Tim Rakel’s Subterranean Library

Anyone who’s heard Tim Rakel’s music knows that he is a highly literate songwriter. The versatile folk-rock musician and host of KDHX’s Mystery Train program, Rakel works a rich vein of labor history, modernist literature, and urban lore into his songs. (And like Dylan before him, he’s unafraid to pinch a few lines if they sound right to him.) An ex-library staffer himself, Rakel kindly offered up and reflected upon some reading recommendations in advance of The Union Electric’s upcoming gig for the Library’s Not So Quiet! concert series.

The Union Electric will perform on Thursday, November 20 at 7:00 pm in Central Library’s auditorium — a space that used to be occupied by the coal cellar, which in this case couldn’t be more appropriate.

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Henry Boernstein, Mysteries of St Louis 

Henry Boernstein’s writings and the title of this novel are the inspiration for two of The Union Electric’s songs “Mysteries of Saint Louis, Part One” and “…Part Two”. The first part was released as a single last year and it explores the state of the city and compares the view Boernstein had of it as an Austrian immigrant before the Civil War. Boernstein was a radical journalist who took part in the Union army’s victory at the arsenal. This novel contains a lot of description of a bygone Saint Louis.

Samuel Beckett, Watt

Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels such as Watt and another called Mercier and Camier are the inspiration behind an EP by The Union Electric called From Bad to Worstward. In Watt a manservant haplessly wanders between his tasks and thoughts. Waiting For Godot might be an easier introduction to the work of Beckett but this is actually a very funny and poignant work and worth the occasional tedium of some passages.

Lincoln Steffens, Shame of the Cities

An early song by The Union Electric called “You Have Been Served” was written because of this book which details the Saint Louis street car scandal of 1900. Joseph Folk was elected circuit attorney on a campaign promise to weed out corruption in city government. He ruined his political career but carried out his promise by exposing the people that had supported his nomination. Steffens’ book goes into the history of other cities as well but the Saint Louis portion is certainly worth looking into.

Vachel Lindsay, Selected Poems

Vachel Lindsay was a contemporary of Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters and is often considered an example of an early performance poet, traveling frequently through the country and reciting his verse for small audiences. A good deal of his verse is often musical when read aloud. He wrote about Illinois figures such as Lincoln and Altgeld as well as poems about religion, politics and nature. The song “Saint Francis Of Illinois” is a tribute by The Union Electric to this Springfield poet.

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary

Novelist Victor Serge wrote this account of his life while in exile after many years of imprisonment in both Russia and France for his participation in various political movements. He was, at various times, jailed for being an anarchist, a communist, and an anti-communist. A fascinating figure of early twentieth century European history and an eloquent writer as well. The Union Electric’s song “Out In The Street” is derived from the first chapter of this memoir.

William T. Vollmann, Imperial

This imposing volume documents a region of the California border. The Union Electric’s song “Tunnels” was inspired from the chapter about the Chinese immigrants who lived underground as a result of persecution and economic necessity. On this subject, Vollmann’s investigative journalism takes him into restaurants and basements searching for traces of this subterranean culture.

These titles and other selections by Tim Rakel will be on display in the Entertainment, Literature, and Biography Room at Central Library throughout November.

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The Empire Rolls on November 4th

A few years ago I had a gig screening manuscripts for a novel competition. My task was to review between 100 and 150 of these manuscripts and winnow them down to one or two finalists that I could then pass on to the final judge. It was a pleasure to be asked–I felt sure I would pull an unrecognized gem out of the slush. But I hadn’t really known what I was in for. Fifty-pound UPS boxes began landing on my porch. I cracked the boxes open, pulled out three or four manuscripts at a time. Many of them were just flat-out boring. Some were shot through with gaps of character and plot logic even in their first chapters. Others were not-in-a-good-way strange: one was called Whimsy Ocean, and the pale towers of stacked manuscripts began to resemble just that (an ocean I wasn’t too eager to wade into). There were qualities I admired about many of them but at the same time, none had spoken with the resonance and and sense of inevitability that I’d been looking for.

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I picked another manuscript off the pile, reading eyes strained, ring of lukewarm coffee at the bottom of the mug. And read these words:

I still patrol Karst Park, days, a gun on my belt and a diet soda in my cup holder. But on Saturday nights I work the rink calling roller derby, trying to match my crackling new radio voice to the beat of the bout. I do a creditable job of it, too, for the sake of these hometown girls who may never reach stardom in any wider arena, if not for the benefit of my mom, who shows up regularly with her cane and earpiece to watch her favorites get knocked into the wall. I do it for my sister Sharee who died in the seventies and who cruised this same track backwards under the disco ball, insisting on taking the male role in the couples skate, her narrow hips swerving like a rudder under some boy’s sweaty class ring. When I think of her now, the long red hair parted in the back with her own motion and streaming forward into her face, I wonder if it was courage or fear that made Sharee proceed this way, backward into her destiny. I wonder if I am taking the same route, childless and divorced, veering into the midpoint of my forties, still rushing backward, raising my own wind. I look down at the rink and nod at the girls in their camouflage team shirts, their bright hard helmets, and their skimpy skirts. The youngest is eighteen, the oldest thirty-seven, and they shimmer with sex and suppressed aggression. They are students and mothers, nurses and teachers, war vets and veterinarian’s assistants, policewomen, waitresses, insurance claims adjusters, and clerks. They have spent the week cleaning up blood, submitting data, and disposing of shit, all to the music of canned motivation and various forms of bad news. I take a long sip of clear soda and prepare for the onslaught.

Though I didn’t know it at the time–the submissions were anonymous–this was the first paragraph of a novel by Trudy Lewis, a professor at the University of Missouri. All I knew was that I was instantly compelled by the voice–the intelligence and poise and wryness of it, the notes of sorrow underneath. That image of Sharee skating “backwards into her destiny” brought that Nabokovian chill at the base of the spine, and I felt the hair on my arms standing up. Here was something. I was sitting up in my chair, suddenly compelled by the sorcery of the right words in the right place on the page. I read The Empire Rolls straight through, with a deep sympathy for its protagonist, Sally LaChance, as she negotiates her way through midlife in a Midwestern town. It was a book that felt local and specific but never small, asking the big questions about ethics and community, our role in the world, the continuing encroachment of private interest onto the commons–while anchored in Sally’s laid-back but cutting, quietly moving voice.

A few years later, it’s a huge pleasure to see Trudy’s book being published by Moon City Press in their Missouri Authors series, and we’re thrilled to be able to host her here at Central Library for an election-night celebration of all that’s good in America, Roller Derby Night. We’ll have Girl Fawkes, Cruella Belle-Ville, Danisaurus Rex, and Party Foul of the Arch Rival Roller Girls on hand to show video clips of their team in action and talk about the culture of roller derby. Trudy will read from and sign copies of her novel, courtesy of Left Bank Books. Please join us to celebrate the publication of this remarkable work of fiction on November 4th–it’s going to be a lot of fun and you’ll get to meet one of the best (and coolest) writers in the state.

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Dostoevsky’s NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is only a few short weeks away, and as thousands of writers prepare for thirty days of literary insanity, it’s fascinating to learn — via this post from Tom Nissley at The Millions – that my favorite Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky faced his own NaNoWriMo challenge in the autumn of 1866. More detail on this can be found in volume three of Joseph Frank’s epic five-volume Dostoevsky biography, The Miraculous Years: 1865-1871.

A compulsive gambler whose finances were always somewhat precarious, Dostoevsky found himself deeply in debt, and in order to pay off his creditors, signed an extortive contract with the shady publisher Feodor Timofeevic Stellovsky. The contract stipulated that if Dostoevsky failed to deliver a novel to Stellovsky by November 1, the publisher would receive rights to all of Dostoevsky’s future work and would not have to pay any royalties for nine years. Consumed at the same time with the writing of Crime and Punishment, which he’d been working on at the summer resort of Lublino near Moscow, Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg in October having made little progress on the project he owed, The Gambler. In a letter to his friend Milyukov, Dostoevsky wrote: “Stellovsky upsets me to the point of torture, and I even see him in my dreams.”

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When his friend came to visit him, Dostoevsky was pacing in terrible agitation. Frank describes the scene:

Just a month was left to satisfy his part of the bargain and nothing had yet been written; even if he managed to write a first draft, it would be almost physically impossible to transcribe and correct it in time to meet the deadline. Milyukov, horrified at what might occur, suggested that a group of Dostoevsky’s friends take the plan already prepared and each write a section; this collective effort could then be submitted and published under Dostoevsky’s signature. “No!” Dostoevsky answered firmly. “I will never sign my name to other people’s work.” Milyukov then advised him to find a stenographer and dictate the novel; this would speed up the process of composition considerably and, in particular, shorten the amount of time necessary for the physical preparation of the manuscript. Never having dictated any of his work before, Dostoevsky was quite reluctant and doubted whether he could create in this fashion; but he finally agreed to make the attempt as perhaps the one possible solution to his dilemma.

His friend then appealed to a professor of stenography–courses in this subject were being offered to Russian women for the first time. The professor sent one of his best students for the job: Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Though Dostoevsky was at first very uncomfortable with the new arrangement, compulsively offering Anna cigarettes that she declined, the two warmed to each other and began to have intimate conversations after their dictation sessions. Anna was twenty-five years his junior, but she had great respect for his work and wrote that “I would miss him when I was at home and lived only in expectation of the next day’s meeting with him.” Writers of historical romance, take note! You may have a subject for your novel this year.

Thanks to Anna’s help, the manuscript was on track to be completed before the November 1 deadline. However, the dastardly publisher Stellovsky was not yet ready to concede those future royalties. Frank’s account continues:

Stellovsky would stop at nothing to prevent Dostoevsky from meeting the terms of the contract, and Dostoevsky “began to be afraid that Stellovsky would contrive some kind of trick … would find a pretext for refusing to accept the manuscript.” The resourceful Anna consulted a lawyer about the matter, who advised registering the manuscript with a notary or with the police officer of the district in which Stellovsky lived.

Indeed, when Dostoevsky tried to deliver the corrected manuscript on November 1, the publisher was nowhere to be found, having “gone out of town,” and his assistant claimed not to have the authority to accept the submission. (Publishers! They never change, am I right? Just kidding, publishers.) With two hours to spare, the writer brought the manuscript to the police officer of the district where Stellovsky lived and obtained a receipt, thus narrowly avoiding the awful consequences the contract had set up for him.

The novella The Gambler drew on themes that Dostoevsky knew well, not only from his hours at the roulette table. One could argue that we also gamble at the writing desk. In the work that speaks to us, the stakes are high, something is risked. The process can develop and release its own compulsive energies. That is what NaNoWriMo is about to me: throwing it all down on a creative bet that might, just might, pay off. A century and a half later, The Gambler is being adapted into a feature film — not bad longevity for a month’s work.

On the verge of financial and creative disaster in 1866, Dostoevsky found not only an escape from the trap his publisher had set for him — he found a connection with a bright young stenographer who would soon become his wife, who would inspire and support* him through the rest of his days. So if you aren’t sure if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo this year … you’ll never know what might happen to you, unless you play.

November’s NaNoWriMo events at Central Library will include guest speakers, writing prizes, and a late-night writing marathon on November 15. Check out the full PDF here:

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* – this also included pawning her jewelry and fur coat to pay his gambling debts. Dostoevsky notoriously pawned his own wedding ring and coat to pay off roulette losses — he quit gambling in 1871.

Quotes from Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871. Princeton University Press, 1995.

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Ann Leckie at Central Library

In case you’ve been hiding out in a corner of the galaxy with really bad wireless, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has had an incredible run in 2014. Winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards–the first SF novel in history to do this–the novel is a compelling work of world-building and emotional restraint, following the artificial intelligence of a starship (reduced to a single shoddy human body) as she tends to some long-unfinished business with the leader of the Radch empire. Gripping on the level of sheer storytelling, the novel also probes questions of gender, identity, and power–a master class of philosophical complexity and narrative technique.

The second installment of the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword, will be published in October, so this is the perfect time to get started.

In short, we feel very proud of our fellow St. Louisan Ann Leckie for her remarkable achievements, and very fortunate to have her at Central Library in the near future.

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(Nota bene: When you come to this event on Monday, Sept 15 — because you’re coming, right? — you can also purchase a copy of Leckie’s book from Left Bank Books, a store that would actually like to sell you a copy of Leckie’s book, unlike a Certain Nameless Internet Giant, which is in a fight with Hachette, the company that owns Leckie’s publisher Orbit. Going to that Nameless website today, I see that Ancillary Justice is available for a whopping discount of 6% and that the Giant will begrudgingly ship it out to you in 1-3 weeks. Come on, Nameless Internet Giant! Yeah, Scribbler advises you to go with Left Bank on this one.)

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The Public Library, by Isaac Babel (1916)

At times, working in a glorious old building like this, one can feel haunted by it. There are time warps in the library, and a trip to the stacks can stir up the presence of ghosts. Isaac Babel’s 1916 story “The Public Library” reminds us that, however much the library changes, the strange old spirits live on, their quirks present in the Central Library employees and regular patrons almost a century later. Photographs courtesy of the Digital St. Louis project, Special Collections, St. Louis Public Library.

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One feels right away that this is the kingdom of books. People working at the library commune with books, with the life reflected in them, and so become almost reflections of real-life human beings.

Even the cloakroom attendants–not brown-haired, not blond, but something in between–are mysteriously quiet, filled with contemplative composure.

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In the reading room are the more elevated staff members, the librarians. Some, the “conspicuous ones,” possess some starkly pronounced physical defect. One has twisted fingers, another has a head that lolled to the side and stayed there. They are badly dressed, and emaciated in the extreme. They look as if they are fanatically possessed by an idea unknown to the world.

Gogol would have described them well!

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The “inconspicuous” librarians show the beginnings of bald patches, wear clean gray suits, have a certain candor in their eyes, and a painful slowness in their movements. They are forever chewing something, moving their jaws, even though they have nothing in their mouths. They talk in a practiced whisper. In short, they have been ruined by books, by being forbidden from enjoying a throaty yawn.

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Now that our country is at war, the public has changed. There are fewer students. There are very few students. Once in a blue moon you might see a student painlessly perishing in a corner. He’s a “white-ticketer,” exempt from the service. He wears a pince-nez and has a delicate limp. But then there is also the student on state scholarship. This student is pudgy, with a drooping mustache, tired of life, a man prone to contemplation: he reads a bit, thinks about something a bit, studies the patterns on the lampshades, and nods off over a book. He has to finish his studies, join the army, but–why hurry? Everything in good time.

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Near the librarians’ desk sits a large, broad-chested woman in a gray blouse reading with rapturous interest. She is one of those people who suddenly speaks with unexpected loudness in the library, candidly and ecstatically overwhelmed by a passage in a book, and who, filled with delight, begins discussing it with her neighbors. She is reading because she is trying to find out how to make soap at home. She is about forty-five years old. Is she sane? Quite a few people have asked themselves that.

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There is one more typical library habitue’: the thin little colonel in a loose jacket, wide pants, and extremely well-polished boots. He has tiny feet. His whiskers are the color of cigar ash. He smears them with a wax that gives them a whole spectrum of dark gray shades. In his day he was so devoid of talent that he didn’t manage to work his way up to the rank of colonel so that he could retire a major general. Since his retirement he ceaselessly pesters the gardener, the maid, and his grandson. At the age of seventy-three he has taken it into his head to write a history of his regiment.

He writes. He is surrounded by piles of books. He is the librarians’ favorite. He greets them with exquisite civility. He no longer gets on his family’s nerves. The maid gladly polishes his boots to a maximal shine.

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Many more people of every kind come to the public library. More than one could describe. There is also the tattered reader who does nothing but write a luxuriant monograph on ballet. His face: a tragic edition of Hauptmann’s. His body: insignificant.

There are, of course, also bureaucrats riffling through piles of The Russian Invalid and the Government Herald. There are the young provincials, ablaze as they read.

It is evening. The reading room grows dark. The immobile figures sitting at the tables are a mix of fatigue, thirst for knowledge, ambition.

Outside the wide windows soft snow is drifting. Nearby, on the Nevsky Prospekt, life is blossoming. Far away, in the Carpathian Mountains, blood is flowing.

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C’est la vie.

from The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, translated by Peter Constantine. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

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Props to the Young Scribblers of St. Louis

This year, for the first time, St. Louis Public Library offered the My StL Challenge, giving junior-high and high-school students the chance to reflect on a person, place, or institution that defines St. Louis for them. We got a lot of great entries in both the written and audiovisual categories, and it was my privilege to serve on the jury that selected the winners. We invited them down to Central Library to present their work at a ceremony in the Carnegie Room earlier this month.

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The winners included an essay on cleaning the streets of north city, an immersive soundscape created in SLPL’s new recording studio, and an ingenious spoken-word recording that used the letters of ST LOUIS to spell out the lines of a chorus. (We at Scribbler are acrostic fans.) Many of the winning entries are posted at the SLPL teens blog.

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We are all extremely proud of the young writers who stepped up to enter the challenge, and we look forward to offering similar opportunities in the future. Also a big shout-out to STL Style House, who provided T-shirts for all of our winners. These kids have talent and style to spare.

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Thomas Bernhard: Everybody’s Favorite Austrian Misanthrope

I have replaced the screen saver on my work computer with a picture of Thomas Bernhard. He will watch my desk while I am gone. He stares, remorseless, with a hint of humor and contempt, directly at me in my ergonomic chair. How long will I be able to withstand the penetrating gaze of Bernhard? Actually, I am leaving the library for a few weeks to teach at Washington University’s Summer Writing Institute, so this picture of Bernhard will be waiting, like a coiled spring inside my computer, should one of my colleagues log onto my computer by mistake, and it will be that colleague, rather than I, who will have to face the amused, slightly contemptuous, so-called steely gaze of Bernhard.

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Fun Facts about Bernhard:

– He suffered from incurable tuberculosis from a young age and spent long periods of his life in santoriums and rehabilitation centers.

– He once commented, “Everything is laughable, when one thinks of death,” after receiving a minor Austrian state literature prize in 1968.

– While best known for his novels, also a playwright. Cf. his play Eve of Retirement, in which a former Nazi officer dresses up in his S.S. regalia and forces his sisters to join him in a pageant celebrating Himmler’s birthday, which was performed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the 1980s when I was a child (man, I would love to know how that play went over!)

–  Referred to Austria as “a brutal and stupid nation … a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe.” His will stipulated that his works could not be published in Austria after his death.

Common Features of Bernhard Novel:

1. Obsessive, ranting narrator who hates Austria and suffers from lung disease.

2.  Meditations on failure.

3.  Narrator is often consumed by an endless and futile project (i.e. dissertation on Mendelssohn, labyrinthine soundscape for experimental music, architecturally strange compound built for sister in the woods)

4.  Repetitive musical style, the same phrases used again and again, often with the modifier “so-called” (Bernhard’s style is very skeptical toward language itself)

5.  Actually quite funny if your sense of humor tends toward the dark and dyspeptic.

Notable Works:

Novels: Gargoyles (1967), The Lime Works (1970), Correction (1975), The Loser (1983)

Memoirs: Gathering Evidence (1985), My Prizes (2010) all published by Knopf/Random House

A brief excerpt from Thomas Bernhard’s novel, Old Masters: A Comedy:

The perfect not only threatens us ceaselessly with our ruin, it also ruins everything that is hanging on these walls under the label masterpiece. I proceed from the assumption that there is no such thing as perfect or the whole, and each time I have made a fragment of one of the so-called perfect works of art hanging here on the walls by searching for a massive mistake in and about that work of art, for the crucial point of failure by the artist who made that work of art, searching for it until I found it, I have got one step further. In every one of these paintings, these so-called masterpieces, I have found and uncovered a massive mistake, the failure of its creator. For over thirty years this, as you might think, infamous calculation has come out right. Not one of these world-famous masterpieces, no matter by whom, is in fact whole or perfect. That reassures me. It makes me basically happy. Only when, time and again, we have discovered that there is no such thing as the whole or the perfect are we able to live on. We cannot endure the whole or the perfect. We have to travel to Rome to discover that Saint Peter’s is a tasteless concoction, that Bernini’s altar is an architectural nonsense. We have to see the Pope face to face and personally discover that all in all he is just as helpless and grotesque a person as anyone else in order to bear it. We have to listen to Bach and hear how he fails, listen to Beethoven and hear how he fails, even listen to Mozart and hear how he fails. And we have to deal in the same way with the so-called great philosophers, even if they are our favorite spiritual artists, he said. After all, we do not love Pascal because he is so perfect but because he is fundamentally so helpless, just as we love Montaigne for his helplessness in lifelong searching and failing to find, and Voltaire for his helplessness. We only love philosophy and the humanities generally because they are absolutely helpless. We truly love only those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.

Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy

Translated by Ewald Osers

via A Piece of Monologue (Modern & Contemporary Art & Expression)

Brief Excerpt from Bernhard Interview:

Q: A publisher once…

A: What is that, a publisher? I could put the question to you: What is a publisher (Verleger)? A bedside rug (Bettvorleger), there’s no doubt what that is. But a publisher, without the bed, that’s harder to answer. Someone who misplaces (verlegen) things, a muddled person, who misplaces things and can’t find them anymore. That’s the definition of a publisher, someone who misplaces things. A publisher, he misplaces things and manuscripts which he accepts and then he can’t find them anymore. Either because he no longer likes them or because he’s muddled, either way they’re gone. Misplaced. For all eternity. All the publishers I know are like that. None of them is so great as not to be the kind who misplaces things. Who publishes something and then it’s either ruined or impossible to find.

Full interview here.

 

 

 

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