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Conrad’s List

M. G. Stephens

8 From six to midnight six nights a week I worked as a clerk in the Eighth Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village. For a young writer to work in the Eighth Street Bookshop was like a young painter apprenticing with Michelangelo or Titian. Like City Lights in North Beach and the Grolier in Harvard Square, the Eighth Street Bookshop was no mere bookstore; it was a literary hot spot of people and ideas. It was the ideal job. I could drink after work from midnight to four in the morning, the best time to be in the bars. In the mornings, I wrote, usually in a notebook because I could not afford a typewriter and my living conditions were too precarious to have possessions other than the clothes I wore and the bag I carried with my notebook, pens, and whatever book I was reading at the time. Often I slept at the apartments of friends or with some girlfriend or in the abandoned building on Second Avenue and Second Street, where the Saint Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry Project held its writing workshops during the week.

Besides the books on the shelves—the shop consisted of four floors of books—and the books being read and forever discussed behind the counter and out on the floor, there were the customers who regularly visited the Eighth Street Bookshop. Everyone who was anyone in the literary and cultural worlds had a charge account at the store, and to charge was not some impersonal credit-card affair, but a clerk writing up every purchase: one sheet filed in the cash register, the other given to the customer. The regular charge customers included Edward Albee, Anaïs Nin, Donald Barthelme, Albert Murray, and several times a week—usually on his motorcycle, which he parked outside the store—the author and neurologist Oliver Sacks. The list of writers and celebrities whose charge accounts had been frozen was equally illustrious—a who’s who of downtown cultural life.

Friends stopped by to talk, as did such Village locals as Djuna Barnes, author of Nightwood, who lived in a chic cul-de-sac around the corner. Blustering, drunken celebrities wandered in—Paul Ford (Sergeant Bilko), Jack Palance, and perhaps the most unusual of them all, one of the Gallos, a local Mafia superstar who lived across the street.

“I read a lot of Albert Camus,” Gallo once told me, perusing the fiction section. A lifetime later I’d walk by Umberto’s Clam Bar in Little Italy, and to whomever I was with I’d say, “Where one of the Gallos got whacked,” as if my having talked to one of those Gallos in the bookshop on Eighth Street gave me a greater proximity to this hoodlum and his brother.

Nearly everyone I met in the bookshop, whether a clerk or customer, had an interest in literature. “Interest” is perhaps not the right word; they were passionate about ideas, and obsessed by books and writers. Their love seemed almost erotic; they talked about reading a book the way someone else might speak of a love-conquest.

“I read all of my first volume of Proust over the weekend, not leaving the apartment once,” a clerk would say.

Another clerk might respond with: “I’ve been locked away with Madame Bovary for days.”

*  *  *

When we first came on our shift, the owner, Eli Wilentz—a small, neat, casual man with a Nat Sherman–like cigarillo stuck between his lips or burning between his fingertips—was finishing his business for the day and oversaw what was going on. Eli reminded me of an older Bob Dylan, his size and wan complexion and his face. Sometimes Wilentz’s son Sean—now a well-known historian—was there, too. Our day manager was something of a celebrity, too, a poet by the name of A. B. Spellman who, when he left the bookshop, became a prominent arts administrator. The night shift was taken care of by the night manager Conrad and his assistant Dudley.

Both were well-read and brimming with recommendations about what to read. They almost never agreed with each other, though. Conrad was far more patrician in his tastes; Dudley was more eclectic, more willing to contradict himself and— because he was a painter, I thought—more easygoing. Yet who could top Conrad for intellectual vigor?

Every clerk—not just the managers—had an opinion about the best books to read, the authors to seek out, and the ideas that were worth pursuing. Their tastes ranged from Homer to Simenon. One of these clerks, Andrei Codrescu, had recently emigrated. A Romanian poet, he had come to the East Village by way of Budapest, Rome, and Detroit, where he met his young wife. Let’s say that Andrei was a classic surrealist, whatever that might be—though he told me more than once that surrealism was the state art-form of his country, that his real name was Perlmutter, and that he had taken the name Codrescu in homage to Tristan Tzara, the great surrealist poet whose real name was Andrei Codrescu. After he married, Andrei moved to California, where his reputation as a poet took off. Later, he lived in Baltimore and was a key figure in the city’s 1970s literary revival. Eventually he settled, improbably enough, in the bayou country of southern Louisiana, where he became a professor and a well-known commentator on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Andrei recommended that I read a wide range of poets from Andre Breton to Pablo Neruda (neither of these names was familiar to me at the time). He spoke of Rimbaud, too, as perhaps the greatest poet ever (Codrescu thought so). Certainly he was the purest emotionally, having completed his major works in his late teens, whereupon he became a 19th-century gunrunner and revolutionary in Africa, a romantic’s romantic. One night I heard Andrei shout: “Oxidize the gargoyles!” I learned later that he was quoting Rimbaud. Another time I heard Andrei say something to the effect of: “The arctic honey blabbed thus causing darkness.” When I asked him what he was talking about, he pointed to a poetry book called The Tennis Court Oath.

“John Ashbery,” he said.

Another recommendation—perhaps the most durable Andrei made—was to read the Argentine fabulist, miniaturist, and witty philosopher of time and prose, Jorge Luis Borges, starting with Ficciones, which Andrei thought of as a kind of sacred text for a young prose writer. But he also recommended Paul Valéry’s novel Monsieur Teste and Huysmans’s Against Nature, a book which Conrad, the night manager, also recommended. The Huysmans was filled with late 19th-century decadent prose, and Valéry once wrote what became a lifelong writing belief: we do not finish writing a poem, only abandon it in despair.

*  *  *

Conrad had his own strict reading list that he drew up for me one evening shortly after I started working at the bookstore, during a lull in the usual crush of people buying books. He considered me to be hopelessly saturated in Irish literature (Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, O’Casey, Synge)—I was steeped in Irish Catholicism and came from a large immigrant family in Brooklyn—though Conrad did have some begrudging interest in James Joyce. I might be saved, he felt, by reading some European modernists. He told me to eschew James Joyce and Flann O’Brien and read the books on his list.
Conrad’s List
Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

The Charterhouse of Parma and Lucien Leuwen by Stendhal

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, The Gift, Bend Sinister, Glory (early version) by Vladimir Nabokov

The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil

The Sleepwalkers (trilogy) by Broch

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

The Apes of God, Tarr, Self-Condemned by Wyndham Lewis

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Envy by Yuri Olesha

Sword of Honour (trilogy) by Evelyn Waugh

Pornografia and the Diaries by Witold Gombrowicz

Israel Potter by Herman Melville

Maybe Proust

“Flann who?” I asked.

“O’Brien,” he said, as if everyone knew the writer. “At Swim-Two-Birds.”

Now I wasn’t sure what he was talking about or even what language he was using, but fortunately O’Brien’s comic masterpiece was in print and Conrad lent me a copy. This wonderfully funny book would go in and out of print throughout my life, proving that the fortunes of a book are not assured simply because it influences every writer who reads it.

But O’Brien was only a sidebar to the modernist reading list Conrad had in mind for me. Starting in the 19th century, when the novel reigned supreme, Conrad’s list rushed into the 20th century, a modernist express. There was no Borges, Beckett, Kafka, or Calvino on the list, and no women writers whatsoever. (At the time, no women were employed in the bookshop, although that was to change within a few short years.) The list was a literary equivalent to Conrad’s interests in architecture—a solid house of a list for a sort of Nabokovian modernism.

Conrad’s list included, in fact, several of Nabokov’s novels. But it also included Ford Madox Ford’s Good Soldier, Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, Huysmans’s Against Nature, Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons, Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, and some books by Gombrowicz, Lermontov, and a few more names that now escape me. Vladimir Nabokov I knew to be a great, living Russian émigré writer and author of Lolita, a bestselling novel at the time. Ford and Lewis, I would learn, were great English prose stylists from earlier in the century, and I certainly had heard their names from reading Ezra Pound’s poetry. A good friend, the poet Ross Feld, then working at Time magazine and soon to become an editor at Grove Press, had written a poem about Ford in a series called Plum Poems. Huysmans and Musil, I learned, were both experimentalists.

Conrad was reputed to have known Vladimir Nabokov. Had he studied with him at Cornell? No, Conrad told me that he was a dropout from the University of Michigan, not Cornell. It was said that they had once been friends but had had a falling-out. Another rumor was that Conrad had written the introduction to Nabokov’s first published novel in America, a book that had come out from New Directions but was out-of-print at the time.

It was clear to me, observing Conrad, that he was a type of intellectual with which I was not familiar: he was not a writer nor an academic. With the exception of a few bookshop cognoscenti with whom he talked, his intelligence seemed strictly a private matter, existing for its own sake. Conrad’s reading—and his breadth of literary knowledge—had nothing to do with acquiring academic promotions or pedantry to feed a shaky writer’s ego. It was a kind of pure intelligence, someone who simply loved books for their own sake.

A woman came into the bookshop one evening. She was writing her dissertation on Nabokov, and she asked Conrad if he was the person who had written the introduction to the New Directions novel. He looked her straight in the eye and said, “No, I’m not,” and walked away. When I asked him about it later in the evening, he said, “It’s a long story,” and once again walked away.

Many years later, browsing a bookstall on Broadway, I came across that novel. Conrad had indeed written the introduction.

*  *  *

I would receive two master’s degrees and teach at many prominent universities, but nothing ever quite equaled this downtown education on Eighth Street.The ideas found in books were discussed so fervently and yet thrown about so casually; the discussions were intermittent, between customers, but they were intense and deep, full of loving detail for literature and the art of reading. What I acquired was not a set of literary categories or methods of analysis or substantive insights about specific books, but something more fundamental and vastly more precious: a full-body immersion in the world of writing.

*  *  *

A customer came into the bookshop asking for the Proust biography.

“Painter?” Conrad asked.

“No, Marcel Proust,” the man said. “He was a French writer.”

“I mean the Painter biography,” Conrad said, not losing a beat, not breaking from his stony countenance.

“Obviously you didn’t hear me,” the customer said, ever more annoyed. “I don’t want the biography of the painter Marcel Proust but of the writer Marcel Proust.”

Conrad walked away from him and came back with Maurice Painter’s biography of Marcel Proust while the customer held the book in hand, without noting the author’s last name and repeated, “Yes, yes, this is it, the biography of the writer.”

Another time a customer could not think of the title of a book she was looking for. Dudley walked to the back of the shop, and came back with a bestselling book on memory.

“Wow, man, how did you figure that out?” Andrei asked.

“A wild guess,” Dudley said.

Dudley and Conrad’s taste in books were as different as their physical appearances. Conrad’s neat, casual ivy league look stood in contrast to Dudley’s lumberjack shirts and rawhide vests, his corncob pipe, and his Maine accent.

It was Dudley who first recommended that I read Gabriel García Màrquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, arguably the most influential book of the late 20th century. I recall reading the novel in two or three sittings. Then came the discussion of the book, usually during slow periods in the evening when not too many customers were lined up at the counter to buy books.

Dudley loved the book, saying it was the best novel he had ever read. Conrad could barely tolerate it. He pointed to a fast-selling novel by Toni Morrison, and he said, “Toni was begat by Gabriel and he was begat by William Faulkner and—” and looking to me, “Irish will tell you who Willie was begat by.”

“James Joyce,” I said, tentatively.

“Exactly,” he said.

“But who is Joyce begat by?” one of the clerks asked.

“Time to work,” Conrad said as a parade of customers came marching in, picking up copies of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying —or was it Toni Morrison’s Sula?

I never heard an answer from Conrad. Perhaps he believed—as did I, along with Faulkner and Nabokov—that Joyce was sui generis, a being “electrocuted by the divine fire of genius,” as Faulkner once described him. Yet Joyce did not make Conrad’s list, even though Conrad’s mentor Nabokov considered Ulysses the great novel of the century.

*  *  *

My reading was thought adequate by the overly read clerks and management. Some of them thought I read far too much American poetry—William Carlos Williams and such Black Mountain writers as Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, in turn, the teachers of my poetry teacher, Joel Oppenheimer, the director of the Saint Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry Project. Ezra Pound, though his politics were deemed deplorable, was considered an acceptable stylistic influence. His anti-Semitism and his siding with Mussolini during World War II, not to mention his anti-American speeches on Italian radio, were all reasons to vilify Pound. But the brilliance of the ideas and writing style in his Cantos was reason enough to read Pound, if with a grain of salt. I still recall writers having difficulties with Pound, and remember a well-known writer leaving a party in Brooklyn because people were talking seriously about him. Usually it was Pound’s anti-Semitism, not his writing style, that divided them and turned them against him.

But neither Pound nor Williams was the poet of choice for the Eighth Street Bookshop crew. They preferred Neruda, Vallejo, Montale, Celan, and Cavafy—writers who, with the exception of the Chilean Neruda, were European, not provincially North American. Others dismissed all poets except Mandelstam and Akhmatova as literary elves.

Disagreements in the bookshop were not always civil. A red-haired Cuban refugee used to take offense at nearly everything I uttered, finding me unrefined, unlettered, vulgar, and a bore. He would say this to me or others he did not like: “You are so boring and dull.” The only person he seemed to tolerate was Andrei, who sympathized with his Castro- centered leftist Cuban politics, which is not to suggest that anyone in the bookshop was anything but left of Che—it was the height of the Vietnam War, and Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side were right there at fever-pitch center of the antiwar movement. Fistfights did not break out in the bookshop, but they did at the Poetry Project, often between groups of young writers loyal to either Joel Oppenheimer and Black Mountain, or Ted Berrigan and the New York School (second- and third-generation poets under the influence of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery).

“I defy you to tell the difference between a Ron Padgett and a Dick Gallup poem in the dark,” one young Black Mountaineer said, tossing down the gauntlet.

“Black Mountain poetry is stripped bare of everything,” an acolyte of Frank O’Hara said. Then he picked up the challenge. “Bare of everything, including the poetry.”

When the dust settled, one of them had a black eye and a bloody nose.

*  *  *

I tried to read everything that was suggested to me at the bookstore. This included such short-story writers as Flannery O’Connor, a keenly observant Southerner with an acid wit. But it also included the Russian short story writer Isaac Babel, “the master of the genre of silence,” as Joel Oppenheimer said. Babel was a Jew from Odessa who became a Cossack in the Red Cavalry, at a time when these marauders were known for their vicious anti-Semitism, especially in Poland.

I also read and re-read Hubert Selby’s novels, including Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Room—I was so enamored of Selby’s prose that I took a leave of absence in the middle of my second stint at the bookshop, and went out to Los Angeles to find him. Certainly I read anything that Conrad or Dudley recommended to me. But I even read a novel recommended by my Cuban nemesis. His recommendation was a magical realistic novel called Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante. I read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” on Selby’s recommendation; I read Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry because one of my drinking companions said it was the ultimate alcoholic novel. I would read Anaïs Nin, Maurice Sendak, and Oliver Sacks, too, simply because they were regular customers in the store. I read Auden after he stopped by one evening, Allen Ginsberg another night.

I would read A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, the creator of the modern Russian novel, and rush to work to discuss the importance it had for Nabokov. Then I would rush back home to read Nabokov. Eventually I wound up reading The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, discussing it with the manager and the clerks and my girlfriend and her friends, long into the night in some Village bar, usually some writer’s dive in Sheridan Square. The writer David Markson frequented these places too, and he would stumble into a joint, drunk and wearing a serape, and someone whispered that he had been a friend of the great Malcolm Lowry, who tried to drink himself to death in Mexico, and then finally succeeded by choking on his own vomit in British Columbia.

*  *  *

A wide range of poets visited the bookshop. Often I would see a poet whose work appeared in one of two recent anthologies: Don Allen’s New American Poetry and Paris Leary and Robert Kelly’s Controversy of Poets. Though downtown Manhattan’s poetry scene was dominated by the New York and Black Mountain schools, these two anthologies presented a bigger picture to us, including San Francisco poets like Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan, Western poets like Ed Dorn, mystical ones like Robert Kelly, and even an earlier generation of experimenters like the Objectivist poets Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. Before I took the bookshop gig, I was a regular at the Monday night open reading run by Paul Blackburn (another poet who appeared in these poetry anthologies). On Wednesdays, I attended readings by the better known poets like the Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley or the older Objectivist poet George Oppen. Prominent women poets included Denise Levertov, Carol Berge, and Diane Wakosi, all of whom were published in these alternative anthologies, too. Although there are plenty of women poets today, in those days they seemed few and far between, and their readings acted as a fresh antidote to the dominance of male writers.

Looking back, I see that the poetry readings fed a need for performance, but the bookshop is where all my “book” learning went on. The books I was exposed to then remain the foundation for all my reading. But it is Conrad’s list that I most often return to, more than three decades later.

I need to go back to that list again: re-read Ford, peruse Lermontov, going back to the Nabokov I read before and reading other books of his for the first time. (I wonder what Conrad would think, for instance, of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, because, to my mind, it is a great memoir.) Nowadays, too, I don’t have to rely on the heavily edited paperback of Robert Musil’s masterpiece, The Man without Qualities, because I have the two-volume hardcover of the complete text. Wyndham Lewis seems a bit tough reading today. Yet when all else fails, there is still Flann O’Brien, comic master or even that other master of the fools, Joyce himself.

Conrad is retired from the book business now, but I understand that Dudley is still working a bookshop in the East Village. Andrei is a radio commentator, poet, professor, novelist, essayist, filmmaker, celebrity. I am writing more prose than poetry, more nonfiction than fiction, more personal essays than anything else, and when I think about it, no one from that time at the bookshop ever discussed essayists, although in the Lion’s Head pub on Sheridan Square there was an insider crowd who admired Edward Hoagland’s pieces in the Village Voice.

Sometimes I think that the dead mafioso was right. Perhaps Albert Camus is the one to go back and re-read, with his clear and perceptive prose, subtly lyrical (even in translation) and provocative. Then, too, there are the lists provided me by the women clerks at the bookshop. I haven’t failed to mention them out of malice or phallocentricity but because there were no women working in the Eighth Street Bookshop until years later when I returned there—oh, I forget how many times I worked at the bookshop. The last was in 1974. During that final period, one of these women made up a reading list for me that consisted of Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, Nathalie Sarraute, Natalia Ginzburg, Anna Akhmatova, Elizabeth Bishop, and Doris Lessing, not to mention Grace Paley, that curly-headed, gray-haired, lady up the block who used to protest the war every weekend and who tried to talk my old girlfriend out of dropping out of college and going off to San Francisco with the likes of me. Paley is on a lot of those lists I was given. So was Djuna Barnes. Then along came Jean Rhys and Kate Chopin.

And what about reading the decadent fin-de-siecle French prose stylist Huysmans’s Against Nature again? Or how about Rimbaud? You cannot go wrong reading Rimbaud again. Or Neruda? Why not read One Hundred Love Sonnets again? One could not even go wrong even reading the Irish one more time. For instance, I’d ask myself: when was the last time you read Ulysses or Beckett’s prose trilogy or Yeats’s later poems? Well, I still read Yeats with almost clock-like regularity—a copy of his poems is rarely far away—though I can’t remember the last time I read Joyce other than Dubliners, and I haven’t read Beckett’s prose in maybe a decade or more. Ford Madox Ford I’ve not read since Conrad made his list for me. For that matter, I haven’t read too many of the other books on his list in recent times except maybe Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time. Sometimes, too, when I’m feeling sentimental about the past, I also think of those two poetry anthologies—the Don Allen and the Leary/Kelly—which I used to read religiously every day. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to them again? Yet each of these memories of a book or an author always brings me back to that place, the Eighth Street Bookshop, which is no longer there.

*  *  *

Fire ruined part of the shop. Then Eli Wilentz decided to get out of business. Or perhaps Eli got out and the fire came. I can’t remember now. At any rate, the bookshop is gone forever. It was that great megastore before such things existed; it was the paradigm of a bookshop. Besides the floor upon floor, shelf upon shelf of books, there was that element of feng shui, not simply location but the geomancy of that locus, its spiritual otherness. Then there were the customers, charming, annoying, irritable, angry, and yet somehow in retrospect always brilliant. But mostly it was the people who worked there. The clerks were masters of hermeneutics but also pop encyclopedias and wells of irreverence and wit. Conrad was our boss, the maker of that ultimate list, the one I could write a whole book of essays about because each book was that good to read. I have to try to find the list again to see which books I may have forgotten or, more likely, which ones I added to it that Conrad himself would never have sanctioned. Perhaps Andrei might know. Or even Conrad. I could give him a call. But it’s been so many years that were I to call he might think I needed to borrow money, was in trouble, needed help. The last thing to cross Conrad’s mind would be that list he wrote for me a lifetime ago. <

Michael Gregory Stephens has published 18 books including The Brooklyn Book of the Dead, Green Dreams, and Where the Sky Ends. He currently lives in London, where his play Our Father is to be revived in 2004.

Originally published in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review



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