This Week in Books: “Picador never bid for any of Saddam Hussein’s novels.” 

“Poe helped produce a textbook on conchology that sold more copies during his life than any other volume bearing his name.”

Dear Reader,

In his review of John Tresch’s new biography of Poe-the-scientist, Daniel Engber describes Poe’s story “The Sphinx.”

“The Sphinx” …is set “during the dread reign of the Cholera in New York” in 1832, and the narrator has just bolted to a rustic cottage in the Hudson Valley. That summer, Manhattan was indeed abandoned to a morbid silence, according to Charles E. Rosenberg’s history The Cholera Years. Church bells went unrung, pedestrians disappeared, and tufts of grass sprouted from the streets. “By the end of the first week in July, almost everyone who could afford to had left the city,” Rosenberg writes.

Poe’s narrator is one of these well-heeled refugees, holed up for several weeks and hosted by a relative. The pair are pleasantly occupied inside and outdoors, but horrid news keeps wafting into their retreat: “The very air from the South seemed to us redolent with death,” the narrator says. “That palsying thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream of anything else.”  

Then, one day, he is seated by the window, a book in his hand, musing on the epidemic’s toll as he gazes out across the Hudson River. On the far, denuded bank he sees something terrible: a “living monster of hideous conformation,” darting toward the trees. It’s the size of a great ship, he says, with a proboscis sprouting from a mass of shaggy hair and two giant, gleaming tusks below; it has two pairs of wings, each nearly 100 yards in length and clothed in metal scales. When the monster opens its jaws and shrieks across the valley, the narrator collapses in a faint.

The monster on the Hudson turns out to be a moth clinging to a drape, seen up close, mere inches away from the narrator’s eyeball. This resolution, Engber points out, purposefully resolves nothing, since its illogicality opens up new avenues of horror. (How could he have not realized the horror was so close, so small and so close, all along? Clouding his vision?) This is Poe’s science, the kind that can be felt as a mystical force; the cosmic horror, the horror that is of the universe, written in its laws, ancient and abiding.

I’ve been reading Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, a series of horror stories that were published separately but given a frame story when they were first collected in one volume: they are, purportedly, the papers of the late Dr. Martin Hesselius, medical investigator of supernatural ailments. Thus, the reason the stories are told from the perspective of different narrators is because, according to this ingenious frame, they were firsthand accounts collected by the doctor, to which he has appended notes. There is a frame around the frame: Hesselius has died, and his executor is narrating to us the state in which he has discovered the papers. There are also frames within the frames: the narrators themselves have collected their stories from various local personages who witnessed different aspects of the “case,” appearing themselves infrequently and unexpectedly within the story as startled witnesses to strange occurrences of which they only understand the greater significance later on, when being filled in by gossipy parsons or guilty gentlemen. There are even intermediary figures — whatever scholar happened to pass Dr. Hesselius the manuscript is usually not the same one who wrote it. “In the early modern period, scholars were treasure-seekers,” writes Erin Maglaque in her review of Anthony Grafton’s history of the book in early modern Europe. “Classical texts survived only in manuscript copies… So Renaissance humanists went manuscript hunting in the monasteries of Europe, searching out ancient texts... that had been thought lost. They begged, borrowed and copied manuscripts…” But not much has changed. Among dedicated book people there often flows an exchange in hard-to-find texts: PDFs of famous chapters of otherwise too-expensive volumes; rare editions of long out of print horror novels; monographs from the 60s; catalogs from the 90s; for awhile there, The Last Samurai; books by dictators; memoirs of serial killers... Well. Maybe the latter isn’t so common? But it came to mind because I once asked a rare book dealer “what’s the most expensive thing you’ve got,” because I’m crass, but he misheard me. Thinking I’d asked “what’s the most offensive thing you’ve got,” which is even more crass than I actually am, he ducked into his archives and emerged with a binder. As he handed it to me, he informed me it contained the pages of one of just a few printed copies of the memoir of an infamous serial killer of children. The collector kept it under lock and key like Annabelle the Demon Doll.

Dr. Hesselius is a primary care specialist of the supernatural. He diagnoses and treats. But strangely, his executor seems to have only collected for the public stories of failure: the failure to treat, the failure to save. Hesselius, in his appendages, explains that, in these cases, all would have been well, if he had been there. But without the smug light of science, the sufferers sink into the shadows. Says one benighted soul: “As food is taken in softly at the lips, and then brought under the teeth, as the tip of the little finger caught in a mill crank will draw in the hand, and the arm, and the whole body, so the miserable mortal who has been once caught firmly by the end of the finest fibre of his nerve, is drawn in and in, by the enormous machinery of hell, until he is as I am.” Like an inversion of Sherlock Holmes or Arsène Lupin, Martin Hesselius never gets his man or his jewel. (Read Matthew Dessem on Arsène Lupin vs Sherlock Holmes.) Martin Hesselius asks us to trust his ministrations, but only gives us proof of the disease, not the cure. 

“Nil sapientiæ odiosius acumine nimio,” reads the epigraph, attributed to Seneca but actually from Petrarch, at the beginning of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a story about a stolen text: “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cunning.” At the beginning of the tale, the narrator and his friend C. Auguste Dupin — the first literary detective, who predates the first known appearance in print of the word “detective” by a year — are sitting together in smoke and silence in a dark room full of books: “I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, or book-closet, au troisième, No. 33, Rue Dunôt, Faubourg St. Germain,” when they are burst in upon by “Monsieur G——, the Prefect of the Parisian police.”

We had been sitting in the dark, and Dupin now arose for the purpose of lighting a lamp, but sat down again, without doing so, upon G.’s saying that he had called to consult us, or rather to ask the opinion of my friend, about some official business which had occasioned a great deal of trouble.  

“If it is any point requiring reflection,” observed Dupin, as he forebore to enkindle the wick, “we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark.”


1. “Two Poems” by Tayi Tibble, Granta

Two poems from Tayi Tibble’s collection Rangikura.

blunt and waka blonde / she cut a little too deep / and nearly comatose and rolling / I lolled and lolled and lolled and nearly / bled out on the street

2. “Inland” by Gerald Murnane, The White Review

An essay excerpted from Gerald Murnane’s forthcoming collection Last Letter to a Reader, which comprises sixteen essays, one on each of his sixteen published books. This one is about his novel Inland

I wanted from an early age to be a poet, but this was not because I considered poetry superior to fiction. I read as much fiction as poetry and was equally affected by both, but my ignorant teachers and the ignorant authors of my textbooks had led me to suppose that an author of fiction is gifted with some sort of insight into human nature, and – more preposterous still – that the purpose of fiction is to create believable characters. I was in my twenties before I learned that I was admirably qualified to write fiction because I knew next to nothing about human nature and was incapable of creating any sort of characters, and I was in my forties before I learned that a certain sort of author may be able to write a work of fiction the meaning of which he himself cannot explicate.

3. “What Does It Take to Create a World?” by Gerry Canavan, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Gerry Canavan reviews Lynell George’s A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler

Butler was obsessed with self-help books; she copied their instructions out by hand, word for word, trying to internalize the dream of maximum self-control and self-possession they seemed to promise her. The books’ lessons led to a practice of almost-daily self-affirmation… decades of instructions to herself that have frequently gone viral since the archive opened in 2013:  

I shall become a bestselling writer. […] This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months (at least two). Each of my novels does this. So be it! See to it!  

And later, in a different pen, reaffirming the affirmation: “I will find the way to do this. So be it! See to it!”

4. “Edgar Allan Poe’s Other Obsession” by Daniel Engber, The Atlantic

Daniel Engber reviews John Tresch’s The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science.

Poe… had a scientific cast of mind: In 1830, at the age of 21, he was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point—a scientific school, modeled on the École Polytechnique, in France, and meant to be a training ground for top-flight engineers. Poe showed promise, too. Before dropping out, he placed 17th in math out of 87 cadets. A few years later, he helped produce a textbook on conchology that sold more copies during his life than any other volume bearing his name. Among its selling points were several hundred color illustrations of seashells…

5. “Gods of Small Things” by Victoria Lee, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Victoria Lee reviews two books about the history of fermentation: Hyunhee Park’s Soju: A Global History and Jamie Lorimer’s The Probiotic Planet: Using Life to Manage Life.

Since 1981, a “microbe mound” (kinzuka) has stood at the Manshuin temple in Kyoto to commemorate the souls of the microbes that have died for the advancement of human science and technology.

6. “How will humans live through ecological collapse?” by Andru Okun, High Country News

Andru Okun reviews Lisa Wells’s Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World.

Prolonged thinking about the apocalypse can inspire hefty, extensively researched books on how the crisis will affect our species and others… It can also plunge a writer into fatalism. But Wells merely edges up to the cliff, using her eco-anxiety and grief as a starting point… [T]here are no survival bunkers or billionaire isolationists in this book. Instead, Believers’ eight chapters introduce us to “relatively ordinary people” with a shared belief “that their inherited way of life was destructive”… 

7. “We're All Postmodern Neo-Marxists Now” by John Ganz, Unpopular Front

John Ganz writes about the burgeoning “critical race theory” scare, which he argues more or less boils down to “old fashioned red-baiting.”

…As Landon Storrs describes in her terrific book The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left, the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism were largely about purging people with progressive views on race and gender from the federal bureaucracy. Part of the way this worked was through what one defense attorney in a loyalty hearing called “the tyranny of labels,” the effort to paint every New Deal progressive as a secret Red…

8. “The Demand of Freedom” by Kellie Carter Jackson, The Nation

Kellie Carter Jackson reviews Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction.

During the early years of the American republic, anti-Black laws spread in the North and came to shape the country’s politics and culture… Masur illustrates how… [w]ho gets to move and who must stay, who has access to land or titles and who is refused, are all intricately tied to race…. Questions like “Who are you?,” “Who do you belong to?,” “Where are you going?,” and “What are you doing here?” were all intended to remind Black people that they were under constant surveillance.

9. “Kӓsebier Takes Berlin – Gabriele Tergit” by Emily Hershman, Full Stop

Emily Hershman reviews Gabriele Tergit’s novel Kӓsebier Takes Berlin, translated by Sophie Duvernoy.

…[A] brief write-up in a local newspaper transforms Georg Kӓsebier into the talk of the town…  Rather than its earnest and naïve protagonist (whose name translates literally as Cheese-Beer), the novel pivots the spotlight to the chaotic cast of characters fueling his notoriety, including overworked reporters, well-heeled socialites, celebrated writers, and cynical entrepreneurs. In their manipulative hands, Kӓsebier becomes a veritable industry, spawning record deals, movies, children’s books and toys, and land development projects… 

10. “Art, Branding, and the Illusion of Authenticity” by Kate Silzer, Hyperallergic

Kate Silzer reviews Emily Segal’s novel Mercury Retrograde.

…The story follows the narrator, also named Emily Segal, as she reflects on her post-grad years working at a branding agency… “Soon I was cracked out on a new observation,” she writes, “in brand strategy presentations it was totally acceptable to generalize, globalize, lob assumptions as truth, casually plagiarize, misconstrue sociological data, and worse, as long as it was persuasive and narratively coherent.” Emily characteristically sees this as fodder for her art: “It was the feeling I’d always yearned for when I’d tried to write fiction,” she remarks…

11. “The Curious Case of ‘Herlock Sholmès’” by Matthew Dessem, Slate

On the occasion of the release of the second season of Lupin, Matthew Dessem writes about the time Maurice LeBlanc, creator of the ultimate gentleman thief, once staged a crossover event with the world’s greatest detective — without asking permission of course! (As Dessem writes, Lupin “steals… Holmes’ watch, just to prove he can.”)

…In the story, a man who believes Arsène Lupin is planning to rob him asks Holmes to investigate. Holmes meets Lupin by chance and successfully identifies him but doesn’t arrest him, because, as he explains, “when I encounter an adversary like Arsène Lupin, I do not take advantage of chance opportunities, I create them.”

12. “Ten Small Raisins” by Erin Maglaque, The London Review of Books

Erin Maglaque reviews Anthony Grafton’s Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe.

…Scholars used specially designed equipment to enable them to spend long hours in the study: rotating bookwheels for unwieldy volumes, spinning chairs for greater ease in consulting multiple texts, grids of hooks for storing thousands of slips of notepaper. They devised health regimes to sustain themselves in the lonely hours of the night. Erasmus advised eating only ten small raisins while working: ‘they exude moistures slowly, and stimulate brain and memory.’ Marsilio Ficino wrote that the scholar’s body was governed by Saturn and as a result suffered from an excess of black bile, which brought on a ‘divine madness’: this might lead to work of creative genius, or plunge the scholar into darkest melancholy. To ward off melancholia, he advised that scholars rise before dawn and meditate while combing their hair forty times front to back.

13. “Where Secrets Lay” by Apoorva Tadepalli, Soft Punk

In an essay about listening to recordings of twentieth century writers, Apoorva Tadepalli also mentions Walter Benjamin, whose radio programs (and thus the sound of his voice) have all been lost, though some of the transcripts have been saved.

In one of Benjamin’s plays for children, the announcer is about to begin the Radio Youth Hour and is rifling through a book of fairy tales to decide which ones to read, when the characters of Wilhelm Hauff’s “The Cold Heart” come barging into the station, wishing to be a part of the program…

“Whoever wishes to enter Voice Land must be very modest,” the announcer says. “He must surrender all finery and relinquish all external beauty, so that nothing is left but his voice.”

14. “A Chaos That Can Cry” by Kathleen Rooney, Poetry

Kathleen Rooney writes about the poet Susana Thénon, whose final volume, Ova Completa, originally published in 1987, was recently translated by Rebekah Smith.

…The details of her personal life remain somewhat mysterious… While writing this essay, I communicated with Negroni, Smith, and Thénon’s first translator, Renata Treitel, now 90 and living in Tulsa, and they all expressed the opinion that Thénon was something of a recluse. Even Treitel, when pressed about the time she spent working closely and in person with Thénon on the poet’s penultimate collection, distancias (1984), could only say, “She had a good presence. She was more tall than short. She was opinionated”... 

15. “Re-Covered: Cleo Overstreet’s ‘The Boar Hog Woman’” by Lucy Scholes, The Paris Review

Lucy Scholes writes about Cleo Overstreet for her Re-Covered series, stating that “of all the books and authors I’ve written about thus far in this column, The Boar Hog Woman and Cleo Overstreet have to be those about which and whom I’ve uncovered the least information.”

Cleo Overstreet’s debut novel, The Boar Hog Woman… was published in 1972, when its author was fifty-seven years old... David Henderson’s celebratory obituary for Overstreet, which ran in the Berkeley Barb on the occasion of her death, only three years later, in the summer of 1975, opens with a description of the deceased as “a grandmother and a novelist.” …Henderson mentions her “unpublished novels,” referring to the most recent by name: Hurricane, the manuscript of which Overstreet’s close friend Ishmael Reed was apparently asked to edit for posthumous publication by Random House. Yet as far as I can see, this never actually happened… 

16. “My Father’s Lover Was Never the Stepdad I Wanted Him to Be” by Isabel Waidner, Granta

An excerpt from Isabel Waidner’s Sterling Karat Gold, which is narrated as an address to the footballer Justin Fashanu, who died by suicide in 1998.

…[T]he spaceship piñata… came to symbolise a moment that was so incongruous and out of context with whatever appeared to be going on superficially, it offered a glimpse of a hidden reality, was very instructive, it taught us to trust the feeling we had that we were non-consensual participants in a reality put together by politicians, despots, more or less openly authoritarian leaders. Imagine living in a novel by Saddam Hussein. Did you know the former Iraqi president wrote, not just history, but at least four novels, including The Fortified Tower (2001), a 700+ page allegorical work about the delayed wedding of an Iraqi hero to a Kurdish girl… and Begone, Demons (2006), describing an Arab army defeating a Zionist–Christian enemy by invading their territory and destroying a set of twin towers? Not being funny, Justin, but Picador never bid for any of Saddam Hussein’s novels... As inhabitants, not of The Fortified Tower or Begone, Demons, but of the United Kingdom, where political leaders mightn’t be quite as upfront about a) authorship, and b) the fact that capitalism is a system designed to benefit some at the expense of others, we depend on incongruities and irregularities in the official narrative, so-called ‘spaceship moments’, to confirm what we already know, namely that we’re alive in a substandard fiction that doesn’t add up…

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