Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity,
Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,
Perfumes, sounds, and color correspond.
There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children,
Sweet as oboes, green as meadows
—And others are corrupt, and rich, triumphant,
With power to expand into infinity,
Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin,
That sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses.
—Charles Baudelaire, translated by
Nature, indeed, but Art, too.
In September, I was immersed into Stefan Zweig’s
THE WORLD OF YESTERDAY, an autobiographical memoir about Europe
in the first half of the 20th century, which I found deeply
moving. And now, lured by glowing reviews, I find myself immersed
into a book in which I find several correspondences with Zweig’s.
Philip Roth needs no introduction, I think.
According to some, he is the American writer most likely to
win a Nobel Prize for Literature. His latest book, THE PLOT
AGAINST AMERICA, is what SF critics call an alternate history
novel—with a difference. As in the classics of the genre,
the point of departure from our history is linked to World
War Two: Roth postulates that Charles Lindbergh—whose
sympathies for Nazi Germany are a matter of historical record—wins
the 1940 presidential election over FDR. Thus, America stays
out of the war, and an insidious fascistic regime takes over
I’ve not yet finished THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA as I
write this—this column is late enough as it is, don’t
you think?—but I can already tell you it’s not
to be missed. One of the reasons why is that difference I
mentioned earlier. Rather than writing a traditional alternate
history novel—for a perfect example of the form, see
Philip K. Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH
CASTLE—Roth has chosen to write an alternate autobiography.
This is the story of the Roth family—young Phil, his
father Herman, his mother Bess, his older brother Sandy, his
cousin Alvin—as it might have been in another, darker
That makes it personal, of course.
Reading this wonderful novel made me think of a trend I’ve
noticed in some books published as SF, fantasy or horror,
but which rise above genre fare. Another correspondence. Take
Lucius Shepard, for instance. Ever since
his first novel, GREEN EYES (1984), Shepard has played with
genre tropes and expectations, and written powerful fiction
about the human condition—personal and global. After
staying silent for several years, he’s come back in
tremendous form with the new century. We who can’t get
enough of his stories are living a true Golden Age. You should
check out his latest offerings: A HANDBOOK OF AMERICAN PRAYER,
just out from Thunder’s Mouth Press; VIATOR, from Night
Shade Books; and LIAR’S HOUSE, from Subterranean Press—not
to mention TRUJILLO AND OTHER STORIES, a massive collection
from British publisher PS Publishing.
A HANDBOOK OF AMERICAN PRAYER is the story of a convict for
whom prayer does work. When he gets out of jail, he writes
a book, becomes a cult personality and is stalked by a televangelist.
The stuff of sensational fiction, you might say. Except that
Shepard handles his material in a way that makes his novel
true literature—a work about what it means to be human
in the 21st century. I’ve yet to read VIATOR and LIAR’S
HOUSE—the latter novella being the latest installment
in the “Dragon Griaule” informal series—but
I can vouch for the stories collected in TRUJILLO, since I’ve
read several and even translated two or three, such as “Only
Partly Here,” a story about love, loss and Ground Zero,
“Eternity and Afterwards,” where Hell is a Moscow
nightclub, and “Crocodile Rock,” where a new kind
of human monster is born in the jungles of Africa—topical
stuff, if you ask me.
Correspondences. Now, do you know of another writer who straddles
genre, whose stories never flinch and who leaves you richer
by far when you close one of his books? Of course you do.
A few notes to conclude.
Simmons watch for French readers:
This Summer, Omnibus published NOUVELLES DES SIÈCLES
FUTURS, a massive (80 stories!) reprint anthology edited by
Jacques Goimard & Denis Guiot, featuring
Dan’s “The Death of the Centaur.”
Just out from Flammarion, TRACÉS DU VERTIGE (aka RED
SHIFT), edited by Al Sarrantonio, featuring
Dan’s “On K2 with Kanakaredes.”
Just in at Robert Laffont: the OLYMPOS manuscript—1297
pages according to editor Gérard Klein.
Can’t wait to scale this mountain.
The folks at École des Sciences Politiques have updated
the Simmons pages on their website—go have a look at
The Baudelaire translation featured above comes from http://www.fleursdumal.org,
a site devoted to his poetry.
And to quote another poet, “Music hath charms to soothe
a savage breast.” Thanks to Joni Mitchell
(DREAMLAND, Rhino), Neil Young (GREATEST
HITS, Reprise) and Ray LaMontagne (TROUBLE,
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