Stanley Crawford's Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine was first published in 1972 and has maintained a cult status throughout its long years out of print, its reputation buoyed by distinguished fans such as Gordon Lish. Finally, this fall, Dalkey Archive Press, longtime rescuer of endangered titles, has reissued Log with a new afterword by Ben Marcus. Crawford has created, according to Marcus, "a body of work that is as rigorously inventive as it is obsessed with the human tragedy, that has marked him as a writer attuned to the most potent, and timeless possibilities in literary fiction." Log is fiercely original, modern, and strange. It is an episodic sea tale with no real sea adventures, just two people hiding from, or looking for, each other on a boat that they spend 40 years altering and maintaining.
Crawford is the author of several novels, including the brilliant Some Instructions to My Wife, also published by Dalkey Archive, and two memoirs. He lives in new Mexico with his wife, RoseMary, where they own and run a garlic farm. This interview took place over email during the garlic harvest season.
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Deb Olin Unferth: How did Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine come about? What was going on in your life? What was going on in the world?
Stanley Crawford: "Nineteen Sixty-Eight" probably would say it all. Except I should add that I was writing novels on Lesbos and Crete, and in Paris and Dublin between the two Kennedy assassinations, with only occasional visits back to the States. I missed much of the ferment leading up to '68, so that when I finally returned to the States in December of that year, it was to a strange and troubling foreign country. Some of that foreignness may have had to do with the fact that I was newly married and a new father. RoseMary and young Adam and I settled in San Francisco, which I knew from my Berkeley student days. But the shock of it all — the Vietnam war protests, the violence in Berkeley (where I still had friends), the drug scene — was such that I stopped writing for six months. Log emerged out of that turbulent void with inexplicable suddenness and coherence. In retrospect, it became clear that I was giving voice to my apprehensive fantasies about my as yet unmet Australian mother-in-law, the remarkable Alice Klaphake, who had been widowed about the time RoseMary and I met on Crete; and to then-recent memories of our Dublin landlords, who lived in a greenhouse behind the main house, which they had carved into two apartments to rent out. Nor did I know that Log would become a sort of imaginative blueprint to the next phase of our lives in Northern New Mexico as back-to-the-landers. I finished Log in a rented house in Dixon in 1970, and the following year we began building our own house on two acres. It might be useful to add that a lot of us back in the early 1970s thought that the world was on the brink, the government out of control, the then-war pointless, and that the best bet was to learn how to grow your own food. Then as now.
Unferth: Log is surreal and strange in the very best way. Do you recall how you moved from realistic to surreal images? How did you come to achieve such leaps, for example, in the chapter about Mrs. Unguentine's pregnancy (the most hilarious story of insemination, pregnancy, and birth I've ever read)? Or in describing the barge? Was there a method you used to open the mind to suggestion? Are there any methods that you use now?
Crawford:If I knew the answer to all this, I would have gladly written a half dozen more novels in the same vein. Coffee? Cheap wine? Cigarettes? All of the above and more, but pot, it turned out, tended to shut down all my verbal machinery, very disturbing in someone whose quest in life, in younger life at least, was to become as articulate as possible, in speech and writing, and in several languages. That experiment ended very quickly. More, I think, a question of discipline. I learned discipline as an early-entrant student at the University of Chicago. I was 16 when I arrived there on a Ford Foundation scholarship. I was surrounded by bright kids who could get by without studying much. But I had to. And in order to graduate in four years, I had to spend a last summer at home studying 14 hours a day for seven days a week in order to pass two difficult courses. This served me well when I started writing seriously a few years later. As has been said, you have to show up at your post every day whether you feel like it or not, because the best ideas often come when least expected, or not at all expected.
I am somewhat less disciplined than I used to be, and I have found that though fiction still needs a seven-morning week, plus reflection or "note-taking" periods of time throughout the rest of the day, nonfiction seems to work better with three- and four-day bursts with a break of a day or two between.
As for the surreal, one doesn't really have to go very far. Learning another language has always been a source of delight and puzzlement for me. My second novel, Travel Notes: From Here to There, is in some respects a paean to the contemporary Greek imagination as embodied in the spoken language, which I was learning at the time. The commonplace images of other languages seem surreal from the point of view of our own. When I finally mastered French (more or less), I finally understood what "style" was — which I had been oddly blind to despite years of courses in English lit. Learning another language also enables you to impersonate being a completely different person, a useful exercise for a writer.
Unferth: Can you tell me what were the primary events in your environment or your life that influenced your thinking about the book, structurally or in terms of language or in terms of plot?
Crawford:My novels all describe "systems" of various degrees of derangement. The plot consists of a description of the system, and the end comes when the description is complete and/or disintegration sets in or takes place. I "hear" the novels: a voice arrives in a paragraph, or even just a line — the case of Log. Sometimes there has been a pause between the first intimations of the voice and when I really began to pay attention to it. For the first four novels, the experience was fairly uniform: five weeks of seven-days-a-week writing, mainly mornings, and then a year of working over unrealized sections, usually endings. When I was young, an ideal was to write books each as different from the other as possible. I now see this as an interesting illusion.
In the case of Log, I came back to the States after five years — perhaps really seven, because earlier I had spent a year in Paris as a student and a year in Colombia teaching English. I found myself in a foreign country whose language, supposedly my own, I was having difficulty mastering, as was RoseMary. Log burst — sang — out of that pressure.
Unferth: That is fascinating about your novels describing "'systems' of various degrees of derangement." I can certainly see that in Log, as well as your other novels. What is it about the "system" that inspires you or excites you? What does it mean to you or what does it evoke?
Crawford: Systems are about organization and control, and novels are about the exceptions and misfits in the grand systems of the world: they're about imperfection. This is why writers are considered dangerous in totalitarian societies. They too much celebrate the imperfect, the abnormal, the criminal. Libertarian societies, or quasi-libertarian (or socially totalitarian) like our own, muddy but do not eliminate the tension between order and decorum and rebellion and chaos. My systemizing narrators are all petty tyrants, and the tension in their systems is embodied in the resistance of recalcitrant partners, children, grandchildren, employees. Some are more successful than others at imposing their systems on the world or on their charges, but in the end they all fail. Life itself, of course, never ends well.
Unferth: Your description of the novel casts an almost political light, which leads me to this question: Is there a moral directive in the novel? Are novels morally prescriptive (or even descriptive) by their very form, if their beauty lies in the examination of an imperfection? Obviously your novels have a complicated relationship to morality — they are not simple fables — but does morality play a part?
Crawford: I don't think there's a "moral directive" in Log. If anything, I would say that the barge is something about "liberation," but liberation at the cost of too much control and oppression. The best image I might summon up here is the Kavafy poem in which the voyager discovers after long travels that he is still, despite everything, only himself. Another version of a similar theme is James's short story, "The Beast in the Jungle," in which the terrible fate awaiting the narrator turns out to be the narrator's fear of living. Or in Tolstoy's War and Peace, the moment in which Pierre, a refugee in rags on foot, finally feels completely liberated from his once opulently chaotic life and finally knows a moment of true happiness. These are all powerful variations on the same theme. I'm too close to Log to be certain that it belongs in such a series in thematic terms, but perhaps; which is to say that yes, perhaps it is "descriptive" in moral terms, but certainly not "prescriptive." One of my favorite quotes comes from Kant: "Nothing straight was ever cut from the crooked timber of humankind."
Unferth: It's interesting that you say you once aspired to make all your books very different. I've often heard writers despair that they may be repeating themselves. Could you say a little more about that — why is it an "interesting illusion"?
Crawford: Since we don't have control over our childhood — the bank account from which we draw thereafter as writers (Nabokov, I think) — much of our subject matter, or at least the angle at which we approach it, is somewhat pre-determined. Until fairly recently, I thought my childhood was uninteresting territory. The effect, for awhile, may have been liberating. I wasn't bound, obligated, shamed by the expectations or fears of the previous generation, or so I thought. Perhaps the ideal of a new voice for every novel was part of that. From being certainly older now, perhaps a little wiser, and with a new appreciation for the uniqueness of origins, both mine and everyone else's, comes this conclusion: to repeat oneself seems less of a worry, simply because the passage of time makes for incremental variations. I can sense and observe this more comfortably in my nonfiction writing. In fiction, when I discover myself inadvertently repeating an image, for example, it's like bumping into a stranger. "Oops, sorry!"
Unferth: I'm curious about this statement that you make above, "In retrospect it became clear that I was giving voice to my apprehensive fantasies about my as yet unmet Australian mother-in-law," who had been recently widowed. The novel does feel in a way like a eulogy. It also makes me think, of course, of Noah and of Adam and Eve. Also of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza. Do any of those resonate with you?
Crawford: The biblical references, of course, though I'm not a believer. The Garden of Eden and the Flood as myths, metaphors, images seems to be rooted in the very definition of human consciousness. Don Quixote is one of those monuments I've scaled several times, once in Spanish, though until you mentioned the possibility, I didn't see the template, which fits, at least roughly, in certain respects.
Unferth: Log first appeared with Knopf. In the Dalkey edition, in the afterward, Ben Marcus alludes to an editorial relationship that you had with Gordon Lish. Did Lish edit the book? How much editing did he do and what was your reaction to the edits? Did you also work with Lish in any other capacity?
Crawford: My editors for the first four novels were Tom Maschler, who ran Jonathan Cape in London, and Robert Gottlieb, first of Simon & Schuster and then Knopf. Maschler and Gottlieb "traded" MSS across the Atlantic. Neither were editors in a classic sense, for me, at least; I think I took care of most of the writing tangles myself. When Log failed to take off, Gottlieb passed a copy on to Lish, then fiction editor of Esquire, who then bombarded me with fan letters — or notes — proposing that I write a column, among other things. I was flattered.But in the middle of raising two children, building a house, learning how to farm, I had no idea how to relate to his expectations. When Esquire let him go, he moved over to Knopf, and when I couldn't read Gottlieb's reaction to Some Instructions, he helped me negotiate with him. A couple of years later, I wrote a novel I hoped he might like. Fortunately, he didn't, and for good reason.
Unferth: What became of that novel?
Crawford: It nagged at me for years afterward but turned out to be beyond repair. The very name of the first-person narrator cried out for a story worthy of it. So far, I have written three novels using the same name but attached to different protagonists, but none has risen to the name.
Unferth: Where did the name Unguentine come from?
Crawford: A fairly typical experience for me upon hearing or seeing a somewhat striking name in print is to repeat it silently in a sort of involuntary way, to the point often of annoyance. Unguentine was probably one of those names. I didn't realize or remember until much later that it was also a brand name.
Unferth: Could you tell me some of your favorite authors and books of fiction — both now and when you wrote Log? Do you tend to read the classics or do you read more contemporary fiction?
Crawford: I have often thought that, while reading influences your writing, the opposite is also true: what you write enables you to open doors to new kinds of reading. When I was writing Log, my London editor sent me a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which had the effect of validating what I was trying to do in a comparatively minor way. In those early years of living in New Mexico, I discovered Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, reading both avidly, and re-read much of James and Austen, pushed further into Kafka, revisited Tolstoy and Chekhov. These last few years, I have read more contemporary fiction, but I expect something to make my hair stand on end only every five years or so. The most recent such experience was Coetzee's Disgrace, which I read in 2000 with the feeling that I was experiencing as a reader how each word was carefully set down on the page. Perhaps the first time I had this experience was with Camus' L'Étranger. As reader you also become, in some sense, writer. I delight in David Markson's eccentric tapestries. On the whole I prefer writers of few words, though now and then a hefty family saga will prove satisfying, such as Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. I try to re-read War and Peace every 10 years, and I'm pecking away fitfully at my third reading of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. The Australian Kate Grenville has written a gem in The Idea of Perfection, though it may help to have an Australian partner in the house to serve as a glossary; and I think Australian Tim Winton, though of many more words, is very good, in his hit and miss oeuvre, when he does hit, as in Dirt Music.
Unferth: What was it like to write your two memoirs? Did you use a different process or have a different set of structural or language considerations? I can see in both a continuation of your interest in "systems." What made you decide to write nonfiction and memoir?
Crawford: When we settled in Northern New Mexico in 1969, it immediately became an experience radically different from the nomadic lives both RoseMary and I had lived through our 20s and into our 30s. We had a child, to begin with, and then our daughter was born in 1970. We grew our first garden, gathered wood for heating, became involved in the community — or communities — of young Anglos like ourselves and older Hispanics whose ancestors had colonized the area in the 1700s. After 15 years of building our house and learning how to garden and farm and working with the various acequias (community irrigation ditches),I came to realize that the life I was living was far more interesting than what I was trying to write as fiction. But I felt I couldn't or shouldn't write about my own community.
When I started to write Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico, I did so in a convoluted sort of way that said I'm not really doing this. By chance, I hit upon a voice that seemed my own. Several years prior, I had spent a year studying and trying to write about Los Alamos National Laboratory, 50 miles south of where we live, whose secrecy had come to obsess me; in the course of this exercise, I trained myself to become a journalist of sorts by spending a day up there and then about two days later writing out an account of the day, usually starting with some detail that had floated to the surface of my memory. Such as: interesting that there's a volleyball court right in front of the plutonium facility. I never finished the book — the matter was too dark, too obscure — but I learned how to observe both what I took in and what it sparked within my psyche, training which bore fruit in the composition of Mayordomo, two years later.
Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm was less a chronicle of a year than an assemblage of bits and pieces into something like a chronicle, though I think it ended up being the stronger piece. Since these two books, I have written more nonfiction than fiction, in the form of essays and columns. Writing is what I do to make sense of life. When things become unbearable or wearisome, fiction invites as a refuge, a place to play, rant, smash a few things, get even or get in the last word, dream.
Unferth: Could you say a few words about memoir-writing as an art form? Do you have any favorite memoirs?
Crawford: This could begin and end with Thoreau, though he's too severe to have anything to do with the term "favorite." The sort of nonfiction I prefer is the factual tinged with the personal. Lately, Michael Pollan's work. John McPhee, of course, though he lost me in his geological phase. Alice Outwater's magnificent Water. But there's an interesting line here: some essayists are too personal for my taste. Now and then I am probably one of them...
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Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the novel Vacation and the collection of stories Minor Robberies, which is featured in the book One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box, both from McSweeney's.
Books mentioned in this post
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of Vacation