There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.
– Axolotl, by Julio Cortázar (from Las Armas Secretas / The Secret Weapons)
Cortázar’s stories are just the stuff you need if you want your brain flipped sideways. The story “Axolotl” (you can read it here) is from the 1956 Spanish-language collection called Final del Juego. I read it in French in a book called Les Armes Secrètes, which collects 11 stories instead of the 5 in the original Las Armas Secretas. In English, it seems to be included in the collection Blow-Up and Other Stories, which gather yet a different selection. Jesus, foreign publishers, why mess with a good thing? Go figure. Anyway, pick up any of Cortázar’s books of stories, and teach your cortex the old back-flip.
“Daddy?” He feels his elbow being picked at. “Daddy!” His daughter is holding her clarinet as if she is about to hit him with it. Behind her brown-rimmed glasses her eyes are fierce. She looks like a twelve-year-old district attorney with a good case and witnesses. “I was going to practice,” she says.
from “Prowlers”, in A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter
I love Charles Baxter. I love Charles Baxter. He’s a master; his short stories are intense little nuclei of goodness. Not all like this previous sentence of mine. He’s good. He’s good – his stories radiate kindness. I can pick up pretty much any of his stories and within a couple of pages I’ll have stopped three or four times to ponder some brilliant, sneaky line.
I’ve recently discovered Albert Londres (1884-1932), a globe-trotting French journalist who seems a bit like a real-world, earlier, more principled Tintin:
Misery is like any other State. Only those who live in it know it. Others don’t even think about it. And when sometimes they do talk about it, they do so as of a country they’ve never seen, that is to say that they only talk a lot of nonsense.
This is from Les Chemins de Buenos Aires (the extract’s translation is mine), a book-length report on the apparently flourishing sex trafficking at the time (1927) between France and Argentina. In this often quite funny first-person account, Londres follows French pimps from Paris to Buenos Aires, tells of how they seduce or trick women into following them, how they cross the ocean and avoid the authorities, how they set them up in Argentina. It’s quite extraordinary to be transported to such a time and place (and milieu), to hear early 20th century pimps in their own words.
Other works of his that I plan on reading include Au bagne (on the French penal colony in Guyana), Chez les fous (an investigation of mistreatments in psychiatric institutions) as well as works on different subjects set in colonial Africa.
His books are translated in English, but I’m not sure how easily one could get his hands on one. But I’d recommend trying! Or if by any chance you read French, a good few of his works are available for free (Public Domain) on Wikisource.
There were several dead refugees, one dead horse, and the dying cavalry officer who was pinned under the horse. At intervals the cavalryman awoke and faintly screamed. Now he screamed for Mother, and again he screamed for a priest. At times he awoke to scream for his horse. His screaming disquieted the buzzards and farther disgruntled the Poet, who was feeling peevish anyhow. He was a very dispirited Poet. He had never expected the world to act in a courteous, seemly, or even sensible manner, and the world had seldom done so; often he had taken heart in the consistency of its rudeness and stupidity. But never before had the world shot the poet in the abdomen with a musket. This he found not heartening at all.
from A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
Before starting High-Rise, I was staying one summer in a beach high-rise at Rosas on the Costa Brava, not far from Dalí’s home at Port Lligat, and I noticed that one of the French ground-floor tenants, driven to a fury by cigarette butts thrown down from the upper floors, began to patrol the beach and photograph the offenders with a zoom lens. He then pinned the photos to a notice board in the foyer of the block. A very curious exhibition, which I took to be another green light to my imagination.
-J.G Ballard, interviewed in The Paris Review
Excited by my own sex, I felt light-headed and generous. All sense of hunger had left me. I decided to startle the placid town with my sex, but not by copulating with these suburbanites still asleep in their bedrooms. I would mount the town itself, transform Shepperton into an instant paradise more exotic than all the television travelogues that presided over their lives.
-from The Unlimited Dream Company, by JG Ballard
(You can find an interview with Ballard in The Paris Review, where he says, among other things that the title of this novel was a mistake, as it sounded “like a jeans emporium”.
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”
“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.
“There’s the First law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives out nonkipple.’ Like gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody there to fight the kipple.”
“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.”
“Your place here,” he said, “this apartment you’ve picked – it’s too kipple-ized to live in. We can roll the kipple-factor back; we can do like I said, raid the other apts. But-” He broke off.
Isidore said, “We can’t win.”
Do androids dream of electric sheep, Philip K. Dick