William S. Wilson - I have been the librarian of time, able to see and to feel with my hands the shape of things to come ever being reshaped

William S. Wilson, Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka, Fiction Collective 2, 2002.


"In a 1978 New York Times book review, Kenneth Baker described Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka as: "…the most powerful New American fiction I have encountered in years. A demanding, exhilarating work." Nearly 25 years later, FC2 is proud to reissue this classic collection of short fiction by William S. Wilson that seems even more relevant today. It touches on controversies over the role of science in our lives and deals with cosmetic surgery and the medical uses of human embryos, heart transplants, and regenerated genitalia. And that's only the beginning. The story "Metier: Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka," implies that Kafka responded in his fiction to questions that no longer need to be asked in fiction. The epistolary story, "Conveyance: The Story I Wouldn't Want Bill Wilson to Read," is an intimate letter from a woman who had wanted to write fiction and who now challenges Wilson's reaction to her report of a tragedy. "Interim" chronicles the imaginary reforestation of Scotland and "Anthropology" turns on the actual moment in Structuralism when Claude Levi-Strauss relocates the ear to the back of the head in order to interpret a myth. Written with cool precision and a subtle touch, these meditations and metafictions will continue to reverberate for decades to come."

"...an ear for the frightening or ironic music in words... that should have the likes of... Barthelme looking to their laurels." - Kirkus Reviews

"Wilson's lucid and witty reverence for the fascination of the irreducible makes his 'experiments' an irresistible comprehensible whole." - The Baltimore Sun

Read it at Google Books

William S Wilson, Birthplace moving into nearness (Birthplace CL), North Point Press, 1982.


"THIS eccentric, often brilliant first novel by the author of the highly praised short-story collection Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka is difficult to describe without seeming to fall into parody. Set in the near future on an Edenic island called Primavera, ''Birthplace'' is a novel in the form of an extended letter from an old man to his long-absent grandson, Octavio. There are recognizable human transactions in William S. Wilson's literary tour de force - births and deaths, adoptions and marriages - but the novel is mainly about its own engendering. Its true subject is the relationship of language to the workings of the imagination.
''I have been the librarian of time, able to see and to feel with my hands the shape of things to come ever being reshaped,'' the maker of this book of letters, Salathiel, says of himself. His is the role of the artist giving coherence and form to fragments of memory. In writing to his grandson, the septuagenarian Salathiel is also seeking to make sense of his own life as he readies himself for death. Letters are included within the larger letter, communications from other members of the family - notably, the boy's parents, Orlando and Olivia, and his aunt and uncle, Aurelia and Oliver. Although playful and at times parodic, ''Birthplace'' is essentially a meditative work, an implicit wisdom text (advice from experience to innocence) dealing with death and renewal. It is related both in theme and imagery to Shakespeare's ''A Winter's Tale'' and ''The Tempest.'' In their sharing of knowledge and experience, the letters occasion themselves as gifts, the written word as gesture of love.
Although composed solely of letters, ''Birthplace'' has almost nothing in common with conventional epistolary novels, such as Samuel Richardson's ''Pamela'' or ''Clarissa.'' Mr. Wilson has only passing interest in the psychology of character. The figures in his cast at times seem interchangeable, defined only by their occupations. Aurelia is a doctor (a scientist in her predilections), Olivia a film maker (''Content is merely the accident of the era,'' she says), Oliver a poet and Orlando (a once backward child) a father and failed novelist. The Mayan Indian, Delenda Kinh, a godlike figure who comes to rule Primavera, is inchoate and wise. Salathiel, as artist, includes the qualities of the others as he includes their letters in his book. At the end, Salathiel marries a young woman named Yolanda and fathers a child. The title of the book, like a prophecy, achieves literal fulfillment.
A narrative of sorts - the oblique exposition of an embryonic story - evolves through the letters that Salathiel shapes for his grandson. We learn of the overthrow of the tyrannical ruler, Kwant - a figure representing the inhumanity of the past - by the enlightened Delenda Kinh. (''Delenda treated time as though every day were a reunion, greeting the face of day like the physiognomy of a friend, to be recognized.'') Under Delenda's benign authority, money is replaced by writing paper as a mode of transaction. After 14 years of wise rule, Delenda is killed by his beloved Aurelia in a self-devised ritual: He is cut open and a calcified fetus sewn up inside him. His death is intended as a sacrifice, the taking on of the ''infections'' of his people. We learn eventually of the deaths of Orlando, Oliver and Olivia, though their letters, at times delivered posthumously, live after them. Renewal is the book's central issue. Salathiel gives up the notion of dying, becomes a father and completes the letter to his grandson. The rest is implication.
Not all of this self-conscious novel is as good as when it is at its best. On occasion, obsession extends itself into tedious repetition. The notion that life on Primavera is a ''party'' palls after excessive reiteration. Still, this odd species of experimental fiction sustains itself at an impressively high level much of the time. What moves us in this work are the esthetic qualities and not tragic events, not what happens to the characters but the language and form in which events are revealed. ''Birthplace'' is a long philosophical poem in the guise of utopian fiction. In Mr. Wilson's description, the coming together of Salathiel and Yolanda becomes a metaphysical act. ''Yolanda, who can speak for herself, spoke for herself, I looked up and named her Hope, and we conferred, two active objects arriving safely at another border and crossing alive, with our collateral love intact.''
In his last letter to Octavio, Salathiel writes, ''Your memory lives on credit in my heart. I have humored my longing for you, fond old grandfather waiting on a cliff. I am half afraid to look out to sea lest I catch myself looking for you. Not knowing what or how to think of you, I grow reluctant to think of you at all.'' Instead of being a memorial to the past, this book-length letter becomes an invitation to the present. Salathiel finds his absent grandson in himself and so renews his own life as he completes the letter. It is art that Mr. Wilson cares most about, that frozen moment when the imagined world - the world itself - achieves an illusory completion. ''Birthplace'' as it ends offers us that triumphant illusion." - Jonathan Baumbach

William S. Wilson, Black Mountain College Dossiers No 4: Ray Johnson, Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, 1997.

"A powerfully influential artist, who has been designated both the principal member of the New York Correspondence School and founder of Mail Art as a whole, Ray Johnson discovered in Black Mountain College the perfect environment in which to nourish his distinctive creativity. His work after his departure extends the exploration of freedom championed by the school perhaps as far as any other student at Black Mountain College."

"...The preface to Wilson's text indicates that the text is actually the result of a 69 double-spaced page letter Wilson sent to Wenk, which Wenk, with Wilson's permission, proceeded to "dynamite." The resulting fragments were composed specifically for the book. This conceptual aspect of taking something apart and putting it back together directly relates to Wenk's method of working, and therefore complements Wilson's insights into the artist's work. Additional documentary photos of multiple uses of tape in the real world - duct tape holding broken windows together - offer graphic reinforcement of Wilson's observations, "The tape, as viscous, is dangerous, for it threatens to stick to one like glue or like honey ..." A smart group of texts, Wilson's writing reveals the complexity of Wenk's seemingly innocuous actions and prosaic material. In his next publication, Wenk would be better served in attempting not to deconstruct the writer.
Of course Wenk's body of work at this point in time can't stand up to Ray Johnson's oeuvre. However, Wenk should look closely at how the caretakers of Johnson's estate understand the important relationship between an artist's personal image and the perceptions of his work. If Wenk's publication falters because he conceptually tries too hard at times to position himself as outside the art world, Black Mountain's elegy to Johnson succeeds because it takes the opposite approach - it embraces Johnson precisely because he was an artist. Such clarity does not lessen the richness of the work on Johnson. Instead it provides the necessary framework for comprehension and revelation.
An elusive individual whose suicidal jump off a New York City bridge in 1995 was thought to be his final piece of "mail art," Johnson the man, like the eclectic fragments that comprised his collages, was open to multiple and varied interpretations. Living a life that appeared to be an extension of the puns and palindromes that shaped his collages and mail art pieces, Johnson, to be taken seriously, must be lent a poet's grace through a comprehensive interpretation of the fusion of his life and artistic practice. This is beautifully accomplished by another William S. Wilson text that blends his personal reminiscences of Johnson with insightful readings of his body of work.
The "dossier" on Ray Johnson immediately announces itself as a poetic recollection of the artist through the close-up, soft-focus, black and white photograph of the artist that graces the cover. The contours of fair-skinned, youthful Johnson's face seem to disappear and merge with the background - appropriate for a man from whom personal identity was constantly in question.
In the text for this book, Wilson has the advantage of drawing on both the man and artist as he knew him. This is incredibly important in establishing the relationship between private acts and the creative process. Whether one is familiar or unfamiliar with Johnson's body of work, Wilson's recollections of seeing first-hand how Johnson interpreted the visual world around him, and then integrated into his unusual collages, are immensely engaging. An excerpt of Wilson's explains this phenomenon:
Walking on the Lower East Side Ray frequently saw a Ukrainian sign advertising a dance in letters which looked to him like "3-A-BABY." He then equated "dance" with "three," so that when three babies were involved in his life, he put the dance of three into the word "correspondance," thereafter usually writing New York Correspondance School.
It is this expression of Johnson's idiosyncratic logic that Wilson articulates with not only particular clarity, but poetry as well. In describing Johnson's suicide Wilson writes, "When Ray dropped himself from a bridge between two opposite shores on a dark winter night - he dropped himself as he would drop an envelope in a letterbox." Here Wilson weaves the memory of a lost friend into the aesthetic that shaped the artist's life. The dossier on Ray Johnson is an example of how the best art writing embodies the soul of the artist that is its subject. Both writers and artists could learn from this example." - John Brunetti

William S. Wilson: Ray Johnson Ray Johnson. PDF, 1977 Between Books edition

William S. Wilson: Ray Johnson John Willenbecher. PDF, 8.3Mb. A second Between Books edition

William S. Wilson internet sources

Comments