Rediscovering classics with McPherson & Co.

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One of my great weaknesses as a reader is the neglected book. I’m also susceptible to “forgotten classic” or “rediscovered classic” – any acknowledgement that a writer who has suffered a stint in the wilderness, so to speak, is now in for a period of renewed attention. In the past this has brought me to works like Thomas Williams’s story collection Leah, New Hampshire, from Graywolf’s now-discontinued Rediscovery series and Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Tenants of Moonbloom, one of several worthy titles I’ve read from the New York Review Books Classics series. In the past, publishers have naturally been reluctant to undertake such a series. The commercial prospects aren’t exactly stunning, at least not in a good way. It’s still unclear whether we’ll see a shift in this attitude with the new economic realities of the ebook market (or whether we should expect to). Both of those questions belong to a different discussion. On this occasion, a couple of neglected titles are in the offing, from the back catalogue of McPherson & Company, the company’s Recovered Classics series: Valery Larbaud’s The Diaries of A.O. Barnabooth and Frederick Ted Castle’s Anticipation.

A.O. Barnabooth is the creation of the writer Valery Larbaud. He – Larbaud – was a great friend of James Joyce and had a hand in the first translation of passages from Ulysses. The Barnabooth diaries are an extension of Larbaud’s earlier project: poems by Barnabooth. Larbaud sent the poems into the world in Barnabooth’s name, with no indication of his own involvement. This was 1908. The complications of such a scheme were relatively few. In fact Larbaud didn’t reveal his involvement until the positive response to the book was apparent.

Barnabooth is the world’s richest man. He is also a visionary, a man so disaffected with the material world that he turns his back on possessions, sells his property and sets out on a tour of the world. He observes that this is his “first journey as a free man: since I have freed myself of my social duties; broken away from the caste in which destiny sought to imprison me; since I am no longer the slave of my racing stable and my hunters: since I no longer find myself at every turn hemmed in by the demon of real property.” He travels, choosing new things to sustain him in each destination and leaves them behind upon his departure. Acquisition, he has concluded, is a pleasure; ownership is a burden.

Yet for all his insight and sacrifice, he insists he is misunderstood. Aboard a train in Italy, early in his journey, he wonders, “was there ever a man more unjustly treated than I? Or a character more misunderstood than mine?” It’s hard not to read Barnabooth as satirical at times, or at least highly self-aware. But whether he is cynic, satirist or decadent, does one necessarily rule out the others? Witness his reaction to a news article about abject poverty:

Tell of the cries of joy I gave when I read in a paper of a whole family dying of hunger. Ah! That avenged me, me, a man humiliated a thousand times by the “hunger” which the poor are always parading before me. And how I used to rub my hands when one of my automobiles splashed some miserable-looking passer-by, or ran over a blind beggar’s dog! Good! Good! So much the better for me. Ah! my masters! You men of purity, who would do so many fine things and good things if you but had the leisure that I have, and are therefore all superior to the “stupid millionaire.”

He’s also clearly a provocateur, as when he observes that, “I have too many traveling things. I shall amuse myself by throwing them, after midnight, from my balcony into the Arno. Really there is nothing more hampering when one is traveling.” In his introduction, Robert Kelly situates Larbaud’s novel as “the none-too-serious bridge between the Wagnerian anal-obsessive masterpiece of Joyce and the crazed criminous transgressive jack-off commoditism of George Bataille. Do we need this span? We do. Why? The sacredness of frivolity.” There are frivolous moments, though to cast Barnabooth as mere frivolity is unsatisfying. The novel is diary, travelogue and to some extent, bildungsroman, though, as Kelly notes, this maturation leaves the impression that “he has, it seems, settled for silence.” I’m less convinced that’s a lamentable outcome, and I mean that as no knock on the novel. On some basic level, it’s evidence of restraint, and if it’s ultimately imposed by Larbaud, that’s appropriate, since Barnabooth’s gifts don’t stretch to restraint.

Frederick Ted Castle’s Anticipation is another maximalist artifact, though in a different way than Larbaud’s novel. His publisher Bruce McPherson has characterized the book as an “unholy union of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.” And while a book’s epigraph is seldom truly revealing, Castle’s here befits an unholy union: “I hereby dedicate this book to my erstwhile wife Janet Belle Craver Castle Winston.” It’s entirely possible that without McPherson, the book would never have seen the light of day. Castle finished writing the novel in 1966, but for various reasons opted not to publish it until 1984. Nearly thirty years after the book finally appeared, it still feels fresh and daring. Despite being named Anticipation, the novel begins in what seems midstream:

Charles.

So far, as even such a phrase implies, the course has been forward in time so that it is now later than when I began to write. And there is no indication that I have been writing continuously or in the present since I began, and there are some indications that I have stopped writing and started again much later.

Castle’s style is elliptical and discursive and generally committed to the proposition that these tendencies yield compelling results. The gamble isn’t always rewarding for the reader, but Castle hits the mark often enough to justify the choice. An early aside considers the correlation or lack thereof between hand size and penis size. There’s a full page photo (of neither hands nor penises), and several pages of photocopied handwriting. He includes letters to figures like the poet Ed Dorn. At one point, the narrator analyzes how he spends his days, concluding that, “You may suppose that when I’m with people, I do as they do on TV.” He follows this with an italicized note: “If I write this every day until my twenty-fifth birthday I may have something worth something, a cause for celebration.” Book Two ends in mid-sentence.

Understand that plot, for Castle, feels incidental. So much is turned inward, either to reflection or analysis that actual events come second. Yet Castle maintains a sort of momentum, eventually coming to an extended consideration of the artists of various stripes who have influenced him. He includes The Oxford Universal Dictionary of Historical Principles, “Bernardo Bertolucci for his lovely film about stupidity called Primo della Rivoluzione”, Joyce Carol Oates, “a childhood friend, for her novel With Shuddering Fall which demonstrates the masculine principle”, as well as dozens of others. He rounds this off with “page by page and line by line in the order of their appearance of the dead letters of my stars, my lights, my predecessors.” The list is extensive and wide-ranging and in some speculative way adds some insight on all that’s come before. Anticipation is a strange, sometimes unwieldy beast, but it’s also layered and often engaging. Its very existence is a tribute to the power of the small press.

– John McIntyre

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