The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill[Permalink]
A prolific novelist and short story writer, as well as an influential teacher of other writers, R. V. Cassill spent most of the 1950s bouncing around the sort of jobs a writer could get–teaching, working on an encyclopedia, editing such noteworthy magazines as Dude and Gent. And writing pulp fiction.
Although he would go on to earn critical acclaim for such novels as Clem Anderson (1961) and Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), Cassill produced an impressive series of novels for Ace, Avon, Gold Medal and Signet. The titles are evidence enough that Cassill might be called the Fifties’ equivalent of Tiffany Thayer:
- Left Bank of Desire (1955)
- A Taste of Sin (1955)
- The Hungering Shame (1956) (“Four Men, A Lonely Road, and a Girl …)
- Naked Morning (1957)
- Naked Morning (1957)
- Lustful Summer (1958)
- Dormitory Women (1959)
The Wound of Love (1956) is one of these. “A respectable town and the iniquity seething underneath” proclaims the cover, which shows a Susan Hayward look-alike and a Mad Man making out in a corn field. Now, anyone who’s ever seen a corn field knows it’s a miserable make-out spot, but the story is set in Iowa and I suppose the editors asked the cover artist to tie that in somehow.
I came across The Wound of Love a couple of years ago in the stacks at Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland–one of the dwindling number of bookstores in the U. S. where you can still find paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. I recognized Cassill’s name, but I also recognized the book as classic pulp fiction–a paperback original, under 200 pages long, with a lurid cover and plenty blurb promising sex within. At the time, I wasn’t aware of Cassill’s pulp career and picked the book up simply out of curiosity.
I finally got around to reading it recently, and I have to say that it wasn’t too bad. Set in Pinicon, a rural town somewhere between Des Moines and Omaha, the story centers on Dick Fletcher, who’s returned to his home town to work on his father’s newspaper after a few years as a journalist in New York and Chicago. Dick is finding it hard to get used to the slow pace of life in Pinicon, and his marriage to Marsie, a nervous girl from the East Coast is suffering under the strain of living under the same roof as Dick’s parents. He’s befriended by Vance Holland, a hard-drinking, hard-partying local entrepeneur, and soon things begin spinning out of control.
Vance’s farm is sort of the local hang-out for other restless young marrieds, and it only takes one party at Vance’s to find Dick in the backseat of his car with another man’s wife. Although Dick never strays again, Marsie takes to frequent visits to Vance’s, and Dick learns that Vance is also the facilitator of the local wife-swapping circle. Small-town sex intertwines with small-town politics, and Dick eventually gets caught up in a complex deal to buy the town’s co-op electric plant–an issue that Dick’s father has opposed for years.
Born and raised in Iowa, Cassill would return to the state a few years after publishing The Wound of Love, joining the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the book is full of small touches that reflect a writer very familiar with his story’s setting and people. Dick’s father is a good Midwest Lutheran, which means he disapproves of Dick’s drinking and his marital problems–but doesn’t feel it’s his place to say anything about it. Even Dick hasn’t lost all sense of propriety. Early on he cools on Vance Holland simply because “He didn’t like people who insisted on a demonstration that you liked them.” It’s a comment very characteristic of a certain outlook you find in the Midwest.
Cassill manages to fit a fair amount of scandal into 160 short pages–not just the swapping of house keys and wives but gambling, bribery, shooting, alcoholism, and even a climactic airplane crash. Although it’s neatly integrated into the story, I can’t help but wonder if Cassill received a letter from his editor at Avon Books–something along the lines of Roger Corman’s instructions to Jonathan Kaplan when he hired Kaplan to direct one of his legendary low-budget films, “Night Call Nurses”: “Frontal nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind, no pubic hair, and get the title in the film somewhere and go to work.” What Cassill created, in and around the sex and booze, is a neat exercise about the crisis of character, about the transition from youth and idealism to middle-age and ugly compromises.
Is it deserving of reissue? No, probably not, but it was certainly good enough to make me want to try another of Cassill’s pulp works. He once remarked that he wrote one of his pot-boilers while on jury duty. If The Wound of Love was that book, I’m eager to see what he did when he gave his full attention to what he was writing.
The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, Inc., 1956
March 5th, 2014
Among the possessions which he involuntarily left to me, the deceased had counted a little notebook, which I found in the uppermost drawer, together with a box of dry tobacco, an apple, half-eaten, and some other miscellanea. It was a little notebook, which appeared to be a scholarly diary or journal, in which a method of lexicography was established without which, in my view, the section ‘P’ in the Dictionary could never be complete. An artistic technique emerged from these pages, capable of redressing the sometimes painfully disturbed balance of language. The scope of this idea, which has become crucially important to my own thinking, extends far beyond the realm of mere deductive scholarship and endorses a Wider argument, perhaps even bordering on the mystical. According to the theory put forward in the notebook, throughout the evolution of language, some Words out of the pool of possibilities, meanings, nuances and significances have flourished into the form and strength we know today, while others have been condemned to lead a marginal existence, stagnant and fragmented, used, if at all, only by imbeciles, prophets, wise men and babes. They escaped the net of scholarly recognition and finally their usage ceased altogether. Atrophied, shrunken into their embryonic stage and totally neglected, these words still exist in hiding, like the larvae of a butterfly under a coat of snow, only to come out again when they are called upon. The attentive reader will in such a case notice a gap between two words, a missing sound, or concept, which he then must restore with the sensitivity of the true artist, or, as the notebook puts it with exquisite taste, “return to language its prodigal sons.” The notebook, after having established this fact, goes on to state that the really observant editor who strives to write a truly comprehensive dictionary must trace these words and reinstate them at least as possibilities. These words are not neologisms, far from it! Where the latter is the crude invention of a new word out of ignorance of the abundance provided by language already, the task of restoration is only to reinstate what has existed all along.
The art developed in the notebook may be obscure, practised only by the fewest people, now perhaps only by myself. I would not be surprised if this were so, though it would make my responsibility all the greater. Some kindred spirits in the world of poetry, into which I often delve, both for pleasure and for duty, follow the principle of restoration with wonderful sense and sensitivity; while some thrash about in utter ignorance.
A random example: between ‘penumbrous’ and ‘penur’ the trained and perceptive mind senses a gap that cannot be filled without imagination. The symmetry of the whole page may be at risk, the balance of a tongue unhinged, just because nobody has seen that ‘penupy’ is the obvious and necessary word that alone can fill the awesome abyss. As to the meaning of such a regained word, this is a matter of wholly secondary interest. It will be discovered, rediscovered, just like its mortal coil, the word itself. This example was taken from the notebook, but I myself have been able to supply some additions and completions of my own: ‘piebent’ (between ‘piebald’ and ‘piece’) and, daring but absolutely necessary and entirely adequate, ‘pilbout’ (between ‘pilaw’ and ‘pilch’, a great step which had to be taken).
I admit that this art must seem somewhat mysterious,even obscure, to the untrained eye, but as in every refined pursuit in human life, the mind must be attuned to the novelties and joys of any idiom.
from The Simmons Papers, by Phillip Blom
London: Faber and Faber, 1995
March 2nd, 2014
The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom[Permalink]
“The Only Novel about the Letter P” proclaims the bright blue wrapper around the Faber and Faber original edition of Philipp Bloms’s odd little novel, The Simmons Papers (1995). Not the finest bit of marketing in the company’s history, certainly, but it’s hard to imagine what tag line would have been more enticing. “Kafka Meets the O.E.D.” is the best I can come up with.
Blom himself nearly manages to put off all but the most persistent reader with an introduction that treats the work as a manuscript discovered among the papers of the late P. E. H. Simmons, a fellow in Philosophy at Balliol College. An eccentric figure who spent most of his life in seclusion, Simmons attracted considerable academic interest with this posthumous piece, which is held by various critics to be a diary, “a coded account of masonic rituals,” or a translation of some ancient hymns. Blom includes numerous quotations from several of these exegeses as footnotes throughout the book, managing with every one of them to cloud the meaning of the passages they are meant to clarify. From all this, one could easily categorize The Simmons Papers as a satire on critical theory and similar movements whose interpretations are often more obscure than the original texts.
Myself, I would advise the reader to ignore the introduction, skip right to page 23 and dive into what I’d describe as a lexicographical soliloquoy. The nameless narrator is at work on “the Definitive Dictionary of our language,” a massive work that outreaches even the Oxford English Dictionary in its ambition. Its goal is to “finally define our language beyond the level of ambiguity and doubt.” “With an entry in the Dictionary all questions are settled, all uncertainties removed.”
Such an enterprise involves a large team of contributors and editors. The narrator, who is responsible for the section devoted to words beginning with the letter P, knows almost none of his colleagues, and never met Dr. Javis, the editor-in-chief or even Mr. Lloyd, his personal assistant. He relies entirely upon Malakh, the ninety-three year-old porter who conveys the correspondence and papers from office to office.
Although he acknowledges that P “was a small and modest letter” for much of its history, he is proud to note that, thanks to the influx of words from other languages, it has grown to stand as the third largest section in the Dictionary (after S and C):
It is a letter of immigrants; the loving and attentive ear hears the buzzing of a hundred foreign tongues within it: hymns of the early church; the babble and yelling of Arabian bazaars; Latin precision, elegance and brutality; Germanic harshness; words sailing with William the Conqueror; words drowned with the Spanish Armada (some of which mysteriously drifted ashore); Arabic prose and philosophy; commands given by Hadrian; and psalms, all humming, bubbling and chattering, colorful and delightful.
He sees himself, though, as a liberator: “Once unchained from their heavy bond of syntax and strict grammaticality, they can do anything, start to dance, whirl and revolve, like a bunch of mad little devils.” For each word in the Dictionary, the narrator has to assemble as many known usages as he can find, and then sift and sort through them to eliminate any imprecision in definition that might allow a remnant of confusion to survive the Dictionary’s publication. “I am a mineworker of language,” he writes, “I inhale ambiguities and meanings like coal dust.”
Indeed, the task is so difficult that every day Malakh brings another editions of the Communications of the Great Academy, an endless series of instructions to the dictionary workers attempting to refine their methodology to such a level of perfection that there will be no risk of the Dictionary not achieving its objective. The narrator spends as much time reading and interpreting the Communications as he does working on the Dictionary itself, searching for their central argument: “First the ideal method must be found, and only then can detail and procedures be dealt with.”
Looking out of the one tiny window in his room one day, the narrator catches a glimpse of a woman in a brightly-flowered dress. She becomes a figure of mystery and fascination for him, and, eventually, the antithesis of his own world: “The free range of flowers on her dress defies every method and system, her beauty has no name.” And with this discovery, the narrator’s utility for the Great Academy comes to an abrupt end. The work ends as he is summoned to a final audience with Dr. Javis.
A dedicated reader has to be a lover of words, and I found The Simmons Papers a rhapsody–in words and to words. Let not the stiff academic introduction deter you: there is some wonderful writing in this book, intertwined with some delightful philosophical insights. Although it’s a somewhat uncategorizable book, I would venture to class it as what Ted Gioia has called “conceptual fiction“–”stories that delight in the freedom from ‘reality’ that storytelling allows”–and recommend shelving it alongside the works of Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Stanislaw Lem. And perhaps another odd novel that suffered from ham-fisted marketing, Raymond Cousse’s Death Sty.
Power to the Odd!
The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom
London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995
February 25th, 2014
Cousin Bettina, from The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow[Permalink]
She had no home of her own, and her life was spent in journeying back and forth to the homes of others. This operation she called “flitting,” which was surely a propitiatory term for railway travel in the South of those days; and not only its tediousness but all its odd contacts and predicaments, and even its occasional dangers, she seems to have met with perfect coolness and a sort of light dignity that never forsook her. On one occasion she spent the whole night by herself in a lonely little station, and on another in the company of a lunatic who thoughtfully locked the door on the inside and pocketed the key. I think she was a little proud of the time when the doors of the passenger coach got jammed in a collision and she heard the conductor say to a man who was breaking the window with his boot heel: “You all would do a whole lot better to quit your screamin’ and scufflin’ and go sit back in your places like that lady over yonder with the guitar.”
From The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1943)
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