Wendy Walker's world is a world of mystery, castles, architectural wonders, secrets, changelings, doubles, madness, terrorism, and death


Wendy Walker, The Secret Service, Sun & Moon Press, 1992.


grand baroque novel, intrigue a la Raymond Roussel

Read an excerpt (pdf)

The Secret Service came into being one night in 1976 while I was playing a game. I would take a list of words encountered in my reading, and which I had looked up in the OED, and write a story using them.  On this particular occasion, the story seemed to promise to go on, though for how long I certainly had no inkling.  My experience of writing it was certainly a long act of following out the premises laid down in the opening, and it led me into such fascinating areas as the history of porcelain, the botany of roses, and scenic design in the nineteenth century theater. 
I have since learned that this game is practiced, under the name logorallye, by the OuLiPo, as a kind of warm-up exercise at its summer workshops.

The Secret Service is a novel of rare range and power. Its overarching plot framework provides a great architecture for Walker’s beautifully made language. Many genres and styles—naturalism, allegory, surreal catalogs, philosophical and metaphysical fables, dreams—are woven into an epic story of intrigue and political maneuvering.
In a Europe that resembles…that of the nineteenth century, the English Secret Service has gotten wind of a plot against the young, newly married king and queen. The details of this plot must be uncovered. The suspected architects of it—an Italian baron, a French cardinal, a German nobleman—are men of finely honed connoisseurships. Each is obsessed with a particular pursuit—one with roses and their infinite variety; another with fine glass and porcelain; another with classical sculpture. The Secret Service has discovered a method of physical transformation that enables their agents to masquerade as objects; in this case, as the precious objects of the foreigners’ obsessions. (Walker’s explication of the fabular physics of this transformation is one of the wonders of the book.)
The events that this transformation set in motion blossom into the most amazing ramifications, creating a fiction second to none for richness of invention, vision, and chimerical psychology. Here is a novel that does not recapitulate banality; Walker honors possibility, and the great range that language, dream, emotion, and intellect together can produce. The Secret Service is a new voice’s finest creation.

This is a curiously fanciful spy novel, apparently set in the 18th century, the time period in which the museum as an institution originated. The central device is that members of a secret service are able to transmute themselves into physical objects – elegant pieces of porcelain, fine glass, and sculpture. These pieces are given as gifts to foreign dignitaries and are able to observe and communicate back. The writing is exquisite, especially how it gives one the sense of actually being an object.—David Wilson

…to become an object may… be a positive aspiration. Beyond ownership, there is the lure of a more complete and intimate possession of an object. This is possession in the same sense that an alien spirit enters a human being, only reversed: a human spirit entering an alien entity. Wendy Walker gives us a rare example of this in her novel The Secret Service. The secret service in question engages in espionage for the king of England in an imaginary version of early-nineteenth-century Europe. The service’s agents have at their disposal an extraordinary scientific discovery that allows them to transform human beings into objects. In describing this experience, Walker does not simply superimpose a human point of view onto an object…Rather, in her novel, the humans take on the perceptual modes of the objects that embody them.—Peter Schwenger

Walker digresses divinely. We view the world as a goblet, as a rose, as a statue, as a dreamer, as a madman; we speculate on the nature of reality, and what Form and Substance mean to one another; we wander in jungles and dangle off glaciers, sit exiled in towers and drift through Paris; and all these seemingly-fractured episodes gradually intertwine and become an unshakable lattice of inextricably linked tales. The action of the plot whirls to a frenzy and then spins slowly to a poised halt; Walker stops before answering all our questions, but she has answered them obliquely, answers about as good as we usually get in life, and we cannot feel cheated.—Elizabeth Willey

We're living in a time of fantastic dreams with human consequences, a time of fatalistic escapism. It's something in the air, like an approaching storm. The scent of acid-tongued rain. Not the familiar flat zaniness of parody or plagiarism. Something less controllable, more mistrustful of its own nostalgia, more awkward in its flippancy: expensive material which insists on rumpling with damp.
Maybe it's an adaptation to the multinationals' marketing of safely multinationalized myths. Pop frivolity no longer protects us. Instead, it seems to be buckling under forces both external and internal, the elaborately arranged fissures lushly decorated. The moment finds expression in Delia Sherman's novels. It also finds expression in Hong Kong films such as Peking Opera Blues and Swordsman II, although the buckling forces differ. Some years ago, Donald G. Keller did a splendid taxonomic job on its expression in American genre publishing, listing influences and concerns of what he called "fantasy of manners". Since then, he and others have begun using the art-historical term "mannerism" instead. Mannerism most commonly identifies the post-Renaissance pre-Baroque styles of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the period encompassing Tintoretto and El Greco, John Donne and John Webster. "Mannerism means experimental response, tentative commitment, learned but personal research, overcleverness in handling conventional forms and elements." (All Mannerism-related quotes are taken from an 1955 Anchor paperback, Four Stages of Renaissance Style, by Wylie Sypher. If only for the pleasure of citing his name.) The "mannerist" label seems out of place when applied to innocuously parodic or derivative work. But applied sparingly and with reference to its origins in art history, I find the label useful. More precisely than "fantasy of manners," it points to what most interests me in a cultural moment which crosses media, genre, and language. For example, in The Secret Service, by Wendy Walker. Published by the perfectly wonderful Sun & Moon Press, specialists in experimental poetry, the novel hasn't been marketed as contemporary fantasy. Its writer shows no signs of having been influenced by contemporary fantasy. Still, it's as clearly a mannerist narrative (and as murkily sui generis) as Swordspoint, Moonwise, Winterlong, or Through a Brazen Mirror. It begins: I am a mousseline goblet, upside-down, set aside to dry, the banquet done. Some daggle-tail scrub-girl has cleansed me. I am also the lacy midinette, binding the bouquet for the courtly gentleman come to purchase camellias before the party, at my aunt's flower shop; I count the change, he glances at my petticoat, ready to turn me upside-down and ring me like a bell. Both complex assertions are literally, manneristically, true. Polly, narrator of the moment, is shopgirl by day and mousseline goblet by night. She is a member of the Secret Service, and the "Service" is both a government agency and a table setting. Literalizing still further, the closely observed-and-observing gentleman will in fact soon ring Polly-the-goblet like a bell.
An explanation can quickly be cobbled together from jacket-copy or contents. In an imaginary England half-Regency, half-Edwardian, a means of transforming oneself into any non-conscious object has been discovered. This would be an incalculably harmful weapon if it fell into the wrong hands, but, by definition, the English have the right hands. The plot which necessitates the weapon's deployment is too obvious to even make for good slapstick: a shell game of infant girls which will supposedly create a scandal capable of destroying the British royal family. Only the Service stands between the kingdom and certain doom, etc. The novel's characters are easy to cast -- or would be, if Powell-Pressburger's stock company was still available. Our heroes are a stouthearted mustachioed Colonel (disguised as a bronze Thisbe), and a clever but overly impetuous young man (disguised as a rose). There's a spunky young heroine à la Wendy Hiller, and a sensible matronly heroine à la Angela Lansbury. The Continental villains (one French, one Italian, one German) reek of absinthe and garlic, cloak themselves in Catholicism and connoiseurship, arrange incestuous marriages and grind children's bones. And new familiar figures keep drifting in: a beautiful princess locked in a tower, a beautiful boy named Ganymede.... So a romp is promised. ("The whole effect is one of melodrama and levity -- or demented ingenuity." -- Sypher on the Chigi Palace.) But in the best mannerist tradition, this proves misleading. The romp leads us into traps so painful as to seem almost lifelike. The first sticking point is the very pleasure of the prose. Not that its vocabulary wraps itself as rapturously in exotic translucency as Greer Gilman's, for example. But somehow, even while describing action, it seems to drift away from narrative, fascinated by the very processes of perception and description. The gaze simultaneously skims the dark ornamentation of the surface and loses itself in deep water. Of course, one might expect a novel in which characters are so often mineral or vegetable to seem a bit static. And it's likely that next, the reader will be struck by the stubborn refusal of characters to continue content in their action-driven roles. ("Often in mannerist portraits the cliché becomes a mask. ...the iconography does not correspond to the psychology." -- Sypher.) The characters' truest instincts are for withdrawal; their basest desire is control; their noblest desire is to not feel, to (at most) observe. Sometimes this passivity is protested. The rose-knight, Rutherford, chafes in his thorns: For the first time he anticipated the fact of his imminent blossoming with a positive physical awareness. Inevitably, following the course of his own growth, he must let down his guard, relax, become open, and how could he allow this? Was it really so natural to allow every passing insect to probe one's most defenseless portions? He would be vulnerable to every curious creature, and how could an agent function with such a liability? But Rutherford's grotesque, sometimes fatal, attempts to take action end best by sitting down and listening to a story.
The frequent intrusion of new stories -- not subplots so much as alternative plots -- provides another clue to the novel's mannerist intentions. The Official Plotline vanishes beneath the attention of its attendants. The most extreme interruption is a 120-page chapter detailing the hermetic Alice-like adventures of a comatose character. Fascinating in its own right, it (like the similarly interpolated "heroic fantasy" of Lucius Shepard's Green Eyes) is likely to irritate many readers. What's the point? The point is to intrude, to distract, to delay. ("The logic of the structure does not coincide with the structural elements." -- Sypher on Michaelangelo's Medici Chapel.) The sub-Dumas intrigue dissolves, swamped by the deeper concerns of the book, until it can be plucked away so easily that its resolution hardly registers. The narrative structure resembles the aimlessly intent inward drift of the characters. Both model the book's true concerns in their process, if not always in their content. In The Secret Service, the aim of possession is to take the place of the thing possessed, and self-possession is therefore a hall of mirrors. ("This device for self-contemplation is dramatically immediate, but preposterously contrived, like some of the self-regarding poems of Donne." -- Sypher on Parmigianino's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.") Heroes, villains, and victims all seek transformation into the simple and inanimate, and, reluctantly, with toll paid, seek to return again. The price is their humanity, as the extravagantly artificial characters grow colder and more damaged. The book is a series of variations on the old dream of irresponsibility, of striking out for the interior: an interior simultaneously frontier and self and womb. Then in the growing lassitude of her temptation, a thought returned to her, of a box she had seen... in which a marble hand served as a cot to a sleeping child.... She drove on through the ooze, the image of the baby floating before her, growing in her mind until it drowned out the dreadful bogs. She envied its clean, supple nakedness, glowing with warmth and sleep; how entirely secure it was, ensconsed unconscious in the protective hand. Irresponsibility finds its most extreme expression in lifelessness, and so the lifeless are envied, and even emulated. Responsibility cannot be evaded indefinitely, however. While the observer may be jealous of the marbleized hand's gentle warmth, the meat cooks within.
This is the other source of the heat, that it cannot disperse itself through my skin and is thus ever increasing inside it.... You would not guess to look at my hand, or to touch it, that it was boiling so inside. Even as I writhed Mme. Lenore held my hand, but could feel nothing of what was causing me such agony.
Over character or plot, the book concerns itself with the tension between soul and matter (as expressed in the contrast between understanding and observation), and the unsatisfiable desire to retreat into -- just one? No, it's perfectly clear that both pure soul and pure matter mean death. No, to somehow retreat into both, but safely, cleanly. ("The vacillation between flesh and spirit is the true metaphysical tension; and there is no resolution beyond a dramatic accomodation." -- Sypher.)
Obviously, the literary conventions of stiffly-upper-lipped British and unflappable aristocracy are well suited to Walker's theme; they are not simply parroted or simply satirized. At its best, the arch Eurocentric nostalgia typical of mannerist narrative is as misleading as the pretense of science in the best science fiction. The mannerists' true force shows itself in the cracked surface, in the need to escape their own affectations. ("The insolence and calculation in mannerism do not arise from self-confidence, but are really signs of anxiety and repression.... Mannerism is not only decorative but also expressive in a taut uneasy way, as if the figures had the resistance of the coiled spring. Yet they appear passive, suffering mutely from internal and unintelligible strain." -- Sypher.) Thus the climactic scenes in mannerist novels: breaking a window, breaking a horn, breaking one's own stilled stone limbs.... Given Sypher's description "of the mannerist depersonalization or frigidity as lacking an appearance of humanity although the sensitivity to experience is extreme," Walker's novel of inanimate spies is a direct translation of mannerism into narrative. As is so often the case with mannerist narrative, the perfection implicitly promised by the ostentatiously worked surface is not fulfilled. The structure is awkward, the shifts more disclosing the crafter's hand than disclosing craft. The antiquated plot adds neither depth nor luster to the surface it supports. Nevertheless, as is also so often the case, the force and originality of the work win out. It is pleasurable, moving, and memorable in ways incompatible with smoothness. It delivers the mindfuck missing from the mainstreams (including the mainstreams of science fiction and fantasy). Yes, the mindfuck may seem absurdly contrived, artificial, bitter, fetishistic; entangled with questions of class, commerce, and power -- but that's the '90s for you. The time in which we and The Secret Service live.
- Ray Davis

No one reads Wendy Walker’s The Secret Service (1992), a spellbinding and disorienting spy-novel/gothic fantasy (to narrow it down to two broad and non-exhaustive categories) that nearly defies description.
The premise of The Secret Service is simple, at least in the barest retelling: set in England in 19th century, a continental conspiracy is uncovered that if revealed will disgrace–and quite possibly ruin–the British royal family. The secret service of the title are called to unravel the plot, a task seemingly made easier by a recent discovery that enables agents to transform themselves into objects–in this case: a wine goblet, a bronze statue of Thisbe, and a rosebush–to infiltrate the conspirators’ ranks. As with all remarkable fiction, Walker’s plot at this, the simplest, point turns back upon itself, digresses, and passes into realms familiar to readers of Calvino, Poe, Borges, and Dickens.
The book’s flavor is perhaps best hinted at by lists; lists that tantalizingly allude to the infinite while always falling short even of the object they hope to describe. Henry Wessells writes:
The novel is filled with strange erudition, sensuous descriptive language, broken glass, crackpot science, gruesome technology, unexpected turns, and a succession of stories within stories…
And Douglas Messerli, who published the book in the now-defunct Sun & Moon Classics series, describes it in terms that remind one of a modern Metamorphoses:
Walker’s world is a world of mystery, castles, architectural wonders, secrets, changelings, doubles, madness, terrorism, and death—in short, as she herself prefers to characterize this work, she is writing in the tradition of Gothic fiction, horrible and terrifying in its revelations. If her writing style outshines even her inventiveness of story, these two work in tandem to create themes that for some may be even more overwhelming. For Walker’s world is also one of eternal change, constant alteration where humans and landscape morph into one another and, in so doing, transform experience into a series of encounters dangerous for those who prefer tranquil stasis. - writersnoonereads.tumblr.com/post/34700660599/no-one-reads-wendy-walkers-the-secret-service

Set in a 19th-century Europe that does not quite obey the contours of the real place, the story concerns a dastardly plot against the British royal family, led by three scheming continental notables. These three, a German, an Italian and a Frenchman, are also obsessive collectors, aesthetes dedicated to their respective fields of expertise: roses, rare tableware, classical statuary.
In order to infiltrate the enemy, the British secret service have developed a remarkable weapon. By scientific methods they can transform their agents into physical objects, indistinguishable from the real thing. Thus the British spies can turn themselves into a rare perfect rose, a superb antique glass or a Roman sculpture, and observe the villains from very close quarters. This transformation operates as far more than just a gimmick. Rather, Walker uses it as a far reaching, exhaustive metaphor for the nature of being human, and as a generator of exceptional language.
The book begins with a ceremonial banquet for the marriage of the young king and queen, to which the three villains have been expressly invited in order to be seduced by the beautiful objects before them, little realising they are all in fact human spies. The table is covered by the entire British secret service masquerading as a tumbler, plate or vase, all straining to catch the attention of the enemy and be taken home to their collections.
The result is like a fin de siecle Ruritanian adventure re-written by Gertrude Stein and Ronald Firbank. We read detailed descriptions not only of what it is like to be a rose, but also, for example the dream of a rose, what passes through a rose while it sleeps, from the point of view of the flower itself.
And The Secret Service, despite its historic setting, has become curiously topical. The plot to overthrow the institution of British monarchy by introducing marital scandal into its ranks, has recently become more vivid a notion than Walker could ever haye imagined.
But in an even more extraordinary example of life, or technology catching up with imagination, what would previously have been the most unfilmable of books, has become a highly feasible movie project. For the proccess of 'morphing', seen at its most advanced in Terminator 2, reproduces on screen exactly what Walker describes, the transformation of humans into physical objects and back again. The Secret Service is the first masterpiece of the age of morphing. - ADRIAN DANNATT      

In 1982 Wendy Walker, at the suggestion of Charles Bernstein, sent me the manuscript of The Secret Service. In retracing the long history of that book, I’ve discovered that it wasn’t quite yet finished at the time; the author completed it later that year. While I quickly accepted it, given my perpetual financial difficulties and the size of the text, I was slow to publish. The following year Wendy finished a new collection of stories, The Sea-Rabbit, Or the Artist of Life, also sent to me, which I immediately recognized as a work that might be more easily assimilated by the public, arguing that it should appear first. The Sea-Rabbit was published—with some very good review attention—in 1988 (after only a three year wait!). Meanwhile, Wendy continued to revise The Secret Service, finishing her revisions in 1990. I published that book finally in 1992—ten years after its original acceptance!
In 2007, I decided to revisit or to “review” the work—in the true meaning of that word. What I discovered is what I had known all along, that the work is a true masterpiece. But I think, perhaps, it has taken me these 23 some years to truly appreciate its multiple themes and its overall significance. Certainly the critics of 1992 did not fully comprehend the fiction, and sadly, it has now long remained out of print—something I pray may soon be corrected.

The story of The Secret Service—and Walker’s works, unlike so many other books I have published, can truly be described as having plots—is a knotted tale of intrigue. Agents of the British government Secret Service have discovered, based on an anonymous message, that the King—as a result of a series of perfidious acts the author describes as “an enormous vengeance,” involving a switch of babies by the French Marchioness of Tralee—has married his own sister. Not only is the future of the royal house, accordingly, based on an incestuous relationship, but, as it becomes apparent, other French and German figures are plotting to publicly reveal this information, and so bring down the Church of England and destroy the monarchy, replacing the Queen with a French pretender.
In order to discern the machinations of that transformation and ascertain the timeframe of the plot, the Secret Service springs into action. Rutherford, his young new inductee Polly, and Rutherford’s aging mentor, the Corporal, along with a local agent, posing as a keeper of a flower shop, have perfected a system, combining various theories of the transference of time with the power of opals to produce visions, in which human beings can be changed into objects. Knowing of the three villains’ passions—Baron Schelling’s devotion to glass and porcelain, Cardinal Ammanati’s love of sculpture, and the Duc D’Elsir’s admiration of roses—they transform themselves into appropriate objects: Polly into a perfect Baccarat wine goblet, the Corporal into a bronze statue of Thisbe, and Rutherford into a salmon-blossomed Albertine rosebush—all awarded the three foreigners by their supposed friend and ally, the King of England.
Things go swimmingly along until the three, admiring each other’s treasures, accidentally break the goblet—potentially destroying Polly, who has been kept in the dark by Rutherford and the Corporal about the pernicious plots the enemies are hatching. Rutherford must seek out the broken object, revealing himself to a young woman the Baron holds in a tower. That woman, we later discover, is actually the stolen princess (believed dead, but saved, it is later revealed in a wry Dickensian-like tale, by another exchange of infants by the late-Marchioness’s nanny), and it is her young lover, Ganymede, himself a sort of changeling, who ultimately retrieves Polly/the broken goblet from the Baron’s locked chambers.
Brought back to England, Polly undergoes recuperation, recounted in the longest chapter of the fiction, Chapter Nine, as a series of adventures Polly imaginatively experiences, filled with dozens of different dream images and structures from Freud and Jung to literary fantasies suggested by writers as various as Poe, Borges, Nabokov, Barnes, Calvino and García Marquez.
Meanwhile, the plot thickens as the malefactors, now aware of the nature of their gifts, speed up their machinations. Agents foil and ultimately destroy the Duc and Cardinal, but the Baron, who has also covered his own body in a porcelain sheen (polished with the bones of infants) which protects him and proffers him eternal life, plans to embalm his young charge. She resists, offering up only one arm for experimentation, before Rutherford and his men arrive on the scene. Meanwhile, in a paranoid delusion that all objects about him may be inhabited by his enemies, and suffering from horrible side-effects from the application of his porcelain coating, the Baron goes mad, tearing up his mansion and, eventually, destroying his own body in an attempt to break through his new “skin” to the blood and bones behind it.
While Walker’s story is certainly engaging, it is her writing that utterly captivates the reader. Unlike so many works of contemporary fantasy and folktale that seem to be only half-committed to the reality of their creations—the writers appearing to have one eye on the constraints of the story and other on the enchantment they are busy weaving for the child-like reader—Walker is completely convincing; without sacrificing irony, she apparently believes in the transformative acts she is describing and is utterly committed to the adult art with which she is engaged. I can think of few other contemporary works with such authoritative stylistic flourishes as The Secret Service. A single quotation must serve as evidence in a near-encyclopedic work of astonishing writing. The following, a dreamscape of the wonderful city of thieves, is as compelling as a De Chirico landscape:
As she neared [the domed building], …[it] gave the impression of abasilica. Its walls were sheer and high, like the walls of all the houses
in the city, and marked only by the thinnest and longest of windows,
like slots in a box prepared for the trick insertion of knives. The dome
rested on a square base, from which a varying number of apses ex-
truded, tall semicylinders on each face. All around the houses of the city
clustered up almost to touch the building, but as its main entrance lay
right in the line of the street, she had little difficulty finding her way to
the threshold.
Passing under the deep archway she entered a radiant grey half-light.Hundreds of people were quietly milling about in the great circular space,
while the hemisphere, its circumference pierced by many windows,
floated above them. The floor was inlaid with a pattern that sprung from
the center in beams fragmented into lozenges. The crowd massed in
irregular groups on top of this pinwheel grid, punctuating it as trees do
a flat landscape. Polly stood just inside the door a few minutes, accus-
toming her eyes to the light, watching the crowd shift, and wondering
where to go. Then, as though it were the sea parting, the crowd, with
no evident purpose, moved away to either side, leaving a clear path to
the heart of the pinwheel; and there, Polly beheld three men of astonish-
ing height in long red robes, the middle one with his back turned toward
her, the other two facing away to the left and the right.
Walker’s world is a world of mystery, castles, architectural wonders, secrets, changelings, doubles, madness, terrorism, and death—in short, as she herself prefers to characterize this work, she is writing in the tradition of Gothic fiction, horrible and terrifying in its revelations. If her writing style outshines even her inventiveness of story, these two work in tandem to create themes that for some may be even more overwhelming. For Walker’s world is also one of eternal change, constant alteration where humans and landscape morph into one another and, in so doing, transform experience into a series of encounters dangerous for those who prefer tranquil stasis. Just as the characters change into goblets, roses, and sculptures, so too do her sentences arch each over the next, reforming the text as it moves forward until we can no longer recognize a single “truth,” which is, obviously, the very nature of all great art.
After her multitude of adventures, real and imagined, Polly discovers that fact once again as she attends a play in Paris, a melodrama clearly intended for popular audiences. The plot of the story and the dramatic flourishes of its actors—the drama parallels what Polly knows to be the “true” story of the imprisoned princess who has now disappeared—convince her that she is observing the princess and her lover Ganymede themselves. She rushes backstage only to discover a forty-year-old tragédienne, sponging “a grimy veil of moisture from her ripe cleavage.” Yes, we suddenly realize, art is a terrorist act!
It is fascinating to read this great text of transformation, as I did, in late 2006-early 2007, in a time when we are asked by our government to be on the lookout for possible terrorists and their activities, when a large city like Boston can come to near standstill on account of a few light boards strategically placed to advertise a television cartoon series. Walker’s 19th century British Secret Agents ultimately destroyed their enemies only to realize their enemies had themselves been deluded; neither side knew the “truth.” As The Secret Service reveals, perhaps the truth, in the minute foreignness of our memories, can only exist as a forgotten dream. - Douglas Messerli

Imagine a painting that covers a wall. Incredibly detailed images cover its surface, illustrating a frozen moment in time. Painted not on canvas, but porcelain. You watch this painting every day for a year. And each day there is a small change, something moves. Shifts. A new detail that grows into a new thread in that frozen moment. Gradually, over that year a story is played out. And eventually you are shown the whole. This is the Secret Service. It is an expression of both stillness and motion, both poetic and beautiful. Where every paragraph is a world mapped out in prose. Set in a world much like our own, it is at the same time strangely divorced. Not just through time, but also in a timeless Europe it is difficult to recognize. It could be a hundred years ago, it could be two. The story offers crystalline clarity, its pure simplicity standing as a solid frame that hold it all together. At its centre is a plot so nefarious that the heart of the British Empire is threatened with collapse. A group of decadent Europeans who would attack the very morality of the Royal Family through subterfuge constructed over decades. Britain's one defense against this plot is The Secret Service. A group of dedicated, miraculous individuals, who thanks to a unique genius, find themselves able to lose their form and become a still life background to the events that are played out before them. As beautiful gifts they are sent into enemy territory, to discover what they can of this plot. The strengths of this novel reveal themselves early, the sheer descriptive strength of Walker's prose draws you along with almost breathless wonder. Yet at a languid relaxed pace that only gives a sense of urgency at certain key moments. You are taken outside the mundane and shown the world through the senses of objects. How does a vase experience the world, how does a rose experience the world through overlapping fumes. From outside it may seem strange, yet from the inside it all makes perfect sense. The background to the transformations, the explanations of the original discoveries, are expressed in such a poetic way that the logical science behind it loses all its coldness. There is nothing but beauty in this novel. It is never dull, always inventive, and like the members of the secret service, inanimate objects with living souls that writhe within them. So, to the book, has layers within it. A story within a story for instance, that could almost have been a novel of its own, where a victim of a tragedy attempts to pull themselves back from the brink. In a symbolic world where little is exactly how it seems. The return from this sojourn makes the rest of the novel seem all the more grounded in reality, despite its obvious fantastical elements. Even toward the end, when it tends toward the traditional, it never loses its sheen. My only disappointment was guessing the final outcome long before the conclusion, it was in the end the only way to steer the story toward the required conclusion, but it would have been all the more fascinating to play the story out with the rules laid down early in the game. For it is a game, a complex political and diplomatic game. No minor disappointments could do anything to detract from this novel. It is without a doubt of the most enjoyable literary experiences you are ever likely to have. Like an epiphany gradually carved over four hundred and fifty pages, one that ends only with the turning of that final page. - Ian Davey

Court intrigue and romance abound in this first novel from short-story writer Walker ( The Sea-Rabbit ). Set in a fictional British past, supposedly sometime during the 19th century, the story begins with the discovery of a conspiracy to overthrow the young king by bringing to light scandalous revelations about his bride. His Majesty's Secret Service springs into action: its agents have discovered a Tibetan technique to make themselves appear as inanimate objects, thus able to spy upon the plotters by posing as the things most precious to them. For Cardinal Ammanati, it is classical sculpture; for Baron Schelling, glass and porcelain; and the Duc stet spelling/pk D'Elsir's passions run to rare roses. Unfortunately, while Walker's ornate prose can be beguiling, it is often leaden and obstructs the storytelling. Another problem is the central premise itself. Any book in which the heroes protagonists spend much of their time as flowers, crystal goblets and statues is trapped into offering more observation than action. Still, this rococo blend of fantasy and high romance may find its audience. - Publishers Weekly

The Sea Rabbit
Wendy Walker, The Sea-Rabbit, or, The Artist of Life
Read an excerpt (pdf)

After I finished The Secret Service, I wanted to work on shorter pieces.  Having spent years inventing one large and complex alternative-history world, I hoped to explore more various provinces of the fabulist kingdom. I decided to try my hand at the Grimms’ tales, and, dissatisfied with psychoanalytical readings of them, to follow the lines of experience in these tales and so delve more deeply into their key images, and particularly the passages that represent moments where the protagonist is transformed out of a narrow human role into something much broader.  I was influenced in my approach by Robert Darnton’s “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meanings of Mother Goose” and the microhistorians Carlo Ginzburg and Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie.

Reading these nine masterful tales, one feels as if one has uncovered a wondrous long-hidden manuscript; as if the Grimm brothers’ tales had been transcribed by Emily Dickinson, or as if Rimbaud had taken up fable-writing.
A young peasant lad outwits a murderous princess by transforming himself into a small, dazzling beast; a princess’ s suitor uncovers the secret of how she and her sisters wear out their dancing slippers each night; a young woman renowned for her cleverness discovers the dangers of too much foresight; the saints of a cathedral debate with the gargoyles on the spires concerning the design of the church. Walker plays with our foreknowledge of these ancient tales—her surpassingly rich description and fantastic, eccentric plottings create some of the most original stories of our time.

… (Walker’s) haunting images… fuse the past with the present….Her tales…renew the fairy-tale tradition by undermining the authoritative voice of the Grimms’ tradition and exposing problems that are directly related to our present troubled times and cannot be easily resolved.—Jack Zipes

Metamorphoses of castigation, of appeasement, of flight, of preservation: every variety of metamorphosis found in the texts of the ancients serves an apparently naive, but perfectly controlled, narrativity. Walker does not exploit this solely for the production of the marvelous: into her legendary canvas she slips many a metafictional thread which the eye must follow with attention… It can hardly be doubted that beyond sumptuously written texts which tempt us to delightful readings, beyond the ancient wonders of rediscovered childhood, what we are invited to witness is the metamorphosis of the fairy tale. (Complete essay on JStor)—Marc Chénetier

 The nine tales in this collection, Walker’s first published work, are elegantly gaudy revivifications of folk/fairy stories in a kind of jeweled, poetic prose. Walker’s sentences grow and ramify as luxuriantly as vines in an enchanted wood. In each tale, familiar motifs lie embedded, recombined and transformed through the alchemy of the author’s heady imagination. Outstanding is “Arnaud’s Nixie,’ a variation of the Cupid and Psyche legend, where Esperte undergoes ordeals and quests to recover her darling Arnaud, snatched from her by a cruel lady of the lake. Women who jam their blistered feet into a slipper to catch a melancholy prince’s attention turn up in the exquisite ‘Ashiepattle,’ a tale whose heroine has birdlike affinities, wears a bizarrely furred and feathered gown, and flutters high in a dovecote. The despised, poor or clumsy suitor who wins a princess through some special gift or charm appears in ‘The Unseen Soldier,’ and in the title story. ‘The Contract with the Beast,’ a labyrinthine adventure echoing the tale of Beauty and the Beast, has a winsome hedgehog for its hero. Deliciously quirky twists and unexpected endings increase the reader’s surprise and delight.—Publishers Weekly

Nine retellings of traditional fairy, folk and religious tales, reshaped and enriched with insight, detail, and Walker's precise, poetic language. Adult fairy tales are usually tongue-in-cheek, pornographic or psychoanalytic. Not these: Walker remains true to the spirit of her source material while giving it grown-up appeal. She takes stories drawn from the oral tradition and moves them over to the literary tradition, turning archetypes into individuals, adding some psychological motivation, dark irony, and a touch of overt metaphysics. In the title story, the Princess Mengarde, who has executed 97 aspirants to her hand, views the latest suitors through a window ""which was revelatory of various degrees of cunning."" She sees that the ""eldest possessed that bluff professionalism that veils deep dishonesty,"" while ""the second disclosed to her observation the laziness of the capable man, who need not think anything through because he owns a strong arm and a deceptively winning smile."" Another window reveals motive, right down to ""the ravenous hunger of birds in their graceful swoop, and the love of destiny in the inwinding curve of the road."" Walker's imagery is especially suggestive with characters who stand midway between man and beast: In ""Ashiepattle,"" the King remembers his first glimpse of the Queen-to-be: "". . .the ragged convolvulus of her enormous ballooning sleeves, iridescent blue, green and white, like the splayed abstraction of mallards hung on a door."" A tribute to the magical, folkloric heritage of Western Europe, these literary fairy tales may even raise an occasional adult frisson. - Kirkus Reviews

After reading Wendy Walker's _The Secret Service_, I read _The Sea-
Rabbit_; having done so, I strongly recommend that you read her book
of tales first, as it provides a good introduction to Walker's writing
in a less-overwhelming context than _The Secret Service_.  The same
motifs of transformation, concealment, and the animate inanimate (all
of them different faces of the age-old tension between Sein and
Schein, Being and Seeming) ripple through these nine tales as through
the novel; in addition, the stories and the novel share a view of
human character which may be easier to apprehend in the smaller
episodes of the tales before one grapples with it in the novel.
Walker has taken her material from a handful of fairy tales and
legends well-known to us all; in the title story "The Sea-Rabbit" she
has blended the conventions (three sons, an exacting princess, and a
riddle- game) to come up with a new-but-old story that left me
guessing until the ominous end.  In all the stories, Walker infuses
character archetypes with a fallible humanity they have lacked in most
other "modern fairy tales" I have read.  Indeed of all the "modern
fairy tales" I've seen lately, the one that comes closest to Walker's
sensibilities is Martha Soukup's "The Spinner" in _Xanadu 2_; like
Soukup, Walker sees the streak of cruelty in all of us.  Walker shows
the human cruelty of the powerful as well as the weak, and knows that
it is limited only by the scope afforded it.  Thus Ashiepattle's king
forces her crippled sisters to pack her rich gowns in a heavy chest,
and to carry the chest; the unseen soldier toys with the twelve
princesses for three nights, when one would have done; Elsie's husband
torments her when a scolding would have sufficed; Jack My Hedgehog, no
Utopian here, brutally uses an innocent princess to punish her
rascally father; and Princess Mengarde is a bloody despot, "though in
most everyday matters a fair one."  This is fairy-tale justice in
human terms, with harsh punishments meted out more liberally than
Transcendent human kindness is also shown, but we recoil from it.
Berthe, the princess who accepts Jack My Hedgehog, appears to be
fulfilling some secret wish to immolate herself; an amusingly domestic
Delilah's forgiveness lulls Samson to destruction.  Destruction and
compassion are tied together in these tales.  Even the fox who aids
Bernard to win Mengarde's hand and kingdom has, in a sense, destroyed
Bernard with his help.  Walker does not follow this pattern rigidly,
of course; it's not a monotonously harped-on rule, thus we are left
doubting, anxious about a tale's outcome, until its end.  Notably,
"Arnaud's Nixie" features a gentle, sincerely helpful chatelaine
(suffering in her own fairy-tale hell) who helps Esperte reclaim
Arnaud, no strings attached.
The fascination of Walker's prose is in its richness and complexity.
Readers are advised not to be deceived by the brevity of the stories;
all must be read slowly, closely, and thoughtfully to appreciate her
sensitive, ravishingly beautiful writing about the world experienced
in conditions human and otherwise.  Walker assumes other perspectives
and explores them deeply and sincerely, then relays her observations
to us in evocative and colorful, yet lucid, prose, ringing with
insight seldom found in such stories since Lucius was an ass.  It is
customary to focus on the humanity of the other, but Walker instead
stresses the alien; and this strategy serves her best when she finds
the alien in the human, as in Elsie's overwrought imagination and
Esperte's despair, in an Idiot and in Jack My Hedgehog's father
Bekynsaw.  Yet, in the end, the most difficult and rewarding
transformations here are those of the characters who become more
human, learning to know themselves, and these are the changes that
stick in the mind, when one sets the book down, and that spur
This is a very fine collection of stories.  I hope to see more in
print from Wendy Walker soon. - Elizabeth Willey

Stories Out of Omarie

Wendy Walker, Stories Out of Omarie, Sun & Moon Press, 2000.
Read an excerpt (pdf)

The tales in Stories Out of Omarie developed out of my need to understand what love is– not serene love but the force that tears lives apart.  I had been reading Marie de France’s lais, one of the many books put into my hands over the years by Tom La Farge; this one gave me stories that would serve as matter for my investigations. Then in 1985 we went to Paris for the summer.  In a tapestry at the Cluny Museum I found a formal composition ripe for conversion into narrative structure, and used it in the first tale of the series, “The Passing of Graelent.” The books I read in my attempt to understand took me all through world literature.  At some later date, I may make a bibliography and post it here.

Stories Out of Omarie, Wendy Walker’s new collection, deals with forbidden love in medieval Europe and North Africa. A knight meets a naked woman in the forest who rescues him only to lead him later to drown. Two lovers, forcibly separated, continue their involvement in letters delivered to each other by a swan. A passionate affair in which the lovers never touch brings a jealous husband to dismember a nightingale. Venus realizes in the middle of narrating a story that she is the invention of one of her own characters. In the title story, a father forces his daughter into a barrel and throws it overboard in the middle of the sea; rescued by pirates, she is given to a sultan who teaches her to read, and whom she deserts for her father. In story after story, each written in Walker’s impeccable and densely rich style, the author takes us to the brink of passion where the characters totter, ready to retreat entirely from love or fall into the pit of sensuous transgression. Once again, she takes the reader for a breathtaking venture on the “tempting regions of web.”

In her Stories Out of Omarie, Wendy Walker has given us English versions of eight medieval tales based on lays of Marie de France and her school…The stories in Walker’s collection range over Europe and Northern Africa, but especially Brittany and England. They represent some of the best tales available to the English court of the twelfth century… What makes this collection valuable to the lover of early English literature is Wendy Walker’s “impeccable and densely rich style,” a style that runs through these tales of forbidden love.—Jack Byrne

The Twin Knots is a complex tale of love and adventure… Delve into it to witness the transformative powers of love and to experience the depth and beauty of Wendy Walker’s discourse… The words leap off the page to form a visual interpretation of the unfolding events.—Nicole McClain

Wendy Walker, Blue Fire: A Poetic Nonfiction, Proteotypes, 2009.
Read an excerpt (pdf)

In BLUE FIRE, a major new work in poetic non-fiction, Wendy Walker reexamines the case of Constance Kent, protagonist at 15 of “the Great Crime of 1860.” Accused of murdering her younger half-brother and stuffing his body down the privy at her father’s house at Road in Wiltshire, Constance was cleared at the coroner’s inquest. In the view of most at the time, the boy had been killed by his father and his nurse. Yet five years later in 1865 Constance, under the influence of a priest, confessed to the crime. Her death sentence commuted to twenty years in prison, on her release she left England to spend a further sixty years as a nurse in Australia. The murder and the investigation inspired both Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
It also was the subject of the first true-crime book, The Great Crime of 1860, which Joseph Stapleton wrote largely to exonerate his friend, Constance’s father. Walker has taken this book as the base text for a compositional procedure based partly on the non-fiction work of the poet Paul Metcalf and partly on the mesostics of John Cage. She has selected one word from each line of Stapleton’s text and used them in order to create a poetic secondary text, both to bring out the patriarchal bias in his writing and to contest his version of the facts. Then she has gone to books and documents about the case, other books that Constance is known to have read, and still others published between 1860 and 1865, and extracted passages to place facing the sections of her derived text on which they comment. The book may thus be read in two different directions, as a consecutive poetic narrative, and as a commonplace book illustrating the mindset of the early 1860’s.

From 1991 to1993 I tried to write a novel and failed. The subject of the novel was Constance Kent, 15-year-old protagonist of “The Great Crime of 1860,” the Road Hill House Murder. (To see an out-take from that first attempt, go to Hysterical Operators. The case was remarkable on many counts. Constance Kent, a young girl from a well-to-do family, was implicated in the murder of her young brother, but acquitted.  Four years later, under the influence of an Anglican priest, she confessed to the unsolved crime.  Forensics was in its infancy but even then it was clear that the evidence did not support her story. Yet she was convicted and sentenced to death. The case gave rise to the first true-crime book and inspired both the “sensation novel” and the country house mystery. Both  Wilkie Collins  and Dickens made use of it, in The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, respectively. Everyone in England took sides as to whether Constance had “done it.”
As for my novel, I failed because I tried to set the events within the characters’ points of view and found that using Constance’s own necessarily assumed that I could know what was going on in her mind. I found myself attributing to her, and other characters, my own interpretation of her story and my own feelings about it; I had turned it into an allegory about the creative process, something quite far afield from what it actually was,  and that felt dishonest. So I abandoned the novel form for something radically different.
I took that true-crime book, The Great Crime of 1860, written immediately after the crime by Joseph Stapleton in order to exonerate his friend, the boy’s father, and I extracted one word from every line of the text. This “mesostic” method was used by John Cage in Roaratorio. From these words, in the order in which I found them, I composed a secondary text that follows the narrative. I set them in groupings; then counted the words in each grouping and selected passages with as many lines as the groupings had words. These passages came from books about the case, books Constance was known to have read, and books published between 1860 and 1865. I chose passages that commented in some way on the text I had found, a method borrowed from Paul Metcalf. The extracted “mesostic” text runs down the left-hand page; the passages are placed on the right-hand page across from the word-group they comment on; sometimes there is more than one such passage. The result is Blue Fire, my attempt to create a polyphonic history.

Wendy Walker composes a magnificent book incorporating found text, [and] visual elements, in which voluminous research… is translated into a crisp, angular, paratactic poem, which, in turn, becomes a filter for the research.William Gillespie

Far from writing unchallenging books, a good example of the effort modern authors put into their books is provided by Wendy Walker’s essay “Imagination and Prison.” It includes a valuable description of how she put together… Blue Fire (2009). Inspired by the real-life tale of Constance Kent, Walker’s Blue Fire attempts to carry its own critique. Literally. Encoded in her novel (but interestingly, not in her essay) is a counter-narrative, and though the details of its construction were interesting, I was more intrigued by her deconstructionist idea that “all texts contain its own critique, like the statue hidden in a block of marble”… It’s intriguing, because as John Bender explains in his book Imagining the Penitentiary (1989), narrative techniques not only represent consciousness in action, they also represent the developing social consciousness. … when Walker constructs a novel that contains its own critique, it leads me to wonder if we’re beginning to see the rise of a less narcissistic society, one conscious of its flaws and limitations, but secure enough to tolerate dissent.Anil Menon

This is the first published edition of a work that I have followed over the years as Wendy Walker, author of The Secret Service  (1992) and the most perceptive practitioner of the critical fiction mode working today, researched the life of Constance Kent and the Road Hill House Murder of 1860, evolved the intrepretive mode, and brought the project to fruition. I have one of a very few copies of Blue Fire : Confessing Constance Kent  (May 2001; not published), an earlier form and format of the book. I am too closely linked to the author and the project to review the book, so the following is a brief critical commentary.
What is remarkable about Blue Fire. A Poetic Nonfiction  is Wendy Walker’s insistence upon working with the literary materials and facts of Constance Kent’s life in an ethical manner and in creating the broadest possible context. “ The Great Crime of 1860 ” was sensational in its day and was important, too, for certain legal precedents, so the sensation has never entirely dissipated. Recent accounts of the crime have seemed of too narrow compass. It is an appalling situation that a young woman could be sentenced to death upon the basis of a false confession that conflicted with facts established during the earlier, inconclusive hearing. And the ultimate silence of Constance Kent, during her imprisonment and after her release, raises other issues. The power of Walker’s approach is rooted in recognition that to render it in fiction would be unethical appropriation.
Because so much historical fiction plays irresponsibly with the past, and because so much history and biography leaves its sources unacknowledged, I wish to be as transparent as possible about my method in Blue Fire .
The reasoned delivery of information is one aspect of clarity. Most of the introduction to the published edition is found in the earlier version. The triumph of Blue Fire is in making visible — and tangible — that Walker has employed, together with a subtle re-ordering of the movement from exposition of background to implementation of process.
As I studied the mosaics that Constance Kent had made, a mosaic method of composition came to seem apposite. The specific way of combining texts that could be described as mosaic was inspired by my reading of Paul Metcalf, who created text in poetic non-fiction by a careful splicing of significant passages drawn from other writers. So I set the issue of genre aside and began to collect such shining passages.
Walker’s introduction now includes an example of the process by which she derived the poetic text and the passages in justaposition. I like to see the traces of the scaffolding by which a text is shaped. Blue Fire  presents a poetic text that makes use of white space to emphasize drama and deliberation. This occupies the left hand pages ; the right hand pages are the gloss upon this text, passages from Walker’s source material that are inseparable from the poetic text and at the same time information of a different order. The range of Walker’s reading is the rock solid structure in and on and about which the poetic text dances : in particular, her close study of the literary and scientific works forming the contemporary climate of 1860. The result is kinetic and enables the reader to “ catch Constance in the spaces between speech, her own and others’. ” - endlessbookshelf.net/archive0409.html#BlueFire

Wendy Walker, My Man and Other Critical Fictions.
Read an excerpt (pdf)

MY MAN AND OTHER CRITICAL FICTIONS MY MAN & OTHER CRITICAL FICTIONS is a collection of eight pieces by a daring literary explorer. Like the writings of Borges, or Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Walker’s critical fictions examine other works of literature and explicitly make use of these earlier texts to create surprising insights and compelling stories. Walker is a reader of unflinching perspicacity whose critical fictions chart her responses to works by Joseph Conrad, Helen Adams, Olaudah Equiano, and Harry Mathews, as well as Anna Maria Ortese’s The Iguana, the pre-Shakespearean sources for Cordelia, and a whole archipelago of literary post-modernists. The critical fiction is a literary mode that takes as its subject another literary work and treats of that work’s construction, obsessions, and sources in narrative and poetic, rather than expository/critical terms.

I began writing critical fictions in 1993 out of a sense that an essay (at least one by me) could never rival in intensity the reading of writers I admired. So I came up with the idea of a cross between critical essay and narrative fiction, and called it “critical fiction.” I intend the term, which others have used, to describe a text that treats of the matters usually discussed in literary analysis, but uses narrative and poetic means, rather than expository ones. I see the critical fiction as providing for the reader a way of being simultaneously inside and outside an author’s work, inhabiting it and seeing its structure.

“An original collection of 8 critical fictions on Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, King Lear, Olaudah Equiano, Harry Mathews, The Iguana, and other writers and texts. The critical fiction is a literary mode that takes as its subject another literary work and treats of that work’s construction, obsessions, and sources in narrative and poetic, rather than expository/critical terms. Wendy Walker is one of the chief proponents of the critical fiction today; some of her predecessors include Jean Rhys, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, and Guy Davenport.”
Some of the pieces in My Man and Other Critical Fictions were first published in Conjunctions, The Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative American Poetry: 1994-5, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 3rd Bed, Fantastic Metropolis, English Studies Forum and Proteotypes’ Libellulae Series.

Mixing collage and Burroughs-esque cut-up technique with traditional narrative, Walker… presents works that veer from the whimsically self-reflective to the fragmented and obscure. In ‘A Document from the Secret Archive of Grent Oude Wayl, Esquire,’ the language of the story becomes a landscape navigable by the inhabitants of the country it describes. ‘being nothing content’ alternates a historical account of King Lear with cut-and-pasted strings of words whose chaos reflects the turmoil of Lear’s personal drama. Similarly, ‘Hysterical Operators: The Inspector of Factories Visits the Lover of Melodrama’ intertwines linear and non-linear narrative strands that evoke the opposing personalities of the titular characters.—Publishers Weekly

Hysterical Operators
Wendy Walker, Hysterical Operators, Proteotypes,
Read an excerpt (pdf)

In 1991 I began a novel about a young girl named Constance Kent and her involvement in the famous murder case that inspired Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Many aspects of the case intrigued me, not only the fact that Constance confessed to a crime she almost certainly did not commit, but that her confession rattled the relation of Church and State. In the course of writing about the sensational circumstances of the crime, I came to feel that I should not be using them in fiction; that it would be exploitative to use my own fiction to overturn Constance’s. I put the manuscript away. When I later returned to the subject, I wrote a very different kind of book,  Blue Fire (Proteotypes, 2009), a polyphonic experiment in poetic nonfiction. That book asks the reader to hear many voices– not subsumed within my own– and to consider the complex ways in which the story of the crime echoes and informs other contemporary stories.
So, back to Hysterical Operators… It is the only surviving piece of my abandoned novel about Constance Kent. This is the scene that leads up to the killing. It relates the nighttime tryst in which the father of the little boy, the victim in the case, visits his son’s nanny in the nursery where the boy was sleeping. In a dialogue of contrasting modes, Mr. Kent, the Inspector of Factories, speaks in an assemblage of technical language drawn from Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), and the nursemaid replies with floating fragments of Victorian melodrama.

In 1991 I began a novel about a young girl named Constance Kent and her involvement in the famous murder case that inspired Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Many aspects of the case intrigued me, not only the fact that Constance confessed to a crime she almost certainly did not commit, but that her confession rattled the relation of Church and State. In the course of writing about the sensational circumstances of the crime, I came to feel that I should not be using them in fiction; that it would be exploitative to use my own fiction to overturn Constance’s. I put the manuscript away. When I later returned to the subject, I wrote a very different kind of book,  Blue Fire (Proteotypes, 2009), a polyphonic experiment in poetic nonfiction. That book asks the reader to hear many voices– not subsumed within my own– and to consider the complex ways in which the story of the crime echoes and informs other contemporary stories.
So, back to Hysterical Operators… It is the only surviving piece of my abandoned novel about Constance Kent. This is the scene that leads up to the killing. It relates the nighttime tryst in which the father of the little boy, the victim in the case, visits his son’s nanny in the nursery where the boy was sleeping. In a dialogue of contrasting modes, Mr. Kent, the Inspector of Factories, speaks in an assemblage of technical language drawn from Andrew Ure’s Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), and the nursemaid replies with floating fragments of Victorian melodrama.
This fragment was one of my first critical fictions, taking as its target not an author or a book, but an historical event that had important literary and social repercussions.
This fragment was one of my first critical fictions, taking as its target not an author or a book, but an historical event that had important literary and social repercussions.
Note: This text is collected in My Man and Other Critical Fictions.


Wendy Walker, Knots, Aqueduct Press, 2006.
Read an excerpt

Four spellbinding tales, selected from Wendy Walker's critically-acclaimed short fiction collections Sea-Rabbit, Or, The Artist of Life (1988) and Stories Out of Omarie (1995), showcase some of her finest work as she takes on the themes of art, memory and tragic love in pre-modern Europe and North Africa. ''Twin Knots'' presents the Goddess of Love's take on an affair between a knight and an unhappy queen. In another tale, a count punishes his daughter for the attempted murder of her husband by placing her in a barrel and sending her out to sea, where adventures with pirates and a powerful sultan ensue. Publishers Weekly writes, ''Walker's sentences grow and ramify as luxuriantly as vines in an enchanted wood.''  

In 2005 Timmi Duchamp wrote to me suggesting that Aqueduct Press publish a selection of my tales in its Conversation Series.  Knots was the result. The tales come from my two short fiction collections  The Sea-Rabbit, or, The Artist of Life (1988) and Stories Out of Omarie (1995), ones that focus on the complex and beautiful intertanglements of art, memory, and tragic love in pre-modern Europe and North Africa. In “The Twin Knots” my goal was to present  the Goddess of Love’s take on an affair between a knight and an unhappy queen. In “Story Out of Omarie” a count punishes his daughter for the attempted murder of her husband by placing her in a barrel and sending her out to sea, where adventures with pirates and a powerful sultan ensue. “Ashiepattle” is a version of the Cinderella myth. I wrote “The Cathedral” in 1974, one of my earliest tales, in response to an intense experience of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Publishers Weekly writes about Knots: “Walker’s sentences grow and ramify as luxuriantly as vines in an enchanted wood.”
This quotation and comment are printed on the back cover of the book:
“And as she moved, he saw that the shape of her wolverine cape described the very quadrilateral of the field, belonging to his father’s renegade vassal across the mountain, which he so long and so ineffectually had yearned to possess; and the pure launch of her skirt mimicked the very contour of the fertile hillside claimed by the Bishop of Tours, which he had not briefly, nor successfully, disputed in the ecclesiastical and secular courts, and yet could not yield his claim. He had stridden after her then, and gained upon her figure slowly, intent on capturing her for one sole galliard at least…” —from “Ashiepattle”
Four spellbinding tales, selected from Wendy Walker’s critically acclaimed short fiction collections The Sea-Rabbit, Or, The Artist of Life (1988) and Stories Out of Omarie (1995), showcase some of her finest work as she takes on the themes of art, memory, and tragic love in pre-modern Europe and North Africa. “The Twin Knots” presents the Goddess of Love’s take on an affair between a knight and an unhappy queen. In another tale, a count punishes his daughter for the attempted murder of her husband by placing her in a barrel and sending her out to sea, where adventures with pirates and a powerful sultan ensue. Publishers Weekly writes, “Walker’s sentences grow and ramify as luxuriantly as vines in an enchanted wood.”

“It’s [Walker’s] eccentric mingling of ideas and imagery, sensory impressions of a world almost disturbingly alive, that distinguish her work from anyone else’s.”—Faren Miller

Walker uses European poems and fairy tales as her inspiration and source material, merging rich language and modern ideas with classic plot lines to craft complex adult fare…Read her work for the history, the complex tales, and the vivid language offered—where the true beauty of Walker’s work lies.—Nicole McClain

DOUGLAS MESSERLI: Wendy, given the diversity and broad range of genres that your writing represents to date, it seems to me it might be useful to begin by discussing some of your youthful interests. If I remember correctly, in your university days you were involved with both art and theater. Might you describe these concerns? Did you have similar interests even in high school or earlier on? How did these interests develop?
WENDY WALKER: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing or drawing or making things, usually puppets. Making puppets was an early way into theater, in which I could control all the elements. It was the first visual/verbal art form that I felt comfortable in. Even when I didn’t write a play for performance, I was creating a character. Some of those characters helped me to imagine the excessive, sexually ambiguous connoisseurs I later put into my fiction, especially The Secret Service.
My main concern in high school was with mastering traditional poetic forms and writing essays, mostly about plays. I spent a year writing a long essay about Hamlet—for my own pleasure, not for school—convinced as I was at the time that I had solved the riddle of his character.
I spent a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is not far from the school I attended [Dalton], and I studied sculpture with an artist named Rhys Caparn, who had been a student of Archipenko. I spent a lot of time drawing and painting, as I found it necessary to balance all the verbal and analytical work of school with a practice that was physical and non-verbal, and I still do.
DM: Yes, I know what the Metropolitan means to you. One of the most revelatory visits to that museum I ever experienced was with you and your husband, Tom La Farge, where suddenly your comments revealed paintings, tapestries, and even armor to me in a way that I had never previously perceived them before. Your eye for details is remarkable, and the questions you ask are often startling. I kept feeling, “Why hadn’t ever thought of that?”
Did these same interests continue when you attended college? And how and when did this first begin to develop into writing full fictions such as your first novel (I want to say fantasy or romance, since it’s really not a “novel” in the formal generic definition.) I know you also wrote on art. Did this come before or after your turning to fiction? And how did that “turn,” if it was in fact a shift, come about?
WW: I wish we could visit the museum together more often, Douglas!
At Harvard I tried out some new interests, anthropology and art history. The art history stuck—those lectures were the only ones with a visual component, and so much easier for me to concentrate on. Since that was my major, I wrote many essays analyzing and comparing works of art. But I took the writing courses that concentrated on poetry, working with Robert Fitzgerald, the poet and translator of Homer. That again gave me a very solid grounding in traditional English poetic forms, and the history of versification, which taught me how English poetic speech evolved, and how the language works musically. I learned an enormous amount, but became increasingly dissatisfied with the small canvas of the poem, and what then seemed a very small audience for poetry.
DM: Still a small audience, of course!
WW: Meanwhile I had discovered three dazzling writers—Borges, Calvino, and García Marquez—who offered a prose as intense as any poetry. One day I was at a lecture on Genet when I suddenly understood that prose was the real poetry of the large canvas, and that that was where I had to try to go. I discussed this with Fitzgerald and he encouraged me to write some fiction. I was dissatisfied with what I produced, but the piece did contain the character who later became the Corporal in The Secret Service.
As for the practicing art side, I took courses at Carpenter Center in design and theater design, since there were no drawing or painting courses at Harvard at that time, and during the summers I attended the Rhode Island School of Design and Boston University’s art program at Tanglewood. I think it was over one of those summers that I wrote a story that I called “The Room of Boxes,” which later became the beginning of the dream journey in The Secret Service.
We could get into a long argument, Douglas, about whether or not The Secret Service is a novel. I think my fiction has to be seen as fitting into the European tradition more than the English or American one. If Calvino’s Invisible Cities or Roussel’s Locus Solus are novels, why not The Secret Service? Certainly it contains a “romance,” but Hawthorne called several of his novels romances so the precedent in American literature should be well established.
DM: Over the years of our long friendship, we have argued about just those generic terms, if I recall. But I’m not sure if such a discussion would be appropriate or even interesting in a more general interview centered upon your writing and life. Frankly, I’m not truly interested in categorizing any fiction. If Americans and the British want to call all long fictions novels, and continental Europe wants to describe all fictions as romances (Romans), that’s fine. The only problem I have is when such generic generalities get in the way of the enjoyment or understanding of fictions, such as those by Gertrude Stein, who utterly confused many of her early readers (and still does confuse readers today) by exploring almost every literary genre in both prose and poetry. Or in the case of Djuna Barnes, whose Nightwood was dismissed by some for not adhering to what they perceived as the standard patterns of a novel or, even worse, those who sought to create an entirely new genre, like Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank, who attempted to create an entirely new genre, “spatial fiction,” to explain what he perceived as the abnormalities in Barnes’ and other writers’ works. Had he simply read Northrup Frye or other specialists in genre studies, he might have recognized that Nightwood, although not a “novel,” did represent a well-established form of fiction, the anatomy (or “Menippean satire”), as the author had even sub-titled her fiction on the manuscript’s original title page. E. M. Forster, moreover, found Tolstoy’s War and Peace to be a baggy monster because it didn’t fit into his notions of what a novel was. Dickens has always been a problem, finally, to novel-centric critics.
Today, when we call everything a novel, however, I suppose it doesn’t matter. But I find the “novel” a rather narrow box (if you agree with Frye’s definition of it) in which to put all of fiction. And, I think, this is a particular problem—or I should say delight—with/of your fictional creations, which purposely cross so many generic boundaries, and refuse to be pinned down.
Enough said. More importantly, what seems interesting to me in what you just said is how you perceived, at such a young age, that fiction could be (although it is surely not always) a kind of large canvas for poetry, since your works, no matter how one does or does not define them, must be described as poetic. How wonderful, moreover, that Fitzgerald was so willing to see you move away from what he was focused on. It’s also amazing to me that you were able to write a chapter from such a mature work at such an early age, particularly when I recall the junk I was writing at the same age. Can you describe a bit more in detail, how you came to the story of The Secret Service? That work seems more of a kind of writing that might have been created by a middle-aged Isak Dinesen than a young college woman. What was happening in your life that spun you into such a complex and baroque (in the very best sense of that word) fantasy?
WW: Well, to begin with, I have to say that I never thought of what I was writing as fantasy, but as the creation of a completely possible and probably true alternative nineteenth century. I had been introduced to some ideas about quantum mechanics, and it seemed to me that—I will not phrase this well enough for those who really understand physics—if an atom can occupy many points in space simultaneously, there must be an infinite number of co-occurring histories, some of them quite similar to the ones we accept as valid. If this is the state of things, then imagination is a perception of reality rather than an alternative to it. The other major problem I was trying to solve is the one of metamorphosis, how it might occur, physically, and then later on, what the result would be for consciousness if the subject transformed were human.
As for what was going on in my life, most of it consisted of the pain and frustration that make escape into books and art so necessary. After I graduated (in 1972), I put myself on a course of reading fiction and broadening my vocabulary. I made lists of words that were new to me, and I kept a notebook where I transcribed the sentences where I had found them, their definitions and etymologies. I was trying to write something every day, and sometimes I would take one of these lists and try to use all the words in a story. (I recently learned, from Daniel Levin Becker, that the Oulipo has a name for this procedure—logorallye.) One night in the fall of 1974, I sat down to do my stint, but I was having some pain, so I took what I found in the medicine cabinet—a pill for toothache—and then went back to my list of words. While I was putting down the first sentence I remember saying to myself, “If Kafka can start a story this way, so can I.” A couple of wonderful hours’ writing later, I realized I had the beginning of a book. So that was how the first chunk of The Secret Service came to be written, and a great deal of the plot is implicit in that first chunk.
A couple of things shaped that first chapter. One was my reading of Isak Dinesen and Djuna Barnes. Dinesen gave me some characters and a world of values, and Barnes gave me an example of what sentences could be. I also learned a great deal from a friend who had been a teaching assistant in astronomy and the history of science at Harvard. He encouraged me to read Giorgio di Santillana’s Hamlet’s Mill, and answered many of my questions when I set about writing the essays that are embedded in the first chapter. As for the theme of subatomic particles, that was undoubtedly prompted in part by the fact that a cousin of mine, whom I had never met, Murray Gell-Mann, had won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1968 for discovering subatomic particles. He named one of them “quark” from Finnegans Wake.
DM: Through Charles Bernstein, I received the original manuscript of your The Secret Service in 1982, a work which, in hindsight, you suggested was not quite yet in its final form. I immediately loved the work, and, if I remember correctly, I accepted it rather quickly.
Sun & Moon, however, which depended upon grants and the limited sales of backlist titles, was always slow in its publication of books. I think we had originally planned for publication of the book in 1983; that same year you sent me another book, a collection of what can I only describe as the “delicious” tales, based on the Brothers Grimm, The Sea-Rabbit, or the Artist of Life. In those days, the press received a great deal of review coverage in the major newspapers and review journals—as opposed to today’s near silence—and I felt that the second book would be so appealing to such reviewers that it might put you on the literary map, so to speak. And, in fact, to a certain degree that did happen, with positive reviews in Publishers Weekly and even the usually pernickety Kirkus Reviews, and other places.
I also felt that the very brilliance and density—not to ignore the page count—of The Secret Service might put off some readers, who even back then were becoming more and more resistant to even opening up books that seemed to demand an intellectual response. But the very fact that I changed the order of those titles, publishing your remarkable stories finally in 1988 before publishing The Secret Service in 1992 must have set you back emotionally and, in your mind, in terms of your career. Of course you spent some of those years intelligently revising the earlier book. But still, and I wince in even asking you this, these long waits certainly must have affected you. Can you describe some of your emotions?
And since we now have moved on to what was originally your second creation, how did you come to write The Sea-Rabbit? You once told me that you felt the stories, in some ways, were rather close revisions of the Grimm Brothers. But in rereading their stories (in translation of course) I am stunned by the utter transformations of your writing, the jewel-like styling of your language and the kind of fluidness of your “plots.” Your storytelling, in its sometimes seeming randomness, almost has the feeling of Jane Bowles rather than the more traditional patterning of folk tales.
WW: I should say, first off, Douglas, that I have always been, and will always be, extremely grateful to you for publishing my work. I felt then, and still feel, that you saw me clearly and recognized what was of value in my writing, rather than being sidetracked by considerations of genre. I have learned a great deal from you over the years and have cherished our friendship. Perhaps because of all these things, rather than in despite of them, I found the delays you mention very hurtful and really quite impossible to understand. The worst aspect of the situation was that it damaged my credibility with my family (always excepting Tom) and my friends. I told people that a book was coming out, and then it didn’t, and I kept revising the date, and it still didn’t appear, and so on and on. Some people may have thought I was lying about these books that I claimed I was having published, but others, more charitably, probably concluded that I was suffering from some delusion of aggravated wishful thinking. I felt deeply embarrassed, very depressed, and, of course, simply angry as I saw one writer after another taking precedence over your commitment to me. However I don’t think I ever lost sight of the fact that my distress was completely negligible by the standards of  twentieth-century writers’ problems, and that my luck in other respects, specifically in finding a brilliant and completely supportive literary life partner, more than counterbalanced anything in my life that didn’t go as I would have wished. I tried not to dwell on the endless delays and kept on working, and, in fact, the situation, or at least the first few years of it, worked to my advantage. It allowed me to make both the books more perfect stylistically than they were in the drafts you accepted. I went through the manuscripts sentence by sentence and caught all the little bumps and bits of clumsiness. I’m very glad I had a chance to do that. For the rest of it, my “career” and so on, I see now that I received a valuable lesson in how the world really works. It helped me to keep on asking the hard questions.
The tales in The Sea-Rabbit were a joy to write. I was teaching art full-time in a private secondary school in Manhattan and I would write early in the morning and after dinner. After finishing The Secret Service I couldn’t face starting another novel. I kept thinking about how Shakespeare used sources. I thought of taking stories from the oral tradition that seemed to contain some grain of historical truth, to explore them from within to try to discover what had originally happened. It seemed to me that all stories that impress us with dramatic truth bear witness to something that has happened that was not well understood, and which could only be explained by recourse to supernatural forces. I had been much taken with Robert Darnton’s essay “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meanings of Mother Goose,” (first published in the New York Review of Books and later collected in The Great Cat Massacre), and I started reading the Annales historians and others who were doing “history from below,” Le Roy Ladurie, Ginzburg and so on. I would take a tale from the Grimms’ collection and analyze it, figuring out what I thought it was “about”—then I’d discuss it with Tom and together we would invent a structure for telling the story. (Working closely in this way had been our habit throughout the writing of our first books—it was a way of working that went far beyond just reading and editing each other but fell short of full collaboration.) Although people have enjoyed these stories, and there has been some very perceptive writing about them, I wish more attention had been paid to their structure, as it is entirely integral to their “meaning.” For instance, it is essential that the reader of “The Cleverness of Elsie” ask—and decide—who the narrator of her story is. The same thing is true of another tale “The Unseen Soldier,” which is structured like a Mobius strip, and so on.
When I told you that I was sticking very close to the originals, that was true, in the sense that I treated every detail as a clue to be interpreted. Though every reader will bring her own experience to the stories, for me they are allegories about artistic development as a mode of survival. The writing is highly visual because for so many years I had been immersed in visual thinking, designing sets and costumes in the Theater Design MFA program at NYU. I actually did some costume drawings for the story “Ashiepattle” so that I could clearly describe what the main character was wearing.
DM: I can only apologize, as I have before. If only the press had had money to be able to produce the books at the rate of my literary appetite! That Sun & Moon Press was able to publish nearly 300 books, most of them major literary contributions, without any substantial financial support other than matching grants (some of them not devoted to publication), still seems nearly miraculous to me. But obviously, it put many writers such as you in a position of seeming jeopardy. You can only imagine how many sleepless nights I suffered, and how anxious I was to bring those books into the world.
The most angering fact to me is that once we had produced your amazing fiction, The Secret Service received very little critical reaction except for a short enthusiastic review in Britain’s The Independent. The national attention to serious literary works (never a loud voice) had clearly dwindled in only a few years.
I am terribly interested in your comments about how you and Tom share your writing in process. I had intended from the beginning to ask about what seems to those of us who are on the outside looking in as one of the most perfect relationships possible: both you and Tom have somewhat similar attractions to various literary genres, and both of you, in your writings, are remarkable stylists. You both also embrace not only tradition but are excitingly involved in what Tom has described in several small books, as “friction,” fictions that work with or against formal structures in ways similar to groups like Oulipo. You apparently both love to travel, having spent long periods of time in Morocco and Central America. And both of you, being well educated, are fluent in French. The empathy between the two of you appears to the outsider to be very special. I love my companion Howard, who is also a writer, but he certainly is not always entirely sympathetic to my kind of writing. Might you wish to comment of this?
And speaking of French and its influences, did your next collection, Stories Out of Omarie of 1994, based on the lays of Marie de France, begin out of concerns similar to those of your exploration of the Grimm Brothers? In these stories, on the other hand, I see a much more detailed narrative intertwining, almost like the Arabic patterns you describe in one of your stories. Here your tales seem far more dense and less capricious (and I do not use that word negatively) than the tales of The Sea-Rabbit. In Omarie your long tales seem almost inevitable.
WW: The reaction—or lack of it—to The Secret Service was extremely disappointing. Fortunately, a few of my friends brought in positive verdicts, which convinced me I hadn’t failed. There was one review, quite negative, in Publishers’ Weekly, that found a percipient reader in the writer Henry Wessells, who was then doing some programming for WKCR and editing a wonderful little magazine called Temporary Culture. Convinced that the reviewer had misunderstood the book, Henry ordered it and thereafter became one of its greatest advocates. It found its warmest reception in the science fiction/fantasy world. I was pleased to have reached that readership, but it wasn’t the one I’d been hoping for. I began to see how completely polarized the American fiction-reading audience was.
Meeting Tom was my great piece of luck. A mutual friend had shown him the first part of The Secret Service. I suppose that if Tom hadn’t liked it, we might not have met, but our friend, perhaps knowing how important the literary taste test would be, put that first. From the first week that we met (this was January 1978), we started writing together. Every day we would set ourselves a problem, write for about an hour, and then read the results to each other. I learned so much. Tom came up with ideas based in Renaissance allegory and rhetoric, such as the paysage moralisé. Sometimes we’d take a photograph or painting of a figure, and tell a story from its point of view. We kept up the writing exercises for years, and were very strict about it, even sticking to the routine on family visits. We also, of course, gave each other books to read (the first one I got was Beckett’s The Lost Ones). So although we initially shared a common taste for the classics and a disdain for some of America’s most popular novelists, we also helped each other to grow into new tastes.
To this day I have not met anyone else with whom I can have such—serious? profound? far-reaching?—literary conversations. To begin with, no one seems to have read the books, certainly not with such deep attention. Those of Tom’s students who read this will know what I mean.
Some difficult things have contributed to our closeness. One was the utter opposition of his family to our relationship. Another was the complete absence in the so-called literary world of anyone with whom either of us could discuss what we were doing. The poets considered narrative second-rate and couldn’t be bothered to read anything that might change their minds. The interesting fiction writers who had not given up writing lived far away from New York. The fact that we had both spent time in Europe as children also contributed to our closeness. For both of us, growing up in the 1950s in America, Europe became a kind of ideal landscape, of fascinating things to see, do and eat. We both feel comfortable traveling and indeed seek out the strangeness of truly foreign surroundings. Finally, we’ve both been willing to make the well-being of the other of paramount concern. It’s easy to say, but in practice requires a certain ruthlessness. Rilke had the perfect phrase for it: to make yourselves “the guardians of each others’ solitude.”
I am not fluent in French—I wish I were! —but it is certainly the language I feel most at home in after English. In 1986 we spent a long summer in Paris, and during that time Tom gave me Marie de France to read. You are right to link it to The Sea-Rabbit, and some of the same concerns with history were in play. But because Marie’s poems (as they are in Old French) all deal with the experience of love, I set myself the problem of figuring out what love is, as though it were an extraordinary animal I had heard about and just discovered. It was an excellent excuse to read through the literature of love, courtly and otherwise, looking to learn from Stendhal, Chrétien de Troyes, Barthes, Shakespeare, the Brontës, Plato, Donne and so many others what the phenomenon is and how to understand it. I came to the conclusion, through analyzing Marie’s poems and revising them, that love is a form of extremely compressed narrative, an unwilled and often unwilling act of the imagination. Each of the tales explores some aspect of the way love and narrative intertwine with each other, how one cannot exist without the other, how they are two faces of the same being. The inevitability you remark on is certainly an aspect of love, one that lends itself beautifully to its manifestation as narrative. On a more mundane level, I had thought, here are some sexy stories that revise a major female writer of the Middle Ages, surely this will be of interest to many readers. But in fact, the book went entirely unnoticed, much more so than The Secret Service. I might have dropped it down a well. Certainly this contributed to my turning away from fiction later on, something I have always felt sad about.
Tree (Self?) Portrait 2015
DM: We all felt sad about that decision, and I attempted to convince you, if you recall, not to give up fiction; but I also understood your frustrations. They were mine as well. And I feel things have only gotten worse in the years since—but then as we age most of us generally feel things are falling apart. I try to resist that.
Fortunately, you continued writing, creating entirely new works that related to fiction, biography, criticism, and other genres in new ways.
If I recall correctly, My Man & Other Critical Fictions began with an essay-review you wrote on the works of Harry Mathews, in which you used a collage of his own language to comment on the works. That book also contained pieces on Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Ana-Maria Ortese’s wonderful The Iguana, and other writers. The forms and languages of these pieces were truly radical, as was your approach to the “fiction” Blue Fire, a work that, while still telling a memorable story, consisted of quotes from biographies and other commentaries about the noted nineteenth century child murder of Savill Kent, and a seemingly related work, Hysterical Operators, a “critical fiction” about the “missing hours” of that murder. All three of these are what I might describe as breakthrough works in the sense that, to my knowledge, there are no other works quite like them. Although we can point to writers who might have influenced your writing—Roussel for example—I think that these are truly original contributions which take most readers, I presume, some time to assimilate. Even I, in my review of Blue Fire, had to rethink my conditioned ways of approaching narrative. Here was a story that could not be truly told, because it was never completely comprehended. How do you tell such a tale?
Might you describe how these works came into being?
WW:   I did listen to your counsel, Douglas, as I always do on such matters. I had already begun, a few years before Stories Out of Omarie appeared, another novel, this one based on true events, the case of Constance Kent and “the Great Crime of 1860.” I worked on it for several years and then experienced a real crisis (which I have written about elsewhere), about the ethical nature of what I was doing. To put it briefly, I realized that turning Constance Kent’s story into an allegory of my own preoccupations was a kind of crime of narcissism. So I stopped working on the novel and did a lot of reading in an attempt to understand the difference between history and fiction, between historical truth and fictional truth. The last bit of the novel had taken off in an interesting formal direction, and I came to feel that that section, which reconstructs the killing of the child, was the only piece worth saving. I called it “Hysterical Operators: The Inspector of Factories Visits the Lover of Melodrama.”
So, I had put the novel aside, but I had to keep writing, so I started playing around with shorter pieces. I had signed up for a month-long NEH (National Endowment for Humanities) seminar on Conrad, and at the end I was supposed to write an essay on a topic of my choice. I didn’t feel that an essay could encapsulate my thought, so I asked the seminar leader for permission to use Conrad’s language to produce a critique. The resulting piece was “My Man,” my first critical fiction, about the character Martin Decoud in Nostromo. The piece is a cut-up, but a directed one that replaces the expository approach to argument with a narrative and poetic one. Also, I had adopted the hypothesis that every text contains its own critique, the way, to use Michelangelo’s notion of concetto, every block of marble contains a statue whose existence the sculptor must sense and liberate. This procedure seemed to work, so I produced another critical fiction, about Olaudah Equiano’s lost polar journal. Instead of using Equiano’s language, I used the language from polar journals contemporary with his voyage.
This all happened around 1993. At the same time I was asked to write an essay about Harry Mathews for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. I proposed the critical fiction form as an alternative and the editor accepted it. For that piece, because so many books were involved, I decided to create a landscape out of the aspects of Mathews’ books that had most intrigued me. I made my narrator a scientist/explorer relating what he finds while traveling through this landscape. This critical fiction resembled a story more than a prose poem, but I added footnotes throughout so readers could turn to the book and page “discussed.” Every author or book I have treated in the mode of critical fiction has demanded a different approach. I try to create a form which itself comments on the literary subject. Thus, for the pre-Shakespearean character of Cordeilla, I wrote a play, a Steinian one, using some of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text, and so on.
As for my stalled novel, I tried very hard just to close the door on it and chalk the years wasted up to something-or-other, but the material had sunk its claws too deep. I realized I had to find a way to extricate myself from it or I would never be able to move on. A completely different approach seemed necessary. With the help of a grant from the Lounsbery Foundation, I went to England and followed Constance Kent’s trail, exploring the houses in which she lived and where the domestic tragedy unfolded, photographing mosaics that she had had a part in creating while in prison, and going through the relevant files in the Public Record Office. I also read though the books she was known to have read, and others published between 1860 and 1865, gathering passages that had some congruence to aspects of the crime and the trial. Then I developed a formal structure, composed in part of mesostics (slightly different from those used by Cage in “Roaratorio”) and partly of texts and images arranged according to a numerical algorithm (a more detailed explanation can be found on my website). I had been reading the works of the Oulipo since the late 80s and I felt I was using their approach if not their ideas. The idea of creating a story out of pieces of texts contemporary to a subject had come to me through reading Paul Metcalf, whose books you, Douglas, had sent me while we were living in Morocco.
So the shift in direction happened quite organically. I certainly had nothing to lose by being more radical. And though I have my doubts about the intrinsic value of these works, I hope that I have mapped out some new avenues of approach that other writers will be able to use.
DM: I’d forgotten your British travels, but I recall now how remarkably thorough and intense I felt your research was. It was rewarded by such an absolutely fascinating critical text, where there are no answers, but several possibilities of truth.
Your writings I realize, now that I’ve heard you talk about them, are all built around brilliant strategies that seek to uncover the form that best relates to the subjects and issues of your literary endeavors. I think there are few writers—a major exception being Gertrude Stein, who one might argue explored nearly every genre in her attempts to communicate how life in the twentieth century might be perceived—who worked in this manner. Earlier in this interview you described yourself as always “making things,” which is another way, perhaps, of describing your process of creating structures appropriate to revealing your various topics. I presume you’re proceeding in a similar pattern for your newest work-in-progress, “Sexual Stealing,” on the Gothic novel, a section of which has been published in my on-line magazine EXPLORINGfictions [and recently in 3:AM Magazine here].
WW: Yes, the approach is similar. The piece on your blog presents many of my ideas about Gothic Literature in the traditional expository manner. I have long been fascinated and, frankly, somewhat appalled, to watch how certain texts— Lovecraft’s stories being the most obvious example—have moved over the course of my lifetime from the extreme fringe of literary taste to the center; and how “Gothic” in so many cultural manifestations has overtaken, and even swamped, Western sensibilities. I couldn’t help feeling that something very large was missing from the standard account of the origins of Gothic literature, an account that singles out the French Revolution and German Romanticism as its primary impetus. So I began reading through the works of the first Gothic novelists (Walpole, Lewis, Beckford and Radcliffe), and in doing so noticed a pattern which I call “sexual stealing”, that is, the unlawful appropriation of libidinized “objects.” The objects were sometimes living bodies, sometimes treasure or works of art, sometimes property or inheritance, virginity, freedom, life itself, and so on. Because such appropriations fill our world, escalating massively in American consciousness during the nightmare years of the Bush/Cheney presidency, an explosion and deepening of Gothic horror made perfect sense as a symptomatic reaction to, and rebellion against, a social transformation ordinary people have been powerless to stop. And when you take the long view of American literature, and consider this country’s history in relation to “sexual stealing,” it is no wonder Gothic goes straight back to the source, to our first novelist, Charles Brockden Brown. I had learned during this bout of reading that the books I’ve been referring to were originally dubbed “terrorist literature,” an epithet we might do well to revive, as it seems so astonishingly prescient of where we are now.
So, I was thinking, all throughout the writing of Blue Fire (my book about Constance Kent) about how writers, particularly very gifted young ones (Lewis, Beckford and Mary Shelley) respond to types of social stress for which they can find no ready vocabulary. It seemed to me that the first works of Gothic fiction came into being by doing just that. If you look at the language, independent of character, plot, and setting, certain preoccupations appear again and again. The mesostic constraint (as I use it, that is, taking one word from each line of text, skipping no lines) allows you to zero in on these preoccupations. When I tried the method on Beckford’s Vathek, I immediately found an anxiety about race, both black and “Indian.” In reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (which takes place in mainland Europe), I had been struck by how often the word “plantation” appeared. And in all the books, blackness, torture, absolute power within a walled-off domain, recur again and again. Incomprehensibly, most of the scholarly criticism ignored the fact that two of the four seminal Gothic authors, Lewis and Beckford, owned huge sugar plantations in Jamaica, with many human beings numbered among their “property.” I guessed that the anxieties given release in these authors’ books bore at least as much relation to what was going on in the Caribbean as to political and literary events in Europe.
So, in “listening” to the preoccupations embedded in the texts, and isolating them in fragments, I found a broken picture of eighteenth-century chattel slavery as practiced in those islands, on plantations of whose nature all four novelists were aware. What I have been doing in the book I call Sexual Stealing has been to arrange the fragments of voice and message, derived through the mesostic constraint, so that a coherent albeit fractured picture emerges. I have intercut my derived text with images and quotations from contemporary documents alluding to Maroon Wars (1665-1796), the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and plantation life in general.
DM: For years and years you and Tom lived in a beautiful condominium on West End Avenue in Manhattan. I visited you there many times. Over the past five or so years you and Tom have made a significant change in your life (one also made by many of my writer friends) by moving to Brooklyn. And there you both have become very involved with the gallery and art space, Proteus Gowanus. Can you tell me a little about any changes this may have made in your lives?
WW: The change has been entirely positive. Life in Manhattan was profoundly lonely for me as a writer, even though I had lived there all my life, and thought for a long time I would never live anywhere else. But for a writer such as myself, who transgresses genre along more than one boundary in an entirely intuitive way, the Manhattan literary world was a wasteland. It was, and perhaps still is, divided up into clans, each one obsessed with its own territory, ideology and lineage. Throughout my contact with it, it seemed that at every turn people were primarily interested in power, not writing. Nothing else could explain the amount of hypocrisy on display or the number of lies told about inferior work. Fortunately, I have always had many friends who are visual artists, and I have almost always worked in some advisory capacity with some gallery or other. This, and some collaborations, particularly with the artist Florence Neal, have helped mitigate my loneliness and to some degree replaced the company of colleagues in my own métier.
Two things happened to interrupt this long period of literary isolation. First, in the spring of 2006, I attended the &Now Conference for Innovative Writing at Lake Forest College, and there met quite a few writers, some of whom had been published by you, Douglas, under the Sun & Moon imprint, who shared my dissatisfaction with the American literary scene. Indeed they had started &Now in response to their frustrations. This was tremendously affirming, especially since so much of their work met my standards of literary excellence. Second, in 2008, I met the artist Sasha Chavchavadze, who, with her husband P. K. Ramani, had founded Proteus Gowanus, “an interdisciplinary gallery and reading room,” in an old box factory on the Gowanus Canal. Sasha was gathering work for a show to be called “Library.” I told her about the chained libraries we had seen in England, and before the evening was over she asked me to be “a library correspondent” for that show. The association quickly deepened and developed in the direction of publishing. Tom and I realized immediately how special and indeed revolutionary Proteus Gowanus was, and decided to move to Brooklyn to be closer to it. [Proteus Gowanus closed its doors in 2015 but most of its projects continue to operate in other spaces throughout Brooklyn and Queens.]
I never would have believed that relocating from one borough to another could make such a difference in my life. I have certainly met more seriously open-minded creative people in five years in Brooklyn than in the previous thirty in Manhattan. Tom and I now run two projects under the gallery’s umbrella: Proteotypes, the gallery’s publishing arm, which rethinks gallery initiatives in the form of books, and also prints pamphlets of an innovative literary nature, and the Writhing Society, a weekly salon/class devoted to writing with constraints. Proteus is run and supported by artists who have rejected the art world and the gallery model as currently constituted. I feel I am watching the evolution of a new kind of art space, one devoted to making sense of the world and how responsibly to be in it, rather than to scoring points in some hierarchical academic game. So although I have still not really found a “literary world,” I have found a context in which I feel respected and happy. A happy ending, or rather, stopping place for the moment. - ww.3ammagazine.com/3am/art-writing-and-the-untellable-douglas-messerli-interviews-wendy-walker/

For an interview with Henry Wessells and Wendy Walker on Jorge Luis Borges, click here:

Imagination and Prison
This version of the introduction to Blue Fire, concentrating on process,  was published in Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles,  ed. L.Timmel Duchamp. Download the essay (pdf)

Sexual Stealing: On the Gothic Novel
This essay presents some of the material I discovered while researching my work-in-progress, the poetic nonfiction Sexual Stealing (see below). I discuss Beckford’s and Lewis’s homosexuality as an ancillary source of stress driving the creation of the Gothic novel, and the political trauma behind the works of Charles Brockden Brown, America’s first novelist, another master of the Gothic. The bibliography may be useful to the reader who wishes to delve further.View the essay

Herzog’s Aguirre
“Herzog’s Aguirre” (1992) was written for an anthology, never realized, of essays by writers on particular films. The selection of the film was left up to the writer.Download the essay (pdf)

Balthus’ Picture-Book
Balthus’ Picture-Book, four essays on that painter’s immersion in narrative, offers a reading of the major paintings and some minor ones, as well as two sets of illustrations. I wrote these essays in response to the retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984, and to satisfy myself that the unusually widespread puritanical reaction to the work (revived in Metropolitan’s 2013 exhibition title, “Balthus: Cats and Girls– Paintings and Provocations”) was invalid.
The first essay presents the scaffolding of ideas that Balthus used and upon which he endlessly elaborated. The second goes further along that road, dealing primarily with his “self-portraits.” The third essay analyzes his illustrations for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and the fourth looks at his childhood production, the picture book  Mitsou, while using it as a lens to consider some more paintings.
My attempts over the years to publish these essays failed partly over the prohibitive cost of image reproduction. I have tried to obviate the problem here by making the work available but not for sale, and by providing URLs for all the images discussed, insofar as that was possible.  The images discussed in each essay and their URLs are listed at the end of each essay.
An abbreviated version of the first essay, without images was published in Ironwood.
Download Balthus’ Picture-Book, Chapter 1: Parsing the Enigma
Download Balthus’ Picture-Book,  Chapter 2: The Self-Portraits
Download Balthus’ Picture-Book, Chapter 3: The Illustrations for Wuthering Heights
Balthus’ Picture-Book, Chapter 4 to follow

Work in Progress
Sexual Stealing
Sexual Stealing is a long work in poetic nonfiction that uses a constraint I first practiced in Blue Fire (Proteotypes, 2009). Authors often produce texts that know more than they do; the text’s greater knowledge of itself can be elicited by submitting the whole to some method of thinning such as mesostic selection.  Sexual Stealing has grown out of my understanding that British Gothic fiction of the late eighteenth century found the source of its horror in plantation slavery, specifically the sugar plantations of Jamaica and San Domingo (Haiti). William Beckford and Matthew “Monk” Lewis both drew their fortunes from such plantations. The violence with which slaves had their freedom and every libidinal object taken from them (hence my title) was displaced to other settings—the Orient, Italy—but the language of the plantation is there to be found. I have extracted it from Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, taking one word from every line of that novel, in order, and forming a secondary text that I have then tried to amplify and contextualize with texts and images from my research. Excerpts have appeared in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, ed. Bergvall, Browne and Place, and in Re:Telling, ed. W.WalshThe excerpt offered below consists of the first ten pages of the book. Download an excerpt

Cut-ups provide an instant closed system of lexical elements. One can shape the system by choosing to use one text alone or to merge several.
“In the beginning was my wishing… ”

In the example offered here, a collaboration at a distance with the writer Gretchen Henderson, I took one of the texts at her Galerie de Difformité and cut it up into segments of two, three or four words. Gretchen’s text (which can be downloaded here and in print from Lake Forest College Press) is itself built around quotations using the word you. Limited to her language and the language she had appropriated, I let the segments magnetize each other.
It was with the cut-up form that I first tested my idea that every literary work contains its own critique, like a statue hidden in a block of marble.Download In the beginning…

Constrained Writing
The primary value of constrained writing lies in the way it liberates the writer from her agenda, literary superego and the ever-replaying internal tape loop. You cannot intend to say any particular thing when you write with constraints; you see what the constraint allows you to say. With many constraints you start by finding the words or phrases that obey the arbitrary rule, and then arrange them according to how they magnetize each other. The great delight is one of surprise and of discovering what you didn’t know you knew.
Constraints also offer a way to think about literary form that is not tied to and enforced by traditional merchandising categories, that escapes political ideologies set into ordinary language-uses. When you have familiarized yourself with some of the better-known ones, you are ready to deploy them, or some variation of them, or simply what you have learned from them about language on another occasion. Lipograms (writing with a restricted set of letters) sensitize you to the emotive power of certain phonetic sounds by completely eliminating others; these musical properties, once learned, can then be deployed for dramatic effect in so-called “normal” writing. Filigranes make you see that every word implicitly contains numerous stories. “The Only the Wholly the” shows how much thinking is done independent of identity and description; and so on.
The piece printed below was written using “The Prisoner’s Constraint.” The writer limits herself to letters without risers (such as h, b, k) and descenders (such as p, j, g). Imagine Houdini tied up in his strait jacket, curled up inside a box.
ann a cosmos, sam a mess
ann is a universe
sam reveres ann
ann swims in waves, a venus in a scenic cove
sam roars in verse
ann is moon, sun, summer, music
i, a mere swain, mirror ann in rime
ann weaves roses, sews sam ear wear,
ann never muses on coins or norms,
ann seasons wearisome arizona,
ann rescues sam in zoos, museums,
mixes sam oreos in nacreous ooze,
ere ian, a con man, arrives in a van,
serves ann moose mousse, norse wine, orca nose in rain
some women swoon over mere caviar or cream
ann murmurs, move over, sam, moans, i am won
sam crosses rivers, meres, moors, ice masses, azure seas, some more moors
soars, an arrow in air, nears sami acres, veers, moves in
soon, as sam sami, a circus emcee, earns raves, seems sane
sam erases ann, curses ian, erases ian, woos zoe, snares ravens, amasses visions, answers voices, snares unicorns, sirens
as ann evanesces, sam measures rum in vain
now sam wears armor, rouses a seer
same seer reserves sam a mission, war on asia
or wisconsin
or maine
or rome,
or waco
sam murmurs mexico— i miss mexico…
enormous maize mazes, icons on canoes,
mines, worms, uranium, cousins in caves …Download other Constrained Writing Texts

Abdelkrim Tabal and Distant Flames
I met the poet Abdelkrim Tabal through my friend Rabia Zbakh during the year I was living in Morocco. Tabal, one of Morocco’s best-known and best-loved poets, is unusual among his colleagues in that he writes in Arabic, not French. His work is closely tied to the winding streets of Chefchaouen, its mountain locale, Andalusian-style houses and revolutionary history. He composes his poems as he wanders the narrow streets; to walk is an essential part of his process.
After I returned home, Rabia and I decided to collaborate on a translation of Distant Flames, one of Tabal’s more recent books. Another friend, the artist and printmaker Florence Neal, thought we should turn it into an artist’s book. The resulting bilingual text, some pages of which are shown below, was exhibited at the Center for Book Arts and Proteus Gowanus in NYC and at the Atelier Lacourière-Frélaut in Paris. The translations were also published in 26, Circumference and Marginalia.
With Tabal’s permission I have made available a pdf of the poems shown below with their translations. Download Distant Flames excerpt.


Other Projects

The Writhing Society is a salon/class devoted to writing with constraints. It meets weekly at Proteus Gowanus and is open to anyone interested in language and serious play. We explore constraints invente by the Oulipo and others, and invent some of our own. View The Writhing Society Blog


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