All That Man Is (2017) by David Szalay

David Szalay’s All That Man Is, published in 2017 by Vintage, tells the stories of nine different men at varying stages of life, and explores the issues and psych of the 21st century man. The book was a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and the winner of the 2016 Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction. The fourth story of the novel cites the first three lines of the Inferno, as the story’s protagonist, a medieval scholar in crisis, drives into a pine forest.

“Pine forests on hillsides start to envelop them on the east side of the Main. And fog.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Ché la diritta via era smarrita

“Well, here it is. Dark pine forests, hemming the motorway. Shapes of fog throw themselves at the windscreen.” [. . .]    –David Szalay, All That Man Is (p. 146).

You can purchase Szalay’s book here.

Dwight Garner, “‘Echo’s Bones,’ A Beckett Short Story Rediscovered”

Beckett-Echos-Bones-Belacqua-Dante“When the British publisher Chatto & Windus agreed in 1933 to publish Samuel Beckett’s first book of fiction, a collection of 10 interrelated stories titled ‘More Pricks Than Kicks,’ it asked him for one final story, a culminating wallop.

“There was a problem. Beckett had killed off the book’s protagonist, a Dublin intellectual named Belacqua Shuah, in an earlier story. He had to be nonchalantly resurrected. A second problem arose. Beckett’s editor at Chatto & Windus, Charles Prentice, found the new story Beckett delivered, ‘Echo’s Bones,’ to resemble less a comely infant than a troubling heap of placenta and broken forceps.

“’It is a nightmare,’ Prentice wrote to Beckett. This was the start of one of the great rejection letters in literary history. ‘It gives me the jim-jams.’ He declared: ‘People will shudder and be puzzled and confused.’

It’s not you, Prentice continued. It’s me. ‘I am sitting on the ground, and ashes are on my head.’ [. . .]

“Its pleasures border on the painful; you will have to like the sound of breaking glass. You may wish to exclaim about ‘Echo’s Bones,’ as Belacqua does about his re-emergence on earth, ‘My soul begins to be idly goaded and racked, all the old pains and aches of me soul-junk return!’

Soul-junk isn’t a bad term for Beckett’s prose here. ‘Echo’s Bones,’ as Mr. Nixon’s annotations make clear, is a magpie’s assortment of references, allusions and quotations, with nods to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Mozart, biographies, folklore, movies, popular songs. Set amid all this are cosmic stage directions of the sort we later became familiar with in Beckett. Here’s one: ‘Doyle ate dirt.'”    –Dwight Garner, “A Castoff Joins a Master’s Canon: ‘Echo’s Bones,’ A Beckett Short Story Rediscovered,” New York Times

“Dante’s Tenth Circle” by Deborah Tennen

dantes-tenth-circle-timothy-mcsweeneys-internet-tendency

In Ravenna, Italy, archivists recently discovered a lost canto of Dante’s Inferno — what appears to be the tenth circle of Hell. The ninth circle was previously understood to be the lowest point of Hell reached by Dante and his guide Virgil before ascending on their journey toward Paradise. A portion of the 14th-century manuscript, translated into English prose, is reproduced below.
‘Virgil,’ I cried, ‘Those shades–burning, immersed in human excrement, trapped in icy waters. I thought I had witnessed the basest of all sinners. So who are these figures I now see? Do my eyes betray me, or are their heads fully absorbed in the derrières of others? And who are these individuals whose bottoms are swollen due to the immense size of the heads there immersed?’ [. . .]    –Deborah Tennen, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, October 25, 2012

Contributed by Steve Bartus (Bowdoin, ’07)

ABC’s Radio Poolside Story: “Star for Sale” (2009)

patrick-holland-star-for-sale-abc-radio-poolside-story-2009I followed the crowd down Fernberg Road onto Boys St where men in suits and shining shoes were selling stars. At first I did not know that was what they were doing. One suited man stood on a soapbox. The others sat behind a row of telescopes and their index fingers directed eyes about the firmament. I thought they were an astronomy club. But people were writing cheques; and a great celestial map clipped to an escritoire had pins and pen-marks all over it. Then I realised the man on the soapbox was conducting an auction.
I saw the weakest star of the Cross go for $100 000; someone whispered to the effect that he had bought the four major ones and was not greatly attached to this last only he needed it to complete the piece.
‘What would the Cross be without it?’ said the auctioneer to encourage the man through the bidding. The man intended the famed constellation for a light-feature in his garden. I felt a little sad for the ghosts of Cook and Magellan, lost upon dark waters below a bewildering sky.
In the background a ruckus was being subdued by the agency. Two men and an agent were fighting. It seemed the first star Dante saw when he emerged from the Inferno had been sold in a previous lot and there was a dispute over its authenticity. The agent was trying to reassure the man that though Florence was indeed in the Northern hemisphere, Dante had walked down through the Earth and emerged on the other side. The man’s companion was showing the agent Canto XXXIV and the line where Dante mysteriously turns back in space and for a while believes he is going deeper into the pit.
. . .so the night proceeded and all the stars were sold. One by one.
The final lot was a small fleck of a star, barely visible and only now toward three o’clock in winter. By this time there was little money or interest left in the auction. The auctioneer began the lot sheepishly at a thousand dollars. I put up my hand amidst the scattering, disinterested crowd and said ‘Ten’. The auctioneer laughed. He looked around the dispersing crowd and laughed again, but his confidence was gone.
‘It’s a star, you realize?’
‘I know,’ I said, stepping closer to the soapbox. ‘It’s worth much more, but ten is all I have.’
The auctioneer scowled:
‘I’d buy it myself if I had anywhere to put it.’
Reluctantly he re-started the auction. He called ‘Ten dollars’ three drawn out times and disgustedly brought the hammer down.
‘I expect you can arrange finance.’
I handed him the ten-dollar note.
‘Now, where do you want it delivered?’
‘I don’t. Leave it where it is.’
‘But it’s your star. You’ve bought it!’ He held a contract up to my face as proof.
‘I know. Only, leave it where it is. I like it there.’
I signed the contract and the auctioneer walked away shaking his head.
An energetic few had already set about taking down their new possessions. The Cross was gone to the rich man’s garden. The man who bought Dante’s star had it on the pavement, looking at it suspiciously where it burned as hot as a con. He was threatening to default on the deposit.
I always liked the smallest stars, anyway, I told myself: the ones that show the reality of the dark as well as the possibility of light. Perhaps tomorrow I would stay up late again and see my star rise alone in the east.”    –Patrick Holland, ABC Pool, 2009

Samuel Beckett, “More Pricks Than Kicks” (1934)

samuel-beckett-more-pricks-than-kicks-1934More Pricks Than Kicks is a collection of short prose by Samuel Beckett, first published in 1934. The stories chart the life of the book’s main character, Belacqua Shuah, from his days as a student to his accidental death. Beckett takes the name Belacqua from a figure in Dante’s Purgatorio, a Florentine lute-maker famed for his laziness. . . The opening story, ‘Dante and the Lobster,’ features Belacqua’s horrified reaction to the discovery that the lobster he has bought for dinner must be boiled alive. ‘It’s a quick death, God help us all’, Belacqua tells himself, before the narrator’s stern interjection to the contrary: ‘It is not.'”    —Wikipedia

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844)

nathanial-hawthorne-rappaccinis-daughter-1844The daughter of the protagonist (an Italian scientist) is thought to be modeled after Dante’s Beatrice.

Dezso Magyar directed a film based on the short story (1980).

Contributed by Kate Moon (Bowdoin, ’09)