TFT Exclusive Excerpt: L.A. Times Book Critic on “The Lost Art of Reading” and the Discovery of a Rare London Bookstall
In David L. Ulin’s new book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch: 152 pp., $12.95), the Los Angeles Times book critic discusses the place that books hold in contemporary life. Here, in the following exclusive TFT excerpt, Ulin discovers an unusually special bookstall on the other side of the Atlantic.
In Europe, I ended up with so many books I had to buy a suitcase to bring them home. After we landed in Philadelphia, a Customs officer asked what I had left the country for. How could I explain that the answer was right there, in that suitcase, that if for Rae, the highlight of the trip had been the older man in Florence who had offered us a personal tour of the Uffizi (shades of Ian McEwen’s The Comfort of Strangers, which I also bought, and read, that summer), for me it had been the unlikely coincidence of stumbling across a London bookstall once owned by the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi, whose work, then as now, I revered. Trocchi Rare Books, it was called — nearly twenty-six years later, I still carry the business card in my wallet — in the Antiquarian Market on King’s Road, and I came away with a signed paperback of the author’s 1960 antimasterpiece Cain’s Book, as well as a green Olympia Press Traveller’s Companion edition of the fifth volume of Frank Harris’ My Life and Loves, which he had cranked out in 1954 for Olympia publisher Maurice Girodias in a celebrated literary hoax.
Trocchi was, at the time, a new fascination, made more alluring by the fact that, except for Cain’s Book and the 1954 novel Young Adam, an existential thriller in which a Glasgow barge worker allows an innocent man to hang for a murder he knows he didn’t commit, it was impossible to find his books. This, undoubtedly, was a function of the marginal nature of so much of his writing, which included a collection of poems called Man at Leisure, a handful of translations, and a series of so-called dbs, or dirty books, that he had written for Girodias in the mid-1950s as works-for-hire. Yet even more, I think, it had to do with the unrelenting fierceness of his aesthetic, which occupied a territory beyond conventional morality, where notions such as right and wrong, guilt or innocence, were merely “convenient social fictions[s]” and the responsibility of the artist was to exist inviolable and apart. “It is necessary only to act ‘as if’ one’s conventional categories were arbitrary to come gradually to know that they are,” he declares in Young Adam, and both the best of the dbs (Thongs, White Thighs, Helen and Desire) and Cain’s Book (it’s not called that for nothing) echo this uncompromising point of view. As Trocchi writes in the closing lines of that novel: “Ending, I should not care to estimate what has been accomplished. In terms of art and literature? — such concepts I sometimes read about, but they have nothing in intimacy with what I am doing, exposing, obscuring. Only at the end I am still sitting here, writing, with the feeling I have not even begun to say what I mean, apparently sane still, and with a sense of my freedom and responsibility, more or less cut off as I was before.”
What was the appeal of such a writer? In many ways, he was, and remains, the natural endpoint of the arc Frank Conroy had begun. Stop-Time, after all, also offers its own brand of nihilism, in its reflections on mortality as well as its author’s uneasy sense that he, too, must always stand apart. The difference is that, for Conroy, this was not so much a matter of philosophy as one of personality, less thought out than felt. His book is framed by two brief sections recalling drunken late night drives through the English countryside; the second ends with him puking in a fountain after losing control of his car and slamming into a low curb. “I was going to die,” he reflects, as the accident unravels. “As the fountain grew larger I felt myself relax. I leaned toward the door. Let it come. Let it come as hard and fast as it can. Touch the wheel, make an adjustment so it will strike right beside me. Here it comes! Here it comes!” What’s compelling about such a moment is its mix of exhilaration and resignation, the idea of looking annihilation in the face and crying: Bring it on. It’s foolhardy, full of false bravado … and yet, at the same time touched by the inevitable, by an unblinking willingness to stare down the abyss. When I first read Stop-Time, I found this so disturbing — the embrace of obliteration, the insistence that we turn into the dark — that I couldn’t make sense of it. Why veer towards death when life was so evanescent, why seek out extermination before it came? But in many ways, that’s what Trocchi is after also, although his position is more intellectual than emotional: literature as ideological stance. In Thongs, which uses the language of S&M to expose the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, who pay lip service to conventional morality while repressing their own shameful secrets and half-articulated desires, Trocchi frames a trenchant critique of “the tepid thing you call living,” arguing that only by “rais[ing] passion to such a level that life becomes extinct within it” can we ever indulge our “lust for the infinite,” although paradoxically, it will destroy us in the end.
Lest this come off as empty theorizing, Trocchi meant every word of it: By the time Cain’s Book appeared, he was already a junkie, a condition the book celebrates as a philosophical choice. “I’m going to try / to nullify my life,” Lou Reed sings in “Heroin,” a song that may as well be channeling Trocchi, so similar is its nihilism, the belief that even the most authentic life is an act of capitulation, if only because of the brittle frailness of our mortal skin. After Cain’s Book, Trocchi never finished another full-length piece of writing, dabbling with a project called The Long Book, agitating as part of the British anti-university movement of the 1960s, shooting heroin (“Trocchi believed he was so powerful, both in his mind and in his body,” recalled his British publisher John Calder, “that he could resist anything, and of course he got hooked very quickly and was never able to get off it for the rest of his life”), and eventually losing everything he loved or cared about: his family, his art, his very self. It was, one imagines, a bitter solace to know that such loss comes to everyone, that it is the essential condition of humanity, this vaporous evanescence, this whittling away.
That, of course, was part of the attraction. At twenty-two, I was drawn to the extremists, and there was something brave, I thought (and think still), about his insistence to strip away every last piece of sentimental reaction, even as he recognized the impossibility of the task. Reading Trocchi was like watching an existentialist rewrite the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism — 1) Life is suffering; 2) The origin of suffering is attachment; 3) The cessation of suffering is attainable; 4) There is a path out of suffering, the Nobel Eightfold Path — as if he were the bastard son of Jack Kerouac and Albert Camus. Like the former, he got sidetracked by the first truth and bogged down in the second. Like the latter, he understood that the only true cessation of suffering would come from the cessation of consciousness. For Camus, such contradictions resolved themselves in an acceptance of absurdity; “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he wrote. For Trocchi, this was not going nearly far enough. “You call life meaningless,” he writes in Thongs, “and you think you assert your freedom in rejecting it. But your act of suicide is just as meaningless as any other.”
This is what literature, at its best and most unrelenting, offers, a slicing through of all the noise and the ephemera, a cutting to the chase. There is something thrilling about it, this unburdening, the idea of getting at a truth so profound that for a moment anyway, we become transcendent in the truest sense. I’m not talking here about posterity, which is its own kind of fantasy, in which we regard books as tombstones instead of souls. No, I think of it more as a voice of pure expression, a cry in the dark. Its futility is what makes it noble: Nothing will come of this, no one will be saved, but it is worth your attention anyway. And yet, for that reason, perhaps — and in much the same way as Conroy — Trocchi becomes the emblem of another, more fundamentally human conflict: that of the outsider who could not escape himself. Like all of us, he was never able to escape the noise completely; he had to eat and sleep and pay his bills, to exist in three dimensions in the world. “Life is, in large part, rubbish,” David Shields writes in his book Reality Hunger, by way of suggesting how quickly an existence “consecrated to art” wears thin. For Trocchi, this meant the rare book business, which is where I almost came face-to-face with him. I recall standing in the antiquarian market, surrounded by coin and jewelry dealers, asking the middle-aged book dealer if he knew Trocchi’s work. He was tall, slightly heavyset, with a gray widow’s peak and a tweed jacket — impeccably British, I would have described him, if I’d been thinking in such terms. At the mention of Trocchi’s name, he smiled thinly, as if confirming something to himself. Then he asked if I knew the name of the bookstall, and when I told him that I didn’t, he took that business card out of his jacket and handed it to me.
I want to tell you that it took me a minute to gather the pieces, that there was a flash of cognitive dissonance. Or no … maybe what I want to tell you is that I saw everything in an instant, as if I were watching a circle close. Either is possible; I don’t know anymore. What I do recall was the look on the bookseller’s face, expectant, and the way he said, as soft as an insinuation: “This is his stall.”
“What?” I might have answered. Or: “No way.” Or: “Oh my God.” I know my body started racing, that I was aware of the boundaries growing porous, of being in the presence of a coincidence or connection bigger than I could fully comprehend. If this is how literature often made me feel, I wasn’t used to facing it in three dimensions, other than my oddly visceral reaction to entering a bookstore, that pulsing in my guts and in my blood. I had come upon this place by accident, attracted by the shelves of old paperbacks, by their open-ended sense of chance. I had been looking, in a general sort of way, for books by Trocchi, but now, it seemed, I’d stumbled on a passage to the man himself. “Is he here?” I heard myself ask. “Can I meet him?” The man’s face tightened, a creasing at the eyes, and I wondered if I’d crossed a line. I had the sudden realization that he was a caretaker, that his job was not only to sell books, but also to deflect people like me. Should I apologize? I wondered, but before I could, he took my elbow in the gentlest possible manner, as if he were about to lead me somewhere — away from Trocchi, I supposed. Then, he leaned across the space between us, and in a voice halfway between a lamentation and a whisper, told me, “He died six weeks ago.”
A quarter of a century later, the moment is still vivid; I remember standing there, buffeted by an almost physical sensation of a lost chance, of having come so close to something I didn’t even know was possible until it was denied. And yet, that’s not all of it, not exactly, for what would I have done had Trocchi been available to me, had he been alive? What would I have said to him … and even more, what would he have said to me? Looking back, it is almost with a measure of relief — not that he was dead but that he was inaccessible — that there was no person to interfere with the idea of him I had built up from his books.
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