Stocking imaginary shelves: ‘A book that should be found in your shop’

Cesar Aira craves “music I don’t understand, the strangest, most absurd, most avant garde…”

By Vernon Peterson

Editor’s Note: My friend Vernon Peterson loves books and bookstores. Wherever he travels, he seeks them out. He especially likes small bookstores that drill down on particular topics. He also loves art, and so books about art afford him two major pleasures at once. Like a banana split, maybe.

Anyway, he recently inserted himself in a conversation at a book store devoted to art books. This one wanted to offer “a selection of literature reflecting a singular emphasis on art and the artist’s sensibility,” and they seemed to be in the mood for suggestions. A list.

Vernon also loves lists. This is an edited version of the letter he sent the bookstore, and his un-edited list.

Your shop is a unique perfect place. I’m reminded of the movie “Videodrome,” where a character questions a particularly obsessed film auteur seeking the perfect film, something to the effect, “If you were going to make a movie, would it be perhaps ‘Videodrome’?” If I became the proprietor of a book works, I imagine it would be near equivalent to your shop.

The following list is offered in that spirit. Quixotic, no doubt, but I think they complement the array of books and objects in your shop (or at any rate the large sliver of it I respond to). Some are more directly focused on art than are others but all fit what Cesar Aira (see below) says about his “tortured passion” for modern music: “music I don’t understand, the strangest, most absurd, most avant garde — to me none of it seems advanced or incomprehensible enough.” The same for art, literature, film, etc.

Of course we say it seems incomprehensible but yet respond to it and understand it in ways that reflect our times. Aria claims he’s inspired by the “surrealist method,” accumulating absurd elements to attain “a scene of pure invention without the work of inventing it.” Elements gathered “as far flung as possible,” and in searching for the distant, finding what is “closest at hand.”

That’s the essence of these books. Far flung but next door. Not much fiction on the list. The “Encyclopedia of Fictional Artists” shows you could have a whole library of that alone. But some fiction nonetheless. All are available in current editions but I haven’t included that information.

Joyce Cary — “A Horse’s Mouth,” the best novel I’ve ever read about an artist. A fairly decent movie made of it too with Alec Guiness.

Henry James — “The Ivory Tower” (his last book, left unfinished; about money, authority and idolatry of the object)

W.G. Sebald — Art, photos and drawings are incorporated, integrated into the text, fiction written as memoir, or memoir as fiction. “The Emigrants” (one portrait in it is based loosely on Max Auerbach), “The Rings of Saturn,” “Vertigo,” “After Nature” (about Matthias Grunewald).

Cees Nooteboom — This Dutch author is my current passion, especially “All Souls Day” and “Lost Paradise” (novels) and “Roads to Santiago” (art and architecture of Spain).

“a book about a book you’d expect to find in a place like your shop and thus a book that should be found in your shop.”

David Markson — Quintessential American post-modernist. “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and the trilogy of “Vanishing Point,” “Reader’s Block” and “This Is Not a Novel.” In each an unnamed narrator, sometimes called “Author,” shuffles a shoebox full of note cards and arranges a collage-like assemblage of anecdotes and quotations about writers, artists, composers and philosophers, wondering if a novelist can dispense with plot and character and seduce “the reader into turning the pages nonetheless?”

Guy Davenport — Art is integral to his language collages about writers and artists. “Da Vinci’s Bicycle,” “Ecologues,” “A Balthus Notebook,” and “Tatlin!” Also great collections of essays “A Geography of the Imagination” and “Every Force Evolves a Form.” And, I don’t believe I’ve seen in your photography section any of the books about Davenport’s friend, weird Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

Gabriel Josipovici — Novels “The Big Glass” (Duchamp-like artist), “Contre Jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard,” and “Goldberg Variations” (in part about a writer working on a Klee monograph).

Edmund de Waal — “The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss” (riveting story, how a world famous ceramicist inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke and discovers his roots in “The Boating Party,” Proust, and a lot of other interesting stuff).

Jean Echenoz — French novelist: “I’m Gone” (about a Parisian art dealer) and “Chopin’s Move.”

Don DeLillo — Novels centered on art: “Point Omega” (film) and “The Body Artist” (performance art).

Tove Jansson — Many of this Finnish-Swedish writer’s things are available in exquisite NYRB books: “The Summer Book,” “The True Deceiver,” “A Winter’s Book,” “Fair Play.” Most famous for her illustrated children’s books about Moomintrolls.

Jules Renard — “Nature Stories” another NYRB book, observations about birds and animals illustrated by Bonnard.

V.S. Naipaul — “The Enigma of Arrival” (life as a de Chirico painting).

Cesar Aira — From Argentina, inspired by Surrealism (above), Aira makes sense of its spirit as method in literature. “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” is an imagined account of 19th century German artist, Johann Moritz Rugendas, but the New Directions editions of his books are so elegant and Aira’s prose so remarkable that any shelf with one should have the others, too: “Ghosts,” “How I Became a Nun,” “The Literary Conference,” and “The Seamstress and the Wind.”

Peter Handke — “My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay” (moody, ruminative, meticulously-described environments) and “Slow Homecoming” (keys on Cezanne’s landscapes).

Thomas Bernhard — Particularly, “Wittgenstein’s Nephew” and “The Loser” (about Glenn Gould).

Jorge Saramago — “The History of the Siege of Lisbon” (the architecture of a city and of time).

Bruce Chatwin — “The Songlines” (aboriginal art and nomadism).

Samuel Beckett — “Letters” vol. I (much of his early writing was about painting); Charles Juliet, “Conversations with Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde” (a painter friend from Beckett’s early years).

Aidan Higgins — “Balcony of Europe” (great novel with great title about post-WW II writers, painters living on coast of Spain.

Robert Pogue Harrison — Winds us through art, literature, philosophy, psychology and anthropology, you name it, to the clearing he finds in the woods: “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition” (2009); “Forests: The Shadow of Civilization” (1992); and “The Dominion of the Dead” (2003). Harrison takes a ruling image — forests, burials, gardens — and explores how they function in human life and institutions, how they filter through the mind as image and metaphor.

Anne Carson — “Nox,” book-poem-collage.

Charles Simic — “Dime-Store Alchemy” (Joseph Cornell).

Any books by John Cage or John Berger.

Pierre Michon — “Small Lives,” “Masters and Servants,” and “The Origin of the World,” miniature word portraits of artists.

Frederic Tuten — Has written about art in major American journals since the 1960s and is a fine, inventive novelist, too: “Van Gogh’s Bad Café,” “Tintin in the New World,” “The Green Hour.”

“Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs” (Verso): Benjamin was chief forager in the early 20th century dustheap. This remarkable book is drawn from the salvage of Benjamin’s odd collections and catalogs: notes, photos, picture postcards, toys, news articles and lists — endless lists, including, charmingly, the first words and phrases spoken by his son Stefan. Loads of it is reproduced (paper yellowed, cracked, water-stained).

Curzio Malaparte — “Kaputt” (Europe during WW II, art in the abyss).

Janet Malcolm — One of America’s great writers does fine collages, too, and a book of photographs, “Burdock,” studio portraits of dead weeds, basically.

Lynd Ward — Massive two-volume Library of America edition of six graphic novels, “novels in woodcuts,” produced 1920s-30s, edited by Art Spiegelman.

Michal Ajvaz — “The Other City,” a crisp Dalkey Archive edition, a book about a book you’d expect to find in a place like your shop and thus a book that should be found in your shop.

There are a number of books not about art per se or not even once removed but are at the heart of my sense of what is in the above: Antonio Munoz Molina “Sepharad”; Antonio Tabucchi, “It’s Getting Later All the Time”; Fernando Pessoa, “The Book of Disquiet”; Gilbert Sorrentino, “Splendide-Hotel”.

AND Enrique Vila-Matas, “Montano’s Malady” and “Bartleby & Co.” Sort of autobiographical novelistic tales about an obsession with books, but what could easily be obsession with art, music, etc.

I think fondly of all the artists and writers from and associated with Black Mountain — John Cage, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Albers, and especially poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, Ronald Johnson, Denise Levertov, and Jonathan Williams (also a friend of R. E. Meatyard, above).

There are more popular novels that touch on art in unique ways: Kurt Vonnegut, “Bluebeard” (novel about abstract expressionists); Stanley Elkin, “Van Gogh’s Room at Arles”; Ross Macdonald, “The Blue Hammer”; William Gibson, “Count Zero” (cyber sci-fi and Joseph Cornell boxes); Ward Just, “Forgetfulness” and “Ambition & Love” (American painters in Europe); and Arturo Perez Reverte, “The Painter of Battles.”

Finally (finally!), I didn’t notice on your shelves some of my favorite books about art — T.J. Clark’s “The Sight of Death” (Poussin); Lawrence Weschler’s “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”; Rebecca Solnit’s “River of Shadows” (Muybridge); Roberto Calasso’s “Pink Tiepolo.”

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