Spencer Holst - A legendary underground storyteller with tales as a cross between Hans Christian Andersen and Franz Kafka: Parables, riddles, quixotic quickies, allegories, fables, zenlike pensées
Spencer Holst, The Zebra Storyteller: Collected Storied, Barrytown Limited, 1997.
"The fertile imagination of fable-fabricator Holst (The Language of Cats, 1971, etc.) appears in all its glory in his latest collection of 64 far-fetched stories and fragments, 18 of which are making their publishing debut. Juggling mind-bending juxtapositions in his eclectic view of the world, Holst often rearranges familiar scenes or institutions into terra incognita, but leaves enough of the old in place to serve as an unsettling reminder of how easily the known becomes strange. Cats and their inscrutable ways are a favorite subject, as Sherlock Holmes and Watson take on human guise at will and use their furry logic (``Adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra'') to solve a brutal killing of a fellow feline, while ``The Cat Who Owned an Apartment'' discovers that patience, and a quick pounce, can bring unexpected but richly deserved rewards. New York City and other jungles of the world are used to good effect, with a mound of garbage proving the death of a family that inadvertently threw its life savings out in the trash (``Finders Keepers''); but Africa is no more hospitable to a legendary jazz drummer, who leaves fame behind to search for a tribe of drummers only to find his death when he recalls his past at an inopportune moment (``Tom-Tom''). The most sustained (though incomplete) saga here, ``The Institute for the Foul Ball,'' features a bold new look at baseball, with a visionary young superstar proposing--at a time when club owners are keen to bolster sagging profits--a paradigm shift that would allow a batter only one strike. Whimsical but with a full complement of death and decay: a selection of primordial melodies and fantastic ‚tudes played with a master's touch." - Kirkus Reviews
"Spencer Holst is one of those rare and special writers, like Jorge Luis Borges, who, for better or worse, deserves the title “a writer’s writer.” Indeed, in sly recognition of that debt, in one of his stories, a typewriter repairman, who has returned Holst’s ancient upright, types on a virgin white sheet, “Borges is better.” Although Holst’s miniature prose pieces in some ways have the universal appeal of the ballpark hot dog (see for example, the longest work in this collection, “The Institute for the Foul Ball,” in which the batter stands on the plate and thus can swing either to the right or the left), by and large his fiction is an acquired taste, like caviar (see, for example, “The Language of Cats,” in which cats are revealed to be the original civilization who created robots to take care of them—something all cat-owners will immediately recognize as truth).
Holst is an impish writer (there seems to be no better word) who sees himself equidistant between Hart Crane and James Thurber, with a bit of Edgar Allan Poe thrown in, but whose wife more accurately describes him as halfway between Hans Christian Andersen and Franz Kafka. He is an “artificer” in the classic sense of the term, for in none of his stories is he limited by what most people understand to be “reality” or “common sense”—both of which are either merely real or much too common for his own rarified taste. In this collection, which Holst says contains every story he has ever written, we discover that Sherlock Holmes was really a cat and that Mrs. Claus has taken over the role formerly held by her husband and has done a much better job of it. In addition to zebra storytellers, herein live giant rats, magical frogs, dingo dogs, demons, blond bats, ghosts, purple birds, magicians, bullfinches, and goblins.
Pure storytelling is what this book is all about—with some pieces so shorn of irrelevancies and mere matter that they seem to shimmer with essence." - eNotes
Spencer Holst, Brilliant Silence, Barrytown/Station Hill Press, 2000.
"Perhaps you haven't had the pleasure of hearing Spencer Holst tell you a story. A few pages into this new collection and you're going to start wishing.
An ampersand unwinds.
A haunted jewel with a soul covers a cruel beauty's mole.
I fish for a name among my many noms de plume.
Is this prose? Holst describes his work as "paragraphs" and "sentences" and "very, very short stories." Is this music? He opens with an overture and avenues through frugal fugues, a disappearing reappearing act through a multiverse strange and familiar. Or maybe this is performance that escapes the page:
A fast talker sometimes needs to whisper, She is a deaf-mute who
can read his lips, is expert at taking shorthand, and gets it all
down in black and white, though she's a dozen feet away, and looking
at him in a mirror.
Parables, riddles, quixotic quickies, allegories, fables, Zenlike pensées. One thinks emptiness, perfection, no-mind. Yet one thinks with this no-mind. Waking dreams in the garden of myth, where the storyteller goes on hoeing his rows.
Even after you realize oh, he's doing this with collage, you wonder: how? The way gravity drops a crabapple in the grass, perfectly adjacent to your cup of tea? The way a skipping stone thrown by a tot knocks a quack from a duck? Pots of adjectives spun by lots of folks have tried to describe Spencer Holst since his debut in the '50s; the storyteller merely smiles enigmatically and hairpins the next turn.
The Fibonacci series yields the nautilus shell, the sunflower's whorled face, symmetry in variety. Likewise, Holstian mathematics are based on 64, two to the sixth power. Six sets of 64 pragraphs, interwoven with six paired strands from the overture, for a total of 384 singles sentences, or "unpierced pearls strung," divided into six sections.
As with nature, there are no mistakes here, only experiments. The chemist and physicist also know the puzzle deepens the farther in you stroll. First is color. Glimmering wit, a feel for the shapely story. Imagination proposing astonishing detail and moving on fast, fruitfully spending vision that never looks back. But then, when you are dizzy with color, and you grope for the structure underneath, there it is, revealed.
Photographs of sculptures by George Quasha called "Axial Stones" appear her and there in the book: the acknowledgments page calls them "precariously and naturally balanced, unworked stones, using no adhesive in maintaining position." So precisely thus do Holst's brilliant silences stand." - Karen Donovan
Holst's stories have been repeated by word of mouth and his followers in the thousands all over the country. He has published two collections of stories, THE LANGUAGE OF CATS and SPENCER HOLST STORIES , and for three decades has been storyteller par excellence of New York's literary cafés, entrancing readers from Allen Ginsberg to John Cage to Muriel Rukeyser and W. S. Merwin. He reads his stories in New York City at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bouwerie, Judson Church in Washington Square, and at St' Peter's Church in Chelsea. Each weekend he conducts a notable double series of readings at Doctor Generosity's on the Upper East Side and at St. Adrian Company in Greenwich Village. The author's readings in Greenwich Village have been attended by Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, W.S. Merwin, Diane Walotsky, Raymond Mongo... "
"Spencer Holst died Thursday November 22, 2001. He was 75 at the time and had much success as a writer and later as a painter. He was a devoted father to his son Sebastian and devoted husband to his wife of forty years, Beate Wheeler Holst.
His greatest strength was his ability as a reader. His voice, his command of his audience, his material all joined together to cast a spell. To this end he wrote wonderful fables, stories and many pieces of only one or two lines that seemed to contain the universe.
He had been a bohemian all his life, reading his new lines to friends by candlelight. I remember such a evening in his home on Staten Island in the sixties. We sat around his kitchen table while he read from one of his manuscripts that he pulled out of an overstuffed trunk. Several friends, his always gracious wife Beate, candles illuminated the scene that was attended by at least seven gray cats all sitting around the kitchen on tables and chairs and shelves as much part of it as anyone of us.
It occurs to me as I write this that this might be a scene out of one of his stories. He lived as he imagined. A world of art, music, strange tales in which animals spoke and miracles were ordinary. And always cats. Later in his life I visited him in his Greenwich village studio. He was extremely tired and lay across his bed. Under his arm lay a cat with his paws over Spencer's arm in complete repose.
I met Spencer, known to friends as Boy, a name given to him by his father, when I was 26 and he was 38. He immediately charted some mathematical equation about the relationship of our ages. I was born in 1938 and 26 years old while he was born in 1926 and was 38. He went on to explain further but I have forgotten the rest of the formula. We were both living in a waterfront building on the narrows of Staten Island.
Spencer became a major influence on my life. I remember sitting in a Horn and Hardart automat on Williams Street in lower Manhattan with my friend Roxanne Gonzales. From our table we got a grand view of the lunchtime crowds that streamed past the window. Suddenly Spencer passed by pushing a stroller with his son Sebastian in it. I didn't know Spencer at that time, he was just my downstairs neighbor. I turned to Roxanne and proclaimed "That's who I want to be in 20 years" My admiration for him was instant and without qualification.
Spencer and Beate, (Boy and Bea), were glorious figures to a young artist. They both had success at showing their works, Spencer was always reading somewhere and Beate had shown her paintings in the downtown gallery scene. And what's more they seemed to know everybody. He played Chess with John Cage.
Spencer had many friends among the avant guard artists. Everyone loved his stories. He loved dancers and was always performing with them. He thought of new ways to collaborate with them. He was part of a scene that existed in the sixties and seventies that was unique and exciting.
In his later years he was a painter. He painted pictures of intense decorative power. He started by making a faux writing sketch. He loved the idea of false identities. He had a story about double-talk French. These paintings were supposed to be a new invented calligraphy. However they took off and became a genre to themselves.
Spence is missed but remembered for his long and fruitful life in the arts." - Robert Sievert
The Zebra Storyteller
The Santa Clause Murderer
The Man Who Was Always Wishing
The Language of Cats
The Mirror Story
The Monroe Street Monster