Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Matthew Neill Null’s Library: The Condominium of Oblivion

Reader:  Matthew Neill Null
Location:  Provincetown, Massachusetts
Collection Size:  I’m afraid to count. There’s no ideal number—it will be too many or too few.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  There’s no particular book I’d rescue, since the replaceability of books is one of my favorite features of these weird little objects. That said, I do have a 1940 first edition of W. E. R. Byrne’s West Virginia history/travelogue Tale of the Elk. Byrne, a politician and lawyer, follows the Elk River 172 miles from headwaters to mouth, and records in whimsical fashion the people and animals he encounters. I’m fond of this copy because it belonged to my grandfather, and my family has fished and camped on the Elk for generations. No, they didn’t make it into the book.
Favorite book from childhood:  I had a set of animal encyclopedias, circa 1960, a hand-me-down from my dad’s childhood. In hindsight, the information was hilariously outdated, but I enjoyed reading about the exotic beasts and looking at the plates. Some were of taxidermy, and I remember that the antlers of the white-tailed deer were firmly planted backward on its skull.
Guilty pleasure book:  Non, je ne regriette rien.

Space is at a premium in Provincetown, on this frail spit of sand with water on three sides, so it’s fitting to have a couple of cheap bookshelves elbowed into the corner of our smallish condo. My library is functional and charmless. It doesn’t bother me—I only want books around that I will re-read many times over, and I relentlessly cull the rest. The presence of bad books makes me uneasy—they could infect the entire household! I wear out interlibrary loan, and if I find a book I love, I’ll go out and buy it.

The shelves have become a natural depository for objects I’ve found while fishing the beach—such as this dogfish jaw—or further afield. Petrified wood and a shed mule deer antler from Wyoming. Coal from the ghost town of Thurmond, West Virginia. Snakeskins from various places. Fossils, various. A rattle from a snake that struck at my bare ankle in Bath County, Virginia. And a stamped coaster that Lookout Books made for the release of my first novel, Honey from the Lion, with an image that recreates a font on the book cover, a silkscreen by the British artist Alexander Heaton. It’s too pretty to hold a drink.

On the top shelf of the bookcase, you can see the oil lamps that are in regular use through winter. The Provincetown power-grid is made of Popsicle sticks and bubble gum. Any big storm, the main line goes down at Truro. We’re the furthest town, so we’re always last to get it back on.

I don’t arrange the books, but looking over the shelves, I see a pattern to certain shelves, a loose constellation of theme. I have a soft spot for great books that, for whatever reason, never found readers beyond a token few. I’ve toyed with an essay called “The Library of Oblivion,” about luminous books that came through the breach and entered the world, only to vanish, leaving no wake behind them. John Ehle’s The Land Breakers, an American epic. Malcolm Braly’s stunning prison novel On the Yard. Paula Nangle’s The Leper Compound. Mark Costello’s The Murphy Stories. Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. Leonard Gardner’s Fat City. Julie Hayden’s The Lists of the Past. Andrea Lee’s Interesting Women. Keith Waldrop’s Light While There Is Light: An American History, which should be required reading for all humanity, for its candor and its empathy. All of Evan S. Connell and Glenway Wescott, of whom Gertrude Stein wrote, “[Wescott] has a certain syrup but it does not pour.” Or, even worse, writers who long labored on incredible novels but never lived to see their publication: Tomasi de Lampedusa’s The Leopard and G.B. Edwards’s The Book of Ebenezer Le Page leap to mind, two books that stagger the reader with their understanding of village gossip and and its power to cohere a place. William Gass’ Omensetter’s Luck, for the first 90 pages alone. Walter Abish’s How German Is It.

And I can’t forget Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, shoved into the LGBT sections of used book stores, where most will never see it—it’s hard to believe it was Holleran’s first novel, the pages are written with such skill. Maybe someday, somehow, these deserving books will have a revival, such as what happened to Stoner, another novel that deserves immortality. What binds them all? Bad luck, maybe, or a lack of their period’s zeitgeist. I’m still trying to explain it to myself. They are as brutal as they are lyric, unsentimental, unsparing. Perhaps these books cut too close to the bone. Yet all ripple with life. They are a form of art that does not comfort, does not soothe.

Among them, I see foreign writers who may be read elsewhere, but not so much in America. Authors like Henry de Montherlant. Maria Beig’s Hermine and Lost Weddings, two astonishing novels of women’s lives in rural Swabia, cutting and true as a blade. Bruce Chatwin. Jaroslav Hašek. Tayeb Salih. Hubert Butler’s Independent Spirit: Essays. Pitigrilli’s Cocaine, rescued by New Vessel Press, which is doing incredible work. Ryszard Kapuściński. Henry Green’s Concluding and Loving. Tadeusz Konwicki’s A Minor Apocalypse. Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas. Patrick White’s Voss, which Shirley Hazzard called a masterpiece, and I listen to everything Shirley Hazzard says.

Read them all! You won’t be disappointed.

Summer is slipping away, but I want to read Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August before August is gone.

Matthew Neill Null is a recipient of the Mary McCarthy Prize and the Michener–Copernicus Society of America Award, and his fiction appears in American Short Fiction, Ecotone, the Oxford American, Ploughshares, The PEN /O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2014. A native of West Virginia, he holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he is currently the writing coordinator. Honey from the Lion is his first novel.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Author photo by Rebecca Gayle Howell

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