelligence," and his many investigations always draw a blank from the federal agencies who should know about these things. This includes the Army Security Agency, Defense Communications Agency, Federal Communications Commission, the CIA, the National Security Council, and the Office of Naval Intelligence (apparently Moon hasn't made inquiry of the SEC, the FDIC or the FHA).

There is a complete list of frequencies used in the past if you want to check the transmissions on your own, although it sounds desperately boring. Moon quotes dozens of anonymous "sources" who clam up and act suspicious when he asks certain questions; he also says he received a message that said:

    I have good friends in the CIA and they will brake [sic] your nose and fingers if you don't stop messing around with those numbers.

If Moon had donkey-sense, he'd bail out of this whole damn pursuit before they give him rhinorrhagia. There's a bit of contradiction between his aggressive persistence, and the start-of-chapter quotes, such as the haiku master Basho:

    When a thing is said
    The lips become very cold
           Like the autumn wind.

or a Latin phrase that might be the epigram for the whole pamphlet:

    ignotum per ignotius

("The explanation is more obscure than the thing being explained"). If we had our choice, it would be ignoti nulla cupido("We don't want what we can't see.")

--- R. R. Doister

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