The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Ivy Compton-Burnett The Present and the Past (1953)


‘Ivy Compton-Burnett is an acquired taste. A friend lent me The Present and The Past a year ago saying I had to read it. For the first couple of chapters I didn’t who was who or understand what was going on. Was this even a novel? It just seemed to be a lot of dialogue in artificial archaic speech. Somewhere in the third chapter I suddenly, in a flash of revelation, ‘got it’. I understood the tragi-comic ‘tone’ and understood that by concentrating on the subtle nuances of dialogue all the usual content/interest of a novel would become evident. There are distinct characters interacting and there is definitely plot – quite elaborate convoluted, even melodramatic, plot. But all the usual narrative devices of commentary, scene setting and transitions between scenes have been reduced, almost eliminated.

‘The storytelling occurs through the dialogue. All the characters speak in a stylised formal way, even children. This dialogue has a sophisticated ironic tone that is blackly comic (it frequently makes me laugh out loud), yet explicitly expresses a tragic sense of the hopelessness and tragedy of life. The main distinction between characters is where they stand in the hierarchy of the Victorian household in which all Ivy novels seem to be set. In other words these novels are about power, guilt and complicity: the mind games and power games into which we are all locked – the Victorian household and its characters becoming universal archetypes. (It may be a far-fetched comparison but I think that in both the settings and the rigorously `minimalist’ style Ivy is to literature what Japanese director Ozu is to cinema, with a similar emotional punch.)

‘Because of the concentrated nature of the dialogue, reading Ivy is very intense and she is probably best read in small doses, one chapter at a sitting. But, apart from that, once you `get it’ then reading Ivy becomes easy and addictive. It’s not like reading Finnegans Wake. I’ve now read several more Ivy novels and they are all similar, though Present and Past remains my favourite. It’s quite short, focused, funny and poignant. We have Cassius, a typical Ivy father/husband: part tyrant part baby. His previous wife suddenly reappears. This appeals to Cassius’s narcissism. He thinks he has formed a kind of harem in which he wields absolute power. But then (a little like the infamous harem scene in Fellini’s Eight and a Half) the previous wife and the present wife start to bond with each other and power begins to ebb from Cassius: his ego, his sense of self and then his very existence begin to crumble. Even the children start to deride him. And then a series of extraordinary plot twists… which you’ll have to read the book to find out!’ — hj





The Ivy Compton-Burnett Homepage
Ivy Compton-Burnett @ myspace
‘London has lost all its Ivy’
‘The deeds and words of Ivy Compton-Burnett’
‘TPatP’ @ goodreads
Douglas Messerli on ‘TPatP’
‘Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Small Economies’
‘Terrifyingly Friendly’
‘Table Talk’
Finding-Aid for the Ivy Compton-Burnett Papers
‘Poison? Ivy? No: merely the least-read great novelist’
John Waters on Ivy Compton-Burnett
Buy ‘The Present and the Past’



Ivy Compton-Burnett “Dom i jego głowa”

Ivy Compton-Burnett Quotes


Speed read


Manuscript page




Margaret Jourdain: We are both what our country landladies call “great readers,” and have often talked over other people’s books during this long quarter of a century between two wars, but never your books.

Ivy Compton-Burnett: It seems an omission, as I am sure we have talked of yours. So let us remedy it.

M. J.: I see that yours are a novel thing in fiction, and unlike the work of other novelists. I see that they are conversation pieces, stepping into the bounds of drama, that narrative and exposition in them are drastically reduced, that there is less scenery than in the early days of the English drama, when a placard informed the audience that the scene was “a wood near Athens,” and less description than in many stage directions. There is nothing to catch the eye, in this “country of the blind.” All your books, from Pastors and Masters, to the present-day Elders and Betters are quite unlike what Virginia Woolf called the “heavy upholstered novel.”

I. C. B.: I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel. They are not of a play, and both deal with imaginary human beings and their lives. I have been told that I ought to write plays, but cannot see myself making the transition. I read plays with especial pleasure, and in reading novels I am disappointed if a scene is carried through in the voice of the author rather than the voices of the characters. I think that I simply follow my natural bent. But I hardly think that “country of the blind” is quite the right description of my scene.

M. J.: I should like to ask you one or two questions; partly my own and partly what several friends have asked. There is time enough and to spare in Lyme Regis, which is a town well-known to novelists. Jane Austen was here, and Miss Mitford.

I. C. B.: And now we are here, though our presence does not seem to be equally felt. No notice marks our lodging. And we also differ from Jane Austen and Miss Mitford in being birds of passage, fleeing from bombs. I have a feeling that they would both have fled, and felt it proper to do so, and wish that we could really feel it equally proper.

M. J.: I have heard your dialogue criticised as “highly artificial” or stylised. One reviewer, I remember, said that it was impossible to “conceive of any human being giving tongue to every emotion, foible and reason with the precision, clarity and wit possessed by all Miss Compton-Burnett’s characters, be they parlourmaids, children, parents or spinster aunts.” It seems odd to object to precision, clarity and wit, and the same objection would lie against the dialogue of Congreve and Sheridan.

I. C. B.: I think that my writing does not seem to me as “stylised” as it apparently is, though I do not attempt to make my characters use the words of actual life. I cannot tell you why I write as I do, as I do not know. I have even tried not to do it, but find myself falling back into my own way. It seems to me that the servants in my books talk quite differently from the educated people, and the children from the adults, but the difference may remain in my own mind and not be conveyed to the reader. I think people’s style, like the way they speak and move, comes from themselves and cannot be explained. I am not saying that they necessarily admire it, though naturally they turn on it a lenient eye.

M. J.: The word “stylised,” which according to the New English Dictionary means “conforming to the rules of a conventional style” has been used in reviewing your books, but the dialogue is often very close to real speech, and not “artificial” or “stylised.” It is, however, sometimes interrupted by formal speech. Take Lucia Sullivan’s explanation of her grandfather’s reluctance to enter his son’s sitting room without an invitation. “It is the intangibility of the distinction (she says) that gives it its point.” Lucia Sullivan is a girl of twenty-four, not especially formal at other times.

I. C. B.: I cannot tell why my people talk sometimes according to conventional style, and sometimes in the manner of real speech, if this is the case. It is simply the result of an effort to give the impression I want to give.

I should not have thought that Lucia Sullivan’s speech was particularly formal. The long word near the beginning is the word that gives her meaning; and surely a girl of twenty-four is enough of a woman to have a normal command of words.

M. J.: Reviewers lean to comparisons. Some have suggested a likeness between your work and Jane Austen’s. Mr. Edwin Muir, however, thinks it is “much nearer the Elizabethan drama of horror”—I can’t think why.

I. C. B.: I should not have thought that authors often recognised influences. They tend to think, and to like to think, that they are not unduly indebted to their predecessors. But I have read Jane Austen so much, and with such enjoyment and admiration, that I may have absorbed things from her unconsciously. I do not think myself that my books have any real likeness to hers. I think that there is possibly some likeness between our minds.

The same might apply in a measure to the Elizabethan dramatists, though I don’t think I have read these more than most people have.

M. J:. Mr. Muir in an earlier review says that you remind him of Congreve—a formidable list, Congreve, Jane Austen, Henry James and the Elizabethan dramatists—and the odd thing is that they are all disparate.

I. C. B.: The only explanation I can give, is that people who practise the same art are likely to have some characteristics in common. I have noticed such resemblance between writers the most widely separated, in merit, kind and time.

M. J.: I see one point of contact between your novels and Jane Austen’s. She keeps her eye fixed upon the small circuit of country gentlefolk who seem to have little to do but pay calls, take walks, talk, and dine, in fact—the comfortable classes; she does not include people in what Austen Leigh calls “a position of poverty and obscurity, as this, though not necessarily connected with vulgarity, has a sad tendency to degenerate into it.”

I. C. B.: I feel that I do not know the people outside my own world well enough to deal with them. I had no idea that my characters did nothing but call, walk, talk and dine, though I am glad you do not say that they only talk. Their professions and occupations are indicated, but I am concerned with their personal lives; and following them into their professional world would lead to the alternations between two spheres, that I think is a mistake in books. I always regret it in the great Victorian novelists, though it would be hard to avoid it in books on a large scale. And my characters have their own poverty and obscurity, though of course it is only their own.

I feel I have a knowledge of servants in so far as they take a part in the world they serve. This may mean that the knowledge is superficial, as I have often thought it in other people’s books.

The people in between seem to me unrelated to anything I know. When I talk to tradespeople, their thoughts and reactions seem to have their background in a dark world, though their material lives may not differ greatly from my own.

M. J.: I don’t see any influence of the “Elizabethan drama of horror,” nor much of Jane Austen. I think there is something of Henry James. What about the suggestion that the Russian novelists affected you—not Tolstoy of course, but Tchekov or Dostoievsky. Dostoievsky’s method, “a mad jumble that flings things down in a heap,” isn’t yours. And how about the Greek dramatists?

I. C. B.: I am not a great reader of Henry James, though I have seen it suggested that I am his disciple. I don’t mean that I have any objection to the character, except in so far as it is a human instinct to object to being a disciple, but I hardly think I have read him enough to show his influence. I enjoy him less than many other writers. He does not reveal as much as I should like of the relations of his characters with each other. And I am surprised if my style is as intricate as his. I should have thought it was only rather condensed. If it is, I sympathise with the people who cannot read my books. The Russian novels I read with a sense of being in a daze, of seeing their action take place in a sort of half-light, as though there was an obscurity between my mind and theirs, and only part of the meaning conveyed to a Russian came through to me. I always wonder if people, who think they see the whole meaning, have any conception of it. So I am probably hardly influenced by the Russians. But, as I have said before, I think that people who follow the same art, however different their levels, are likely to have some of the same attributes, and that it is possibly these that lead them to a similar end. The Greek dramatists I read as a girl, as I was classically educated, and read them with the attention to each line necessitated by the state of my scholarship; and it is difficult to say how much soaked in, but I should think very likely something. I have not read them for many years—another result of the state of my scholarship.

M. J.: There is little attention given to external things and almost no descriptive writing in your novels, and that is a breach with tradition. Even Jane Austen has an aside about the “worth” of Lyme, Charmouth and Pinhay, “with its green chasms between romantic rocks.” And there is much more description in later novels, such as Thomas Hardy’s. In The Return of the Native, the great Egdon Heath has to be reckoned with as a protagonist. Now you cut out all of this. The Gavestons’ house in A Family and a Fortune is spoken of as old and beautiful, but its date and style are not mentioned.

I. C. B.: I should have thought that my actual characters were described enough to help people to imagine them. However detailed such description is, I am sure that everyone forms his own conceptions, that are different from everyone else’s, including the author’s. As regards such things as landscape and scenery, I never feel inclined to describe them; indeed I tend to miss such writing out, when I am reading, which may be a sign that I am not fitted for it. I make an exception of Thomas Hardy, but surely his presentation of natural features almost as characters puts him on a plane of his own, and almost carries the thing described into the human world. In the case of Jane Austen, I hurry through her words about Lyme and its surroundings, in order to return to her people.

It might be better to give more account of people’s homes and intimate background, but I hardly see why the date and style of the Gavestons’ house should be given, as I did not think of them as giving their attention to it, and as a house of a different date and style would have done for them equally well. It would be something to them that it was old and beautiful, but it would be enough.

M. J.: I see a reviewer says that Elders and Betters—which has the destruction of a will by one character (Anna Donne) who afterwards drives another to suicide—has “a milder and less criminal flavour than most of its predecessors.” There is a high incidence of murder in some of your novels, which is really not common among the “comfortable classes.” I remember, however, talking of the rarity of murders with a lawyer’s daughter, who said that her father asserted that murders within their class were not so rare. He used to call them “Mayfair murders.”

I. C. B.: I never see why murder and perversion of justice are not normal subjects for a plot, or why they are particularly Elizabethan or Victorian, as some reviewers seem to think. But I think it is better for a novel to have a plot. Otherwise it has no shape, and incidents that have no part in a formal whole seem to have less significance. I always wish that Katherine Mansfield’s At the Bay was cast in a formal mould. And a plot gives rise to secondary scenes, that bring out personality and give scope for revealing character. If the plot were taken out of a book, a good deal of what may seem unconnected with it, would have to go. A plot is like the bones of a person, not interesting like expression or signs of experience, but the support of the whole.

M. J.: At the Bay breaks off rather than comes to its full stop. A novel without a plot sags like a tent with a broken pole. Your last book had a very generous amount of review space; and most of the reviews were intelligent. Elizabeth Bowen found a phrase for one of your characteristics; “a sinister cosiness,” but the Queen tells one that “if one perseveres with the conversations (evidently an obstacle), a domestic chronicle of the quieter sort emerges.” How do you think reviews have affected you and your work?

I. C. B.: It is said that writers never read reviews, but in this case it is hard to see how the press-cutting agencies can flourish and increase their charge. I think that writers not only read reviews, but are subject to an urge to do so. George Henry Lewes is supposed to have hidden George Eliot’s disparaging reviews, in case she should see them; and if he wished to prevent her doing so, I think it was a wise precaution. I think that reviews have a considerable effect upon writers. Of course I am talking of reviews that count, by people whose words have a meaning. I remember my first encouraging notices with gratitude to their authors. Much of the pleasure of making a book would go, if it held nothing to be shared by other people. I would write for a few dozen people; and it sometimes seems that I do so; but I would not write for no one.

I think the effect of reviews upon a writer’s actual work is less. A writer is too happy in praise to do anything but accept it. Blame he would reject, if he could; but if he cannot, I think he generally knew of his guilt, and could not remedy matters. I have nearly always found this the case myself.

Letters from readers must come under the head of reviews, and have the advantage that their writers are under no compulsion to mention what they do not admire. I have only had one correspondent who broke this rule, and what he did not admire was the whole book. He stated that he could see nothing in it, and had moreover found it too concentrated to read. Someone said that I must have liked this letter the most of all I had had, but I believe I liked it the least.

Some writers have so many letters that they find them a burden. They make me feel ashamed of having so few, and inclined to think that people should write to me more.



Ivy Compton-Burnett The Present and the Past
University of California Press

‘Cassius Clare is the father of five children; two by his first wife from whom he is divorced, and three by his second wife who conscientiously tries to be a mother to all five. The first Ms. Clare implores Cassius to let her visit her children. At first flattered by the suggestion of a harem implicit in the situation, then maliciously foreseeing the predicament which is likely to arise, he consents. To his dismay, the tactless return of the first Mrs. Clare results in an intimate friendship between the two women who have shared this singularly unlovable husband; neither pays any heed to him.’ — copy


“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” said Henry Clare.

His sister glanced in his direction.

“They are pecking the sick one. They are angry because it is ill.”

“Perhaps it is because they are anxious,” said Megan, looking at the hens in the hope of discerning this feeling.

“It will soon be dead,” said Henry, sitting on a log with his hands on his knees. “It must be having death-pangs now.”

Another member of the family was giving his attention to the fowls. He was earnestly thrusting cake through the wire for their entertainment. When he dropped a piece he picked it up and put it into his own mouth, as though it had been rendered unfit for poultry’s consumption. His elders appeared to view his attitude either in indifference or sympathy.

“What are death-pangs like?” said Henry, in another tone.

“I don’t know,” said his sister, keeping her eyes from the sufferer of them. “And I don’t think the hen is having them. It seems not to know anything.”

Henry was a tall, solid boy of eight, with rough, dark hair, pale, wide eyes, formless, infantine features, and something vulnerable about him that seemed inconsistent with himself. His sister, a year younger and smaller for her age, had narrower, deeper eyes, a regular, oval face, sudden, nervous movements, and something resistant in her that was again at variance with what was beneath.

Tobias at three had small, dark, busy eyes, a fluffy, colourless head, a face that changed with the weeks and evinced an uncertain charm, and a withdrawn expression consistent with his absorption in his own interests. He was still pushing crumbs through the wire when his shoulder was grasped by a hand above him.

“Wasting your cake on the hens! You know you were to eat it yourself.”

Toby continued his task as though unaware of interruption.

“Couldn’t one of you others have stopped him?”

The latter also seemed unaware of any break.

“Don’t do that,” said the nursemaid, seizing Toby’s arm so that he dropped the cake. “Didn’t you hear me speak?”

Toby still seemed not to do so. He retrieved the cake, took a bite himself and resumed his work.

“Don’t eat it now,” said Eliza. “Give it all to the hens.”

Toby followed the injunction, and she waited until the cake was gone.

“Now if I give you another piece, will you eat it?”

“Can we have another piece too?” said the other children, appearing to notice her for the first time.

She distributed the cake, and Toby turned to the wire, but when she pulled him away, stood eating contentedly.

“Soon be better now,” he said, with reference to the hen and his dealings with it.

“It didn’t get any cake,” said Henry. “The others had it all. They took it and then pecked the sick one. Oh, dear, oh, dear!”

“He did get some,” said Toby, looking from face to face for reassurance. “Toby gave it to him.”

He turned to inspect the position, which was now that the hens, no longer competing for crumbs, had transferred their activity to their disabled companion.

“Pecking him!” said Toby, moving from foot to foot. “Pecking him when he is ill! Fetch William. Fetch him.”

A pleasant, middle-aged man, known as the head gardener by virtue of his once having had subordinates, entered the run and transferred the hen to a separate coop.

“That is better, sir.”

“Call Toby ‘sir’,” said the latter, smiling to himself.

“She will be by herself now.”

“Sir,” supplied Toby.

“Will it get well?” said Henry. “I can’t say, sir.”

“Henry and Toby both ‘sir’,” said Toby. “Megan too.”

“No, I am not,” said his sister.

“Poor Megan, not ‘sir’!” said Toby, sadly.

“The last hen that was ill was put in a coop to die,” said Henry, resuming his seat and the mood it seemed to engender in him.

“Well, it died after it was there,” said Megan.

“That is better, miss,” said William.

“Miss,” said Toby, in a quiet, complex tone.

“They go away alone to die,” said Henry. “All birds do that, and a hen is a bird. But it can’t when it is shut in a coop. It can’t act according to its nature.”

“Perhaps it ought not to do a thing that ends in dying,” said Megan.

“Something in that, miss,” said William.

“Why do you stay by the fowls,” said Eliza, “when there is the garden for you to play in?”

“We are only allowed to play in part of it,” said Henry, as though giving an explanation.

“Oh, dear, oh, dear!” said Eliza, in perfunctory mimicry.

“William forgot to let out the hens,” said Megan, “and Toby would not leave them.”

Toby tried to propel some cake to the hen in the coop, failed and stood absorbed in the scramble of the others for it.

“All want one little crumb. Poor hens!”

“What did I tell you?” said Eliza, again grasping his arm.

He pulled it away and openly applied himself to inserting cake between the wires.

“Toby not eat it now,” he said in a dutiful tone.

“A good thing he does not have all his meals here,” said William.

“There is trouble wherever he has them,” said Eliza. “And the end is waste.”

The sick hen roused to life and flung itself against the coop in a frenzy to join the feast.

“It will kill itself,” said Henry. “No one will let it out.”

William did so and the hen rushed forth, cast itself into the fray, staggered and fell.

“It is dead,” said Henry, almost before this was the case.

“Poor hen fall down,” said Toby, in the tone of one who knew the experience. “But soon be well again.”

“Not in this world,” said William.

“Sir,” said Toby, to himself. “No, miss.”

“It won’t go to another world,” said Henry. “It was ill and pecked in this one, and it won’t have any other.”

“It was only pecked on its last day,” said Megan. “And everything is ill before it dies.”

“The last thing it felt was hunger, and that was not satisfied.”

“It did not know it would not be. It thought it would.”

“It did that, miss,” said William. “And it was dead before it knew.”

“There was no water in the coop,” said Henry, “and sick things are parched with thirst.”

“Walking on him,” said Toby, in a dubious tone.

“Eliza, the hens are walking on the dead one!” said Megan, in a voice that betrayed her.

“It is in their way, miss,” said William, giving a full account of the position.

Megan looked away from the hens, and Henry stood with his eyes on them. Toby let the matter leave his mind, or found that it did so.

“Now what is all this?” said another voice, as the head nurse appeared on the scene, and was led by some instinct to turn her eyes at once on Megan. “What is the matter with you all?”

“One of the hens has died,” said Eliza, in rapid summary. “Toby has given them his cake and hardly taken a mouthful. The other hens walked on the dead one and upset Miss Megan. Master Henry has one of his moods.”

Megan turned aside with a covert glance at William.

“Seeing the truth about things isn’t a mood,” said Henry.




p.s. Hey. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Oh, really? Maybe women are just more comfortable with and verbose about being bi? The bi woman is a not uncommon at all hetero guy sex fantasy which, inadvertently, might cause women to feel more relaxed about outputting their status? I’ve had too many people throughout my life say they were bi and live/love in a way that could only be described as bi to question that identity’s legitimacy. The idea that all men are secretly bi is a nonsensical, self-serving gay fantasy in my opinion. I think people can and should identify themselves however they want, and people who have a problem with that seem to think they’re entitled to define/own other people’s identity, which I think is gross. Look forward to your Shamir review. Everyone, SE reviews Shamir’s new album here. How cool that Elucid wrote back to you. I came across and read your review of the new Haynes film last night. I haven’t seen it, but I believe your review. I personally think a problem with most of his films is that at some level or other they’re an ‘academic exercise’ and suffer from a certain stilted lifelessness caused by that. Everybody, also go read SE’s interesting and less than glowing review of Todd Haynes’s new film ‘Wonderstruck’. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Yes, fellow big JS fan here. Delon isn’t entirely retired. He still acts in plays in Paris occasionally. Ah, venue change. Let me … Everyone, You remember that I alerted So. Cal. people to an upcoming event featuring Mr,. David Ehrenstein? Well, if that applies to you and if you’re wisely planning to attend, there is breaking news, and here is Mr. E to deliver it: ‘THERE HAS BEEN A CHANGE OF VENUE FOR MY APPEARANCE THIS SATURDAY. 212 PIER is proud to host MESS (Media Ecology Soul Salon) at Cafe 212 Pier, 212 Pier Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90405, 310-314-5275, Saturday, Nov 11, free admission, 2 pm (for two hours), Free parking on 2nd St between Ocean Park and Pier. More info: 310-306-7330. and/or here and here. ** Bernard, Hi, B! I’ve always liked JS’s acting, start to recent. The evolution and increased confidence/relaxation is interesting to watch. I increasingly find actors’ conventional acting abilities less and less interesting to watch, probably due to thinking about and working with ‘acting’ in Zac’s and my films. Do you have a link to your writings on Medium? Or, wait, maybe I can find them with a quick Googling. I don’t think I know Daniel Kitson’s stuff, I’ll investigate. Paris is not impossible? That’s a great start and, you know, crossed fingers. It’s borderline winter here now, and so dreamy everywhere. I talked a bit about ‘Crowd’. It world premiered on Wednesday. I didn’t go for the shows, long story. I talked to Gisele, and she said it went really well and got a great response despite the fact that the piece is not where it needs to be yet. It will need to be fully realized, and hopefully will be, by the time it hits Paris in December. Here’s a short video/thing about ‘Crowd’ made by ARTE that shows bits of it and gives something of a sense of it. Total bonus to see you, Bernie! (I think that’s the first time I’ve ever called you ‘Bernie’. It doesn’t feel right.) ** _Black_Acrylic, Howdy, Ben. That is a kind of great photo you took. And strangely so, yes. YnY is back in the technically advanced hood! Everyone, the great, the one and only site/magazine/multi-faceted project Yuck n Yum, one of whose maestros and spearheads is our own _Black_Acrylic, has returned to the internet as part of a glorious general rebirth. Hit this, and then click Bookmark. ** Amphibiouspeter, Oh, thanks, man. I’m a giant Wes Anderson fan. He lives in Paris, and I keep wishing I could run into him or be introduced by a common acquaintance or something so I can have a long coffee and brain-picking chat with him. Ha ha, I shouldn’t think that you blowing out that table’s candles is beautiful, but I do. The French don’t really seem to be into ghosts and the paranormal like Americans and Brits are, which is too bad because, whoa, Paris must be so full of ghosts. Maybe that’s the reason? Fear of waking the sleeping giant, etc.? ** Keatan, Hi. I don’t know anything about what makes a rap a rap. I think the kind of ractist-y line should be cut, though. Stifled can work, though. You just have to think of it as compression maybe? Disgust, weird. Maybe you do need Primal Therapy, ha ha. You could be the Tears for Fears of fiction. That could sell. ** Misanthrope, Hi. Uh, that’s a weird theory about his mole as a big career killer. No, I think my gay friends thought that by going gay again I was giving up possibly interesting options that would have been available to me. Enjoy the three-day freedom. It’s whatever the French equivalent of Veteran’s Day is tomorrow. ** Sypha, Glad you’re also a JS fan. Yeah, the fact that films cost a ton more money to make than books and have a greater possibility of making money than books does cause the process of getting it seen by people to be a hell of a lot more laborious than it needs to be. You can always be like me and suddenly decide to start making films in your 60’s. It’s been surprisingly smooth to switch gears. ** Armando, Hi, man. Continuing hug. Oh, I’m pretty sure I already told you I saw the Didion doc while I was in LA and liked it a lot. So, yeah, I’m with you. ** Okay. Today I’m concentrating the blog’s little powers on my favorite novel by one of my favorite writers, the singular and brilliantly peculiar Ivy Compton-Burnett. See you tomorrow.


  1. @David Ehrenstein,


    I just wanted to thank you for your very supportive and extremely kind words the other day. They really do mean a whole lot to me, in all honesty.

    David Ehrenstein, I did thank you that day, but you must not have seen my response; it must’ve been too late.

    Misanthrope, by the time I read your words it was already too late so I knew there was no point in replying that same day anymore.

    So, anyway, once again, thank you so much to both of you. I don’t deserve your kindness.

    Have a very good day,

    Best regards,


  2. @ Armando

    I hope things are looking up and the passage of a few days has made your sadness a bit less intense.


    I was going to a press screening of the new Louis C.K. film Monday. Ironically, I decided to bail so I can go to a press screening of the new Woody Allen film, which I may be reviewing for the Nashville Scene. Now I wonder if that C. K. press screening will be happening at all. The Orchard, the US distributor of I LOVE YOU DADDY, paid $5 million for the rights to it at Toronto in September. Now it may be unreleasable. It would be really interesting to me to write about the contradictions of C.K.’s work in light of what we now know about his behavior but I’ve already read one article on this and there will probably be 25 by 5:00 today.

    • Steve, I’ve got to know if that new Woody Allen film is any good. It’s the one with Timothee Chalamet, right? (Fuck, I think I’m a little in love with him. At first, I wasn’t, but I saw an interview with him, and he’s so fucking bright and funny. Seems a really good guy. (Just watch, someone will say he harassed him/her next week and totally ruin it.))

      • I’m not going to be reviewing the Allen film, and pretty much everyone, whatever they think of Allen as a person, agrees that it sucks, so I am going to see the Safdie brothers’ GOOD TIME Monday instead. I will be reviewing Spielberg’s forthcoming THE POST for the Nashville Scene, although it won’t be. published till mid January. Apparently, many critics got DVD screeners of I LOVE YOU, DADDY in the mail today. Maybe I’m one – I haven’t checked my mail.

        I’m now listening to TALKING HEADS ’77 for the first time in a long time. It strikes me that ironic adoptions of early Neo-con posturing are a running theme through this album. At the time, did people take songs like “No Compassion” and “Don’t Worry About The Government” as an art school equivalent of the Nazi references in the Ramones’ first 2 albums, equally aimed at pissing off hippies and Jimmy Carter/Jerry Brown fans?

        I had two big writing-related fuck-ups this evening: Pat Collins claims he E-mailed his interview questions to me 4 times, to 2 different addresses, but I never received them (and I even called my ISP to have them check my spam filter), and I made a major mistake in a review that has already been laid out and only got caught by the proofreader. I tried to rewrite 2 sentences in one paragraph to modify it, but I fucked up and wrote something really stupid and may have been guilty of the exact problematic thing I accused a film. of! I hope the editor’s satisfied with my change. I was going to see Soderbergh’s SOLARIS (which I loved in 2002) again tonight but I had to stay inside and deal with this stuff, and I still have no idea what’s up with the interview.

  3. Sup DC

    This was an interesting one. She looks the same in all her photos, both in terms of being quite dignified and stern looking, and the same age/hair in all of them. Is there some explanation of that (taken at the same time)? I also thought she was really witty and a bit enigmatic in the interview, love the thing of turning a ‘lenient eye’ to your own writing.

    I also had a weird moment when it said Lyme Regis of oh she’s *from there*, like I was expecting her to be from America or something. And then I realised it was all there in ‘Victorian’ – I’ve always thought of that as designating a period in time, but it’s also specific in terms of place, right? So there must be other words like that. Kind of space-time words, but not ones that are just made up or never really used. Anyway, that’s gone in my notebook, so thanks.

    Wish I could say it’s now my personal mission to link you up with WA, but I have no leads, no detective skills, and don’t live in Paris. I’m sure you’d return the non-favour. You can thank me later.

    Oh yeah, I mean there must be something spooky hanging around in the catacombs. You’re right though, i could imagine Paris ghost stories being a real thing, but guess not. I’ve not really read any French lit beyond Camus I think. Maybe it’s the opposite – the idea of ghosts and hauntings is so benign and banal to them they’re just not interested. “So your chair started floating? So what? My plates all smashed last week. Who gives a fuck?”

    Right – had a little longer to write today, on the train up to Scotland for a couple days. Have a good weekend, and as always – take care x

  4. Hey Dennis,
    I’m back from my residency in Virginia. It was good overall, though the internet there was worse than usual so I’m now slowly digging out from under an avalanche of emails for my freelance jobs.

    I finished revisions for the FSG novel while I was there, then began something new. Switching heads so quickly was tougher than I expected. Still trying to figure out the voice(s) for the new book. Am I remembering correctly that you had some different experiments/exercises you’d try when trying to construct a new voice for a novel? Any advice or suggestions would be hugely welcome.

    I read the Krauss bio of Kathy Acker while away. Have you checked it out yet? I’d be very curious what you think of it. I enjoyed the first half, though she seemed to dislike/dismiss Acker’s work after ‘Don Quixote’ and not discuss it much, which was a shame.

    Nice to see this Ivy Compton-Burnett day. I’ve been meaning to track down this book. Is there something in particular that sets this one apart for you vs. her others?

    Hope the LA trip was a blast and there’s a good report from Giselle about the opening of ‘Crowd.’

  5. David Ehrenstein

    November 10, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    Hey I got DVD screener of “I Love You Daddy” in the mail yesterday. Looks good (black and white) but it’s no “PootieTang”

    So nice to se “Poise and Ivy” up again.

    Just got <A HREF="https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-ballad-of-john-latouche-9780190458294?cc=us&lang=en&"The MASSIVE Touche bio in the mail. I’ll be reviewing it for Gay City News. So maybe you should re-run my Touche Day,

  6. Dennis, well, I believe when I was a kid I desired to be a filmmaker like either Spielberg or George Lucas and do these big sci-fi space opera epics. The second time the bug hit me (in high school) I saw myself as doing indie crime films of the sort being done by directors like Tarantino or the Coen Brothers (I even wrote 55 or so pages of a screenplay entitled “Nurse Sharks” that was a total rip-off of “Reservoir Dogs,” just with an all-female cast). But I think I’m probably too introverted for such an affair… and, well, I don’t play well with others, ha ha. But who knows what fate has in store for one…

    In regards to bisexuality, that’s a term I’ve applied to myself before, even though I’m not crazy about the word. I pretty much saw myself as straight the first 18 years or so of my life… it wasn’t until my senior year of high school and my early years of college that I even considered the possibility that I might be otherwise. I guess I was probably 20 or so when I first began to identify as gay: that was the age when I joined my campus gay/straight alliance student group. I think I was desperate for some kind of concrete identity at that time… naturally, no sooner had I gotten used to the fact that I was gay, that in my final semester at college (when I was 22) I fell in love with a female classmate, which once again threw me all out of whack. So after college I began to apply the term bisexual to myself, though every now and then on a whim I’ll change it to gay… but usually bi. It probably doesn’t help matters that I literally have zero sexual experience in these matters, and that I find neither the vagina or the penis all that enticing (in a book I wrote back in 1997, when I was 17, a character opines “If you ask me, the penis and the vagina are the two grossest parts of the human anatomy.” She then goes on to say that she prefers boobs and asses. I haven’t really changed my stance much since, tbh). For better or worse the female breast has pretty much always been my first love.

    Still, I don’t think I could be involved in a relationship with a woman because I fear that some of my more subterranean totems and fetishes, which would not raise an eyebrow in the days of Ancient Greece, might freak out a member of the fairer sex, while a gay man might not be as phased… of course that’s probably sexist bullshit (and really, so many gay men have gone mainstream normal these days, I’m probably wrong on that count as well). I should stress that in regards to these fetishes it’s strictly an abstract aesthetic affair and not a physical one… don’t want you to think I’m going all Will Decker on you, hee hee.

  7. Hi!

    Excuse my absence yesterday, I got home quite late and I was exhausted. There weren’t too many visitors at the gallery but my co-worker and I had to help the owner prepare for the Christmas fairs and there was a brutal amount of work with that. At least my 8 work hours flew by, though.

    Well, thank you for sharing them! Huh, yeah… I didn’t even think about all this when I asked my question. I do hope Berlin says a big yes and Permanent Green Light can start its life as soon as possible! I can’t wait to see it!
    Did Gisele call yesterday? How was the premiere??
    Your yesterday sounded a lot more fun than mine. I hope it really was!
    I spent yet another day at the gallery today so I’m afraid I can’t really share too exciting news. I’m going in tomorrow, too, but – if everything goes well and the owner doesn’t need extra help – I’ll finally have a day off on Sunday.
    What did the day offer you? I hope you had a lovely one, Dennis!!

  8. Dennis: “The storytelling occurs through the dialogue.” I really like that idea, always have. People always say “show, don’t tell,” and while I agree wholeheartedly with that (in most cases and particularly with my own writing), I do think that talking is acting as much as, say, punching someone in the face is. Literary-wise anyway. Though really, so many times we’re much more hurt by what someone says than if they’d just hit us in the face. (And yes, of course, more violent forms of action really can’t compare, I know that.)

    Oh, yeah, that makes sense re: your gay friends. Of course, I don’t think -and I’d guess you don’t think- that being exclusively straight or gay in any way makes you give up less interesting options or anything.

    But hell, people like what they like, and I’m okay with that (unless they’re hurting other people or even themselves).

    I think Veterans Day is technically Saturday the 11th here. Because it’s on a Saturday, the federal government takes off on Friday instead of Monday. So far, it’s been fun. Haven’t really done much. Though I did weigh under 215 this morning, first time I’ve been this light in about 20 years. I feel good. And that’s a good thing.

  9. Most of my friends in my last life were black. We argued about
    music constantly. They taught me the difference in all kinds
    musics. House, Rap, Hip-Hop, DJing, MCing. That line was
    made of my craving for an Asian boy I used to fuck and your
    character Tran. I don’t know, stifled is getting harder to
    deal with. Need a place where I can smoke all the time. You know,
    I had a co-worker one time who was a huge Tears for Fears fan, it
    was kind of creepy hot sexy. Haha, “Supreme Clientele”. Kisses to
    one of my favorite mugs

    Oh, just saw your comment about Paris being haunted. I’ve
    only seen one ghost there that I would actually call a “ghost.
    A laughing fat man dressed in 17th century
    blue on the landing of the steps in a hotel in Montmartre during
    a fire evacuation.

    My thoughts on the bi-sexual thread. A girl came to my
    favorite bar for Halloween, if she was a little lighter
    in the hips, I would have married her. Most beautiful girl
    I’ve ever seen. A little of the power-suit in her I would think.
    I was taught a structuralist, theres only three colors. Savage/
    modern/post-modern, blah blah blah. Queer theory was not the ruby
    slipper of today. It was so mixed with transhumanism and post-structuralist
    murmurs, it made no sense until you read Foucault and Lacan. Freud of course
    had 4 types of “how one becomes gay”, mother loved me too much, i want a woman with a penis,
    i want to fight dad and my brothers to death, and the inverted triangle. the bisexual
    seems so apprehensive and butthurt to me, scorned, obvious obsession, when mother
    pays no attention baby takes the spotlight or moves on to greener pastures. on the surface
    it looks very elektra complex, maybe its only narcissism. gay for me, rather
    “queer” was an adaptation. a way out, a way to buy adventure, sex, drugs,
    rock and roll, magic. “We create ourselves. Yeah, you know me.” – REM

  10. Here’s my second music review of the week (and this will be my last one for the month – in December, I’m reviewing the new album by hip-hop group Brockhampton), on the deluxe reissue of R.E.M.’s AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE: http://gaycitynews.nyc/r-e-m-s-pinnacle-quarter-century/

  11. Hey!

    Haven’t been able to read all week, between school and work. Looking forward to catching up on all these posts. Have you gotten out of jet lag brain? How was the “Crowd” premier?
    You’re advise about editing being”more fun than a video game” made the whole thing a lot more manageable. Also, I was trying to edit on my laptop before. After printing the words out it became a lot more flexible and inviting. Thanks for the help.
    It’s tricky with a one act, considering I’m editing words meant to be spoken onstage. I’ve been tinkering around with different forms, ways of writing, etc. I was wondering if you approach scripts differently than other work? Any advice would be majorly appreciated.

  12. Honestly, I’m not sure who the “everyone is bi” fantasy suits. In my own life, it actually seem to benefit heterosexuals who can pretty much ignore 99% of the attracted-to-and-sleeping-with-same-sex-partners stuff while looking down on people who are genuinely only gay or lesbian. I’ve had basically straight guys who sucked cock once tell me there’s something wrong with me for never having had sex with a woman and not gushing over women’s attractiveness. (And I don’t think I’ve ever expressed the latter lack of interest in female beauty in a misogynist way.) It seems implicit in much religious ideology about LGBT identity – they think everyone can get “recruited” into gayness. Perhaps because so many homophobes and religious conservatives really are repressing their own gay and bi feelings? It’s a cliche, but it might be true. There are also a few self-righteous college students who misunderstood queer theory and walk around lecturing people like me, who started being publicly gay when Queer Nation still existed and the word “queer” was still wildly controversial, about how Foucault proves it’s a bad social construct to exclusively fuck men.

  13. I saw you wrote a few days ago about wishing you’d run into Wes Anderson and I thought I’d share a story.

    A few years ago in Chicago, my friend and I knew Wes Anderson was doing an event in town, but we couldn’t find tickets. Instead, we went to the Art Institute . As we were entering the Miniature Rooms gallery, my friend told me that he read in an interview somewhere that Anderson loves the Miniature Rooms and tries to visit whenever he’s in Chicago. Sure enough, we ran into him and his entourage. My friend’s more of a movie buff than I am so he recognized Roman Coppola.

    We sheepishly introduced ourselves to Anderson, trying to toe the line between dorky and pushy fanboyishness. Anderson is one of the gentlest and most reserved people I’ve ever met. I probably felt the closest ever to what I imagine it would feel like to meet Wilde. He was very grateful for our kind words about his work, gave us tickets to the event later in the afternoon, and (after some pressing) spoke with us a little bit about how he’s enchanted by slight differences in decor between miniatures that are close in the times and places they portray.

    I’ve posted here a few times before as “Corey Heiferman” but I’ve been going by my Hebrew name “Chaim” ever since I emigrated from Western Massachusetts to Tel Aviv two weeks ago. For the first time in years I feel like the world is full of possibilities in every area of life. I’d be interested in anything you have to say about the joys and frustrations of starting anew as an expat from USA.

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